Friday, September 23, 2005

Klaus's talk at Harvard

The speech by Czech president Václav Klaus (the gentleman in the middle of the picture above - together with Tomáš Kočiš on the left and your humble correspondent on the right) was almost definitely one of the extraordinary events of the Center for European Studies at Harvard.

The main bad thing is that I had to skip a talk by Finn Larsen; I hope that this gap will be filled very soon.

First of all, the organizers may have underestimated the attractivity of Klaus. The lower level conference room of the Busch Hall may be designed for the audience of 100 or so. There were roughly 150 people attending the lecture and many others have given up the talk because they could not get in.

The Velvet revolution occured nearly 16 years ago. Klaus started by saying that it's a good idea not to repeat the mistakes from the past; he often quoted classics of his favorite literature and painted NGOism, euronaivism, communitarianism, and various other trends as the new illusions that are supposed to replace communism and that many naive people are accepting as the universal cure for their problems.

He emphasized that the Eastern - and Southern - Europe simply had to join the European Union and other institutions (OECD and NATO in particular) because it was a confirmation that these countries are the "good guys" unlike Lukashenko or Miloševič who are the "bad guys".

Klaus complained about those in the EU who want to define the European questions by saying that "you are either supporting our policies or you're just like Lukashenko" and about the generally low quality of the discussions about the future of Europe in which the voices that differ from some of the official ones are nearly unherable. However, our membership in the EU - and the votes in the referendums about joining the EU - were not about the particular details associated with the inner workings of the Union. Unfortunately.

Why unfortunately? If we summarize, the reasons are the following: There is a significant democratic deficit in the EU, the member states have little residual sovereignity, and overregulation is being imported from the EU to the member countries. (See the article about the talk in The Crimson Comrade of Harvard.)

The European Union we joined in 2004 is a democratic and free market institution; but it is not the free market as promoted by the Chicago school, Hayek, or Friedman (Klaus's friends and icons). It could be rather something like a version of the free market promoted by some people at Harvard, Klaus joked: the social market economy (and Klaus called it in many other different ways in various languages).

He objected to the misconception that everything good that has happened in Europe since 1957 was a work of the EU. For example, the Velvet Revolution - and the collapse of communism in general - was not made by the EU: it was done by ourselves.

Klaus said that he was a Euro-optimist - he asked the journalists (especially the Czech journalists who may have been in the room) to remember this word :-) - who believes that Europe is changeable and is changeable for the better in the future. He questioned that the European integration is improving the life of individual citizens, their economic situation, happiness - or the personal utility function if you wish - and their freedom.

When he was asked by a rather smart young guy whether he finds it plausible that the European Union can actually be more liberal (which means "neo-liberal") than the individual nations, Klaus answered that he never argued that every individual decision of the EU is worse than the decision that would be done by the French or another nation. But the overall trend, Klaus claimed, was clear: socialism is being imported from the EU to the countries like the Czech Republic; it is not exported from the country to the EU.

He also disagreed with the idea that Europe should be completely unified because "big is beautiful" and because it should act as a counterbalance to America. People keep on repeating the same mistakes, he explained.

A Harvard professor asked Klaus what can the politicians do to assure that the European Union brings more than just the absence of wars in Europe; that it even brings peace. Well, many other nice words whose meaning I did not understand followed. Klaus answered that these arguments to justify the need for the European integration (it was a good idea to make the French and the Germans more friendly) may have been valid in the 1940s but they are completely misguided today in 2005. I am pretty sure that this professor - whom I talked to a bit before the talk - won't join the Klaus fan club. But I am also pretty sure that Klaus is completely right. And of course, Klaus is also sure and he did not hide it. ;-)

Someone asked Klaus what he would do if he were the president of the European Union or at least Tony Blair. Klaus asked the journalists to consider his answer to be off-record. He answered that if he were the chief of the EU, he would start a Velvet Revolution. Another participant made a comment that whoever was a dissident would remain a dissident forever; he or she apparently confused Václav Havel and Václav Klaus.

One of the main points emphasized by Klaus is that democracy can't work well at the supernational level. There is no historical example where something like that have been successful and there are many reasons to think that it can't work in the future either.

Klaus became the first person in the CES who used the so-called blackboard. The CES is not like our physics department where we fill all blackboards on the walls with physics five times a day; in the CES, the blackboard is apparently only used as a background for a CES poster. ;-) Klaus used the blackboard to explain the difference between the depth of the integration and its expansion or inclusiveness. He argued that there is a trade-off and the graph he drew looked more or less like the inverse proportionality relation: the deeper you want to integrate the countries, the less countries will be able to join such a Union. Someone asked whether Klaus liked the the idea of the EU expansion, especially in the case of Turkey. Klaus essentially answered that he disliked the idea to increase the depth of the integration which means, according to his graph, that he actually likes expansion. Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, but also Turkey or Ukraine, for example, are just fine.

