by JOHN W. VANDERCOOK
THERE are eight and one-half million Belgians. Omitting the deaf, the doddering, and the diapered, a brisk conversation can be started with any one of them by asking: “How have you done it?”
By all the rules Belgium should be as busted as Berchtesgaden. The nearly flat little wedge of a nation is one of the most densely populated in Europe. It has twice as many people as Switzerland and a third less land. The Swiss specialize in Alps and peace. If the Belgians have missed a war since Julius Caesar they can’t offhand remember it. Yet right now, while the mark of battle is still plain on most of Europe, it’s a question which of these two countries is the more prosperous.
A foreigner who has spent as much as an hour in Belgium acquires a look of puzzled — and indelible — amazement. Near neighbors — French, British, and Dutch — are filled not only with envy but with a very practical curiosity. If they can learn the answer, they grimly intend to take it home with them. Even Americans fresh from the opulence of a land three thousand miles from the nearest bomb crater wag their heads and cluck their tongues with wonder.
Shopwindows in Belgian cities have become one of the sights of Europe. Bakeries look as if the plate glass would crack if one more fat loaf of white bread were stuffed into them. Food stores are stocked from sill to ceiling with hams, sausages, cheeses, pâtés, and meat prime and tender. The aim of every Belgian jeweler, judging by his stock, is to buckle an expensive watch on both wrists of each inhabitant.
The husky, pink-cheeked, fast-walking crowds are well-dressed, though no one has ever called a Belgian natty. Unemployment is close to the rockbottom proportion most experts believe is everywhere inevitable. Traffic glitters with new Buicks, Chryslers, Fords, Chevrolets, Austins, and even Cadillacs. Electric refrigerators and radios stand ready to be taken home. All one needs to become possessed of such Aladdin’s treasures, as I heard a British tourist sadly remark, is a fortune.
Belgium’s vigorous Prime Minister, Paul-Henri Spaak, a moderate Socialist who governs with the consent of a Conservative majority, has boasted: “The black market has completely disappeared, . . . the profits of private capitalists have doubled in a year, and Communism has suffered a total check.”
How have they done it?
First, by fighting scarcity as if it were the plague it is. And second, by licking the prevalent post-war sense of insecurity by insuring, in so far as such a thing is ever possible, ordinary men and women against the perils of old age, sickness, and unemployment.
Oddly, the war helped. Belgium emerged from that gigantic fracas as the only country in the world owed by the United States under Lend-Lease.
Belgium’s fortunes, like the world’s, began to turn after D Day. In the long roll-back months following the invasion, though Belgium became again a battlefield, the occupying troops were now allies instead of enemies. Antwerp, the greatest port in Europe, was the funnel through which passed most of the vast weight of matériel used in the final conquest of Germany.
Allied soldiers, by arrangement with the Belgian authorities in London, received part of their pay in Belgian francs. The immense totals of goods and services which Belgium contributed to the common effort were paid for in the same currency. When the books were finally balanced the United States, Great Britain, and Canada found they were in debt to their small ally. Generously, all three settled that account by opening fat bank balances to Belgium’s credit in New York, London, and Ottawa.
Statesmen less daring than those who returned to their jobs in the very forefront of the liberating armies might reasonably have decided to husband those foreign assets. Times were hard. But they might get harder.
All such counsels of caution were thrown overboard. Belgium at once began to spend.
Rations were short. The shops were empty. The raw materials with which Belgian factories had for centuries fashioned the goods they had sold to all the world were sorely lacking. As was inevitable under those circumstances, work was slowing down. Belgian economists knew that if the slowdown continued, ruin lay ahead.
As fast as orders could be placed the Belgians started converting their overseas credits into goods. First, food. Lots of it. For Belgium is so small it can’t nearly feed itself. Not only nourishing food to live and labor on, but food to enjoy. For the deliberate purpose was to make life not merely endurable but pleasant. Then, cotton, wool, light metals, whatever Belgian businessmen wanted to get their machines humming again on a round-theclock, three-shift basis.
