Ultra-libéralisme – A French Tale

I am in frequent correspondence with a French retired businessman in his sixties. He is a thoughtful man with minimum formal education but who reads two newspapers a day and watches French news on television several times a day. My informal judgment (as a retired teacher) is that he possesses intelligence well above average. His interest in political matters is through the roof. My French friend is also strictly monolingual. That is, he gets all his information in French.

My friend sent me recently the following email I had trouble understanding, at first. (My own careful translation. My first language is French. I have published in that language.)

“The European Financial Markets Authority (EFMA) has downgraded the three main international credit agencies that, themselves, upgrade or downgrade European and other countries. It’s a just reward*… and a good defense against these agencies which possess no legitimacy at all except from the fact of their existence; agencies that seek to estimate the worth of those countries (and, perhaps, to play the stock market [on the basis of their own assessment]). No an easy issue. Perhaps this is going to calm down the yo-yo effect financial speculators have on the stock exchange…..I even thought a few years ago of sending a personal note to those credit agencies.”
(Bolding mine)

Two salient points in this communication: First, the EFMA is a European Union “authority,” a government agency emanating from the individual EU countries’ national authorities. It’s a complete government body.

The second comment is related to the first, I believe. My friend states categorically that US-based credit agencies (Moody’s, S&P and Fitch Ratings ) have “no legitimacy” because they are not government agencies, precisely. This expresses a mental world whereas all legitimacy flows, can only flow, however indirectly, in however contorted a fashion, from the electoral process. He really thinks that the IFMA’s puerile tantrum is going to change the credit game decisively.

Within an American intellectual context, this sounds almost like the thinking of a madman. Yet, my friend is not mad. I have known him for dozens of year. He acts rationally in every aspect of his life. He is also decisively and loudly critical of French political life in general. The problem is simply that he is French, that he receives all his information from French sources, that his mind has been shaped by French economic thought (or un-thought).

His rage against the credit agencies is not based on a factual analysis of their performance either, which would certainly be a useful exercise after the 2008 world-wide financial crisis. His rage is based entirely on the violation of sovereignty by these non-legitimate bodies.

I often ask myself the rhetorical question, ” How much would I have to be paid to….?” In this case, I can’t come to a figure. I don’t know how I would begin to explain to my French friend the idea that credit agencies get most or all of their legitimacy the from the fact that they are precisely not government agencies. I could not tell him the obvious without being interrupted, I am sure: When economic actors begin doubting the credit ratings these agencies assign to organizations emitting bonds and to governments, they will swiftly collapse on their own. That is, this abstraction, the market grants them all of their legitimacy.**

The concept of markets, counter-intuitive in the best of times, has almost completely disappeared from the French consciousness. In 2012 I watched on French language television in horrified fascination the lively debates preceding the presidential election. That was after an ambitious New York District Attorney had disqualified the most likely winner who was both a qualified economist and a sex maniac. (I mean Strauss Khan, the then-current head of the International Monetary Fund and a very moderate nominal “Socialist.”)

French pre-election debates are both more lively and better staged than their US equivalents. In the first round of a two-round system, the candidates are grilled longer, more directly, more pitilessly than anything I have seen on American television. In this case, these animated and sometimes vicious discussions went on for weeks without the most serious economic questions obviously (to me) facing the country being addressed at all. I mean, of course, a large and fast-rising debt burden and the failure to grow the economy. The attendant permanent high unemployment often came up but I think that no candidate bothered to mention that strong economic growth melts unemployment .

There were ten candidates in the first rounds, including one each from: the New Anticapitalist Party and Workers’ Struggle (Wikipedia’s translation). There was not a single seat at the feast occupied by a conventional conservative party, a Tory party. There was no “liberal” chair at the dinner in the English sense of the word that would prevail in France if the term were used at all. (See below.). If the role of the market in both producing innovation and correcting wrong turns was ever mentioned during the whole campaign (first and second round,) it left no impression on anyone. There were plenty of arguments and proposals concerning taxes. They were all couched in terms of “fairness.” None was about the fundamental fact that taxes, even low taxes limit the virtuous work of the market and therefore shackle economic growth (which has practically ceased to exist in France).

The French candidates also kept their eyes averted from, or dismissed summarily the example of Germany next door which successfully reformed its welfare state in a more market direction ten years earlier.

It’s not that there are no “conservatives ” in France. So-called “cultural conservatives” abound. Large segments of the population become exercised about the right of homosexual couples to adopt and even about host womb fertilization. The puerile excesses of the post-1968 strange, make-believe revolution alone would ensure the existence of such conservatism if it did not have deep roots in the country (see below). Sex hounds like Strauss-Khan have always existed in France but 1968 gave them permission to act openly and more or less brazenly, thereby exciting the Catholic minority’s ire and disgust.