Klaus also used his inverse proportionality graph to demonstrate that many people who dream about ever closer and ever larger European Union are completely confused - away from his curve - and some other people like the professor from the audience mentioned above are almost infinitely far away along the vertical axis (huge depth - where the EU is probably composed of France only). Klaus drew himself at a reasonable place where the extent of the EU is preferred over the degree of homogenization. He also agreed that he could add a third axis to his graph if a more detailed analysis were necessary.

The talk was not really focused on the referendums in France and the Netherlands. The only place where he discussed these events was when he argued that the government should not require the citizens to buy a T-shirt of a fixed size and a standardized color. This is what the EU wants to do in many cases. It wanted to codify these standards in its failed constitution. And it was not right. Even if you imagine that the French rejected the EU constitution because the EU was too (neo-)liberal for them - which Klaus believes is a naive misconception - while the Dutch rejected the EU constitution because the EU was not liberal enough, the important point is that these two apparently different reasons to reject the constitution are actually identical: both nations disliked the idea of standardization and homogenization.

Someone asked Klaus how can a government be simultaneously small - which many of us wanted - as well as powerful enough to do things like the war against terror. Václav Klaus's answer mostly avoided the word "terror" that he clearly does not find to be one of the most important words. Instead, he said that the government should be and can be much smaller than it presently is, and it will naturally become smaller if it is closer to the citizens and if the crazy paternalistic arms of the government are cut off.

Other questions showed that some of our colleagues in the audience have not realized that Czechoslovakia does not exist anymore (Klaus was described as the president of Czechoslovakia); the overall character of the questions demonstrated that most of the audience was completely unfamiliar with the relevant issues of the contemporary European and Czech politics. There have been many other questions that I forgot and many other people did not get the opportunity to ask their questions.

At the end of the lecture, the organizer said that after Klaus's tenure as the president of the Czech Republic comes to its end, he may be welcome at Harvard as a professor. Klaus may have liked the idea and he gave the organizer a copy of his new book On the Road to Democracy that was subtly promoted throughout the lecture. Another debater conjectured that Klaus's opinions sounded much like Charles de Gaulle (did I understand the name well?) who spoke at Harvard many years ago. Klaus has politely described his relation to de Gaulle by saying that he would not attend the lecture. ;-)

When I spoke to Prof. Václav Klaus - which was not more than one minute - I told him that his lecture was excellent and it would indeed be great for Harvard if he joined it - even though it's not like Chicago, I joked. (Although the economists in Chicago may be brighter according to my opinion, Harvard is probably a better school than University of Chicago.) Klaus told me very politely that his comment about Harvard (being connected with the socialist ideologies) was a joke.

Well, not quite. ;-)


  1. I was disappointent that I couldn't make it to Klaus' speach, but your summary was great.
    Thanks man!


  2. Hi Lumos,

    "One of the main points emphasized by Klaus is that democracy can't work well at the supernational level. There is no historical example where something like that have been successful and there are many reasons to think that it can't work in the future either."

    The EU is dominated by France and Germany. Britain is split on the issue of full membership, which is why we still have pounds while the rest of Europe uses "euros". On the one hand it would help businesses here to use the "euro" as currency, since it would prevent business export and import planning problems due to variations in the exchange rate from day to day, but on the other hand we would lose control of our laws which would be set basically by France and Germany.

    There is a nice tale about political committee problems. You have three choices, 1 and 2 which are desired by the two main sides, and a third choice, 3, which nobody really wants.

    The committee can't agree on option 1 because the other side (who want option 2) won't admit failure, and it can't agree on option 2 because the first side won't concede to their major opponent.

    So both sides reluctantly compromise on option 3, which nobody wants. Another common result is that a decision that should take 5 minutes is dragged out for 5 years, by which time events have changed and it becomes irrelevant.

    I can't believe you have sold your soul to politics by having your photo taken beside the Czech President Václav Klaus. You could be dragged into politics as a result. The media will point to the photo in years to come, saying you were his right hand man! What if he accidentally starts a off an unpopular war or something? It could happen.

    In Britain, the media always digs up old pictures of celebrities with politicians to discredit them. It's not as if you blend into the background either, in that multicoloured tie.

    Best wishes,