Is Madison More Like Cairo or Athens?

At the Britannica Blog I declare the college town – and state capital – Madison, Wisconsin, “the Athens of the West.”

College towns used to call themselves “the Athens of the West.” In Nashville, home of my alma mater Vanderbilt University, they built a full-scale replica of the Parthenon. But these days Madison, Wisconsin, has the best claim to the title.

Lots of national media have been comparing the protests against Gov. Scott Walker in Madison to the protests that ended Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak‘s 30-year reign….

The Greek journalist Takis Michas told a Washington audience last summer that the Greek political economy

is a form of capitalism where the bureaucracy and its allies consider the state their property, and use its mechanisms for personal enrichment.

In Greece, the fundamental principle that has been dictating economic and political development since the creation of the Greek state in the 19th century is political clientelism.

This is a system in which political support is provided in exchange for benefits.

In this situation, rent-seeking — the attempt by various groups and individuals to influence the location of political benefits — becomes paramount.

That sounds a lot like the relationship between government employee unions and state governments. In Wisconsin, the state that first gave government unions the right to bargain collectively, the Greek disease has reached crisis levels. Wisconsin faces a deficit estimated at $2.2 billion or more. Wisconsin and Greece have both used accounting gimmicks and fiddled statistics to conceal the state’s real fiscal condition, though Greece’s fraud reached stratospheric levels.

The protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are against tyrannical governments; the protesters seek freedom and democracy. The protests in Athens and Madison are against the long-suffering taxpayers; the protesters seek to continue a political system that allows them privileged access to the public fisc.

Eat your heart out, Nashville and Lexington and Berkeley. Madison, Wisconsin, is truly the Athens of the West.