And — not later on “after things got better” but at once to make them better-they ordered from abroad, and from the U.S.A. in particular, the luxuries that after five years of deprivation people craved: cars, radios, books, movies, those materialistic” things even philosophers despise only in theory, not in practice. Belgium, they figured, was not a nation of philosophers but of ordinary, hardworking men and women.
A few timid souls said the policy was reckless. The opinion which prevailed was founded on the old-fashioned free-enterprisers belief that to get the best and most work out of people they must have an incentive. Why bother to earn when you can’t spend? While the rest of Europe was being lectured on belt-tightening and “austerity,”those now famous shopwindows began filling up like so many horns of plenty.
But, decided the same sage official management, all the incentives on earth, all the electric tors and chocolate creams and new clothes shopkeepers can put on display, won’t start people spending, or put them in the frame of mind to work their hardest, when they are haunted by worries about their own future.
The Belgians had reason to worry. A courageous devaluation of Belgium’s wartime inflated currency carried out in 1945 did, it was true, halt inflation in its tracks. It made the Belgian franc — second only to the Swiss franc — the hardest, the best, money in Europe. But the operation was painful. In figures at least it reduced the savings of the thrifty lowlanders by as much as 90 per cent. Belgians of all classes and all shades of political opinion therefore wanted some positive assurance the worst bumps and dips in the road ahead would be smoothed out.
They were given that assurance by the prompt enactment of one of the most complete social security programs in effect in any free country in the world.
In Belgium the social security tax is 25 per cent. Every regularly employed Belgian pays 8 per cent of his earnings into a social security fund. Every employer must match it — and handsomely top it -with the staggering figure of 17 per cent of each employee’s wages!
What’s altogether remarkable is that that system was not rammed down anyone’s throat by a political party. The scheme was worked out in detail during the German occupation at a series of secret but entirely voluntary meetings between Belgian tradeunion leaders and representatives of Belgian employers’ associations. When liberation came the plan was quietly put into operation.
With the exception of domestic servants, odd-job holders, and government workers, all Belgians are promised comfortable old-age pensions, maternity benefits, and 60 per cent of their usual wages when they are sick or disabled. Widows and orphans are taken care of. Doctors are “free.” The individual chooses—and pays—his own physician. He then puts in a claim and is repaid most, but usually not all, of his medical expenses by the state.
There is concrete evidence that the doublebarreled economic and social experiment is working. Industrial production in Belgium is already 25 per cent higher than before the war, and is still climbing. A labor force of 150,000, augmented by Germans and displaced persons, is currently hewing out coal at the tidy rale of 90,000 tons a day. Steelmaking has topped 1937. The admittedly alarming gap between imports and exports is narrowing.
There are some catches, of course. Taxes are high. Inevitably, prices are high. An American dollar goes hardly fart her than in Chicago or New York. Visitors from the rest of Europe, after a few meals of the kind they had begun to think exisled only in dreams, hurry home with their pockets empty.
Without Marshall Plan help it would be all but impossible for the neighbors to buy the goods they so badly need and which Belgium must sell.
But the Belgians themselves undeniably thrive. Not just a lucky few, but all of them. A recent survey shows that despite the high cost of living, Belgian industrial workers are spending proportionately more on amusements, health, and education and lesson on food than in 1929; and the allegedly forgotten class of white-collar wearers devotes a larger share of earnings to social life and to nourishment for the brain, and spends a third less on rent and a fifth less on food, than before the war.
Being sensible people, the Belgians find such unique prosperity amid Europe’s poverty by no means to their liking. Marshall Plan payments to Belgium are being used in great part to back what would otherwise be risky sales to the poorer stales around them. “Belgium,” former Ambassador Alan G. Kirk has said, “has been making a contribution to general European recovery which is out of all proportion to the Country’s size.”