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Questo articolo è stato pubblicato il 04 giugno 2013 alle ore 18:06.


PRINCETON – It is increasingly popular to think of Europe in binary terms. French President François Hollande is constantly flirting with the idea of building a new Latin bloc, in which Spain and Italy would join France in the struggle against fiscal austerity. In this vision, Latin superiority consists in a more expansive view of the state’s capacity to secure incomes and create wealth, and less of the Protestant obsession with the individual’s work.

The proposal is not altogether new. As the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben , it appeared at the beginning of the postwar era. In August 1945, a French intellectual, Alexandre Kojève, submitted to General Charles de Gaulle a sketch for a new foreign policy, based on a Latin third way between Anglo-American capitalism and Soviet-Slavic Marxism.

But there are even older variants of the French vision of Europe. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the French Emperor Napoleon III actually created a Latin Monetary Union, which included Belgium, Italy, and Switzerland. Napoleon saw the scheme as a potential basis for a single world currency.

The British economist Walter Bagehot replied at the time that there would probably be two competing world currencies, which he termed Latin and Teutonic. By Teutonic, Bagehot seemed to mean the Protestant world: the United States, recovering from the Civil War, Germany, and Britain. He had no doubt about would win out: Yearly one nation after another would drop into the union which best suited it; and looking to the commercial activity of the Teutonic races, and the comparative torpor of the Latin races, no doubt the Teutonic money would be most frequently preferred.

The modern tendency to regard economic differences in terms of religion was stimulated by Max Weber’s reflections on the Protestant work ethic. But that interpretation is clearly unsatisfactory, and cannot account for the dynamism of the deeply Catholic world of Renaissance Italy and Flanders.

A better way to understand economic differences is to view them as a reflection of alternative institutional and constitutional arrangements. In Europe, that difference stems from two revolutions, one peaceful and wealth-enhancing (1688 in England), and the other violent and destructive (1789 in France).

In the late seventeenth century, in the wake of Britain’s Glorious Revolution, when Britain revolted against the spendthrift and autocratic Stuart dynasty, the British government that was formed after William and Mary assumed the throne adopted a new approach to debt. Voting budgets in parliament – a representative institution – ensured that the people as a whole were liable for the obligations incurred by their government. They would thus have a powerful incentive to impose controls on spending to insure that their claims could be met.

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