Mass shooting in perspective

Each of the past few years, about 35,000 Americans died in traffic accidents. This fact should be taken into account when considering recent massacres of civilians. I was wondering if anyone else would be cold hearted enough to go that way. So I waited a few days to comment on the massacres in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton, to avoid duplicating others’ commentaries. Plus, I have technical difficulties associated with my current location. Please, comment or wave if you see this.

Of the approximately 35,000 victims about half died in accidents involving alcohol. I will assume, against my thesis, that only 10,000 people each year died indirectly or directly because someone drank too much alcohol and drove.

How to count victims of mass shootings has become – strangely enough- controversial. Nevertheless, I am quite certain that shootings, specifically, of strangers for other than greed, or jealousy, or disappointed love have not caused 10,000 deaths in any of the past few years, not even close.

Do you agree; do you see where I am going?

So drunk drivers kill many more people – about 10,000 annually – than mass shooters. The victims of the ones are just as dead as the victims of the others; the loss and grief associated with the ones must be similar to those associated with the others. The deaths from one cause seem to me to be as meaningless as the deaths from the other. (That’s by contrast with the death of a firefighter in the line of duty, for example.)

A rational collective response should give priority to the avoidance of the many deaths from drunk driving over the much fewer deaths caused by mass assassins. Yet, the public reactions of the left are exactly the reverse of those rational expectations. In part, this inversion of priorities is due to the magnification the media affords mass shootings but not the slow massacre on the roads. In part, it may be due to the sometimes concentrated nature of the death tolls by mass shooting. This explanation, however, has only limited value because the small death toll at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, for example, was given much more publicity than is conceivable for any drunk driving accident with three lethal casualties.

This irrational ordering of priorities is made all the more puzzling by the fact that it would be much easier to reduce the number of deaths from drunk driving than by domestic mass shootings. Two reasons. First, people in jail can’t kill anyone with a car. The second reason is a little more subtle; bear with me.

Drunk drivers fall into two main categories, alcoholics who think they have to drive, and self-indulgent slobs. My intuition is that there are many more of the latter than of the former (especially among the young, who are overrepresented in car accidents) but I don’t have any figures. Self-indulgent slobs are capable of rational calculus. If the relevant punishment is severe enough and certain enough, they will become less self-indulgent. I used to be one of them. When the penalty for drunk driving went from about $100 to several thousand during my lifetime, I discovered that I could take a taxi, or pay a friend to drive me back, or drink at home. The quality of my life declined but it was worth it. It’s likely that my fear of heavy punishment saved someone’s life over the long run.

So, a credible remedial scheme is simple: withdrawal of driver’s license for a long period on the first offense associated with heavy fines for driving without a license. A significant jail term without possibility of parole would punish each subsequent infraction. Again, imprisoned drivers don’t kill anyone through their drunk driving. That’s a valid reason in itself to keep them locked up for a long time. It’s probably also economically reasonable.

So, I wonder why is there not a passionate public outcry on the political left and among its media partners in favor of a nation-wide remedial endeavor of the kind I just described?

Drunk driving kills many more Americans than do criminal mass shootings of the Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton kind. This, although suppressive remedies to drunk driving are conceptually straightforward. My friend Vernon Bohr pointed out in a comment on Facebook that accidental drownings of children alone claim more