Athens is the only city I've ever visited that features museum exhibits in the subways. It's impossible to dig anywhere without turning up archaeological treasures, and something has to be done with them. So, while hurrying from one level to another underground, accompanied by the whoosh of tube trains, I kept encountering displays-early Attic weaving, or a complete human skeleton surrounded with burial artifacts. Antiquity beats with the rhythm of contemporary life, a constant reminder of past brilliance clashing with present instability.
Greek pride in its ancient accomplishments is justified, but for most of its history Greece has been a backwater controlled by foreigners. The sovereign nation did not exist until the 1820s and was never exactly stable. Its first governor, John Kapodistrias, was assassinated in St. Spiros church in the seaside town of Nafplio. Coups, revolts, and juntas followed-as if, having invented democracy for the rest of the world, the Greeks could never get a handle on it for themselves.
There's a story about how Kapodistrias, seeking to alleviate periodic famines, decided to introduce a cheap, versatile food to his countrymen: potatoes. He imported a boatload of them and piled them in the town square with an invitation to the public to take as many as they wanted. But the people were suspicious, and the pile remained untouched. So Kapodistrias posted a guard around the wagons and declared the potatoes off limits-and within a few nights, they were all gone. That's how the potato was introduced to Greece, and why French fries are now on every menu.
Cute story, and possibly even true. The point is not that Greeks are thieves but that they are individualistic and deeply distrustful. Though family and local bonds remain strong, cooperative effort for the good of all is not a defining characteristic. National pride does not extend to sprucing up storefronts; except for a few beauty spots and the incomparable Parthenon, Athens is an ugly city.
Journalist Michael Lewis, investigating Greece's financial problems for Vanity Fair, discovered that tax evasion is common, even expected: "The only Greeks who paid their taxes were the ones who could not avoid doing so-the salaried employees of corporations, who had their taxes withheld from their paychecks." Everybody else cheats. He also noted the universal suspicion of church, neighbors, business, and government, in spite of that government handing out wads of cash to pensioners, many of whom are allowed to retire at age 55 because of the unusual stress of their jobs. "Stress" is broadly defined to include hairdressing and nightclub singing.
"It is the culture that creates economies, not the other way around," wrote Roger Scruton about the blindness of the European Union. When hardworking, ambitious (to a fault) Germany shares a currency with shifty, casual Greece, what could be the result but a Germany saddled with Greek debt? The situation is already terrible; as I write, another nationwide strike has been called to protest the "austerity measures" the government must enforce in order to receive another 8-billion-euro infusion of the 110-billion loan promised by the IMF. When this happened last year, a mob attacked and burned the Marfin Bank because they saw employees working inside. Pensioners and service-union workers shut down air traffic and the port of Pireus, temporarily kneecapping the tourism that pumps millions into the economy.
Failing to take culture-and human nature-into account is the fatal flaw of all collective economic plans. The European Union might have done better to (figuratively) pile Greece's share of its assets in the public square and dare individual entrepreneurs to take what they could; it would have suited the every-man-for-himself character of Greek pride. As it is, the anticipated Greek default may take the euro down with it and trigger bank panics around the world. When it comes to economic stability, nothing beats honest accounting, individual responsibility, and a sense of community, all of which are embedded in a culture. Those who try to enforce a collective may collectively perish.