The absence of liberal economic thought in France is the result of a historical accident, a major one to be sure. At the end of World War II, the segments of French political society who had taken an active part in the resistance again the Nazi occupation took over. Soon, they constituted nearly the whole of the political class. The two main segments were the Communist Party and a shifting alliance of “Gaullist” parties, with the Socialist Party playing the role of permanent opposition until 1981. The Communists – nominally Marxist though few of their leaders had read any Marx – were obviously not believers either in the efficacy or in the morality of market mechanisms. The fairly large Socialist Party was kept in a permanent state of primitive vulgar Marxism by the necessity in which it found itself to compete with the Communists for its electorate.

The political right was occupied by Gaullists with serious ties to the progressive wing of the Catholic Church. General De Gaulle himself – a venerated figure and a mediocre politician – was thoroughly influenced by the social doctrine of the Church. To summarize it – but not abusively, I believe – the social doctrine views the state in the guise of absolute Ancien Regime kings. Good kings are both fair and powerful. They use the state apparatus unhesitatingly to distribute both justice and charity as needed.

In the post-World War II re-distribution of power, there was thus no room left for non-statist, or for “little- statist” organized opinion. The socialist victory of Mitterand in 1981, followed by a Socialist majority in parliament swept away any remaining free-market voices. It was not done through persecution in violation of democratic rule but largely through a natural swamping motion. Soon, the effect of this Socialist victory were seen in both the major mass media and, especially in French schools at all levels. All arguments about the economy heard were statist arguments: How much government action, where, for how long, whom and what to tax more, by how much, how can the government create more jobs? (The latter is taken literally: The government actually “creates ” jobs, within itself, inside the government bureaucracy.)

After thirty years, statist schooling has done the expectable: There is almost never any mention in public discourse or in private conversation of this simple idea:

Things that need to get done get done mostly well, mostly efficiently if government does not interfere.

This basic idea was never debated and beaten back; it was simply buried. It does not exist in the French consciousness. The fact that the French public is rather inferior in its ability to read other languages – notably English – helps maintain its insularity in this respect as it does in others. (Incidentally, the insularity runs so deep that the French political elite is incapable of seeing the success of the relatively liberal policies of the UK next door even as educated French youth flocks there by its tens of thousands in search of employment.)

If the French had any notion of the sentence above, they would use the word “liberal” in its English meaning. In fact, the word is practically never used in public discourse or in private discourse. When it is, it’s always accompanied by the qualifier “ultra.” The French live in a strange mental world where there are some “ultra-liberals” but no liberals. “Ultra liberal” is clearly an insulting term. It means “heartless, selfish and extremist.” No decent person is an ” ultra-liberal.” I don’t believe I know three French people who would not interrupt me in the middle of the sentence above in casual conversation. “But you are not an ultra-liberal,” they would break in with worry written all over their faces. If I retorted, “Yes, I am” not one of them would believe me.

Failing to possess conceptual language has concrete consequences. Two stand out.

In the absence of adequate terms, it is difficult to legislate regulations for normal economic activities. Many are swept under the rug. The result is that legitimate economic activities may no be performed above board, lobbying, for one. Les lobbys (in French) are illegitimate by definition. Much of what they do is borderline illegal because there is no relevant legislation or because the relevant legislation prevents them from doing their work. Since economic interests have to manifest themselves in connection with the state anyway, there follows a systematic criminalization of political life. With many of their ranking politicians pronounced criminals, ordinary French people have become deeply disaffected with normal politics. The recent (exaggerated) success of the rightist Front National in European elections is one manifestation of this distaste.

More seriously, it’s difficult to reform a polity if there is no word to designate the new direction it should take. (You need a North to navigate.) There is widespread informal agreement in France that the French welfare state is not sustainable: In 2013, half of French households received government cash for a mean of $600 plus/ month. Thus, in a country with a GDP per capita of $37,000 maximum (World Bank, for 2013), half the households receive $7,200 to $7500 annually in the form of government re-distribution (Le Figaro on-line 6/6/14) . In a society where the sentence above may not be used, or used intelligibly, it’s very difficult to state the obvious:

“We need to allow the market to spawn economic growth. We need to do it, if for no other reason, to continue to afford our munificent social (welfare) coverage.”

Instead, the political class disparages itself and destroys its own legitimacy in futile proposals and counter-proposals to cut this rather than that social program, to raise or lower such and such least favorite tax.

In my opinion, the French welfare state will not slowly grind to a halt or fall slowly apart. Rather, I think, it will come to a sudden full-stop, sink into bankruptcy because no one who counts in France is able to mouth the liberal alternative.

*This is a weak translation. The French phrase: “juste retour des choses” implies a morally valid return to some sort of previous equilibrium.

** None of this means that I think credit rating agencies perfect. I am sorry there are only three big ones of them. I regret that they exercise what I call the “tyranny of the written and of the counted.” I mean that their summary judgments tends – in the nature of things – to become substitutes for more sophisticated evaluations. They encourage laziness on the part of bond buyers, including me. Also, they have not lost enough credibility from their bad judgments on the eve of the 2008 crisis.

My book, I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiographyis live in the Kindle Store.

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