Athens and Buridan’s ass

Published on 10 February 2012 at 12:30

**Athens must now contend with a dilemma of a kind illustrated by the paradox of Buridan’s ass: the donkey cannot decide what to do first, to eat his oats or drink from a pail of water, and thus dies from hunger and thirst.

If Buridan’s ass was a man, wrote Spinoza, “he would not act on the basis of freedom or free will.” And we might add that if Buridan’s ass were a country, it would be Greece which has to choose between austerity and state reform, dictated by the IMF-EU-ECB troika, and against the will of its people and its special interests.

How else can we interpret the ultimatum issued by eurozone finance ministers on 9 February? The Greek government will have to find a further 325 million in savings before Wednesday 15 February if it wants to receive the 130 billion euros approved by European leaders last October.

As Volkskrant noted this week, a Greek exit from the eurozone is no longer taboo, given the level of European exasperation with slow pace of reform in Greece. After two years of crisis, the effectiveness of the Greek tax system has not improved, many of the promises made to the troika have not been kept. In short, the donkey of Athens appears reluctant to begin with the oats of reform.

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However, it has no greater enthusiasm for the potion of austerity, and is unwilling to empty the bucket held out by the troika and its creditors. This is partly for reasons of political calculation because the parties that have given their half-hearted support to Prime Minister Lucas Papadémos are also concerned about the outcome of future elections, but also and more importantly because the impoverished Greek population, which has had to contend with two years of wage cuts and price increases, cannot support the burden of further austerity.

To save Greece, the Eurogroup ministers have decided to insist on even more austerity, when they should be pushing for the application of reforms that have already been demanded, like the reform of the country’s tax system.

More importantly they should oblige Athens to put an end to aberrations like the Greek Church’s tax exemption and a defence budget that is proportionally higher than in other European states.

If the donkey dies, that is to say if Greece defaults and leaves the eurozone, he will partly be to blame for his own fate. But only partly because he will also have been pushed into making choice that is not only impossible but also misguided.**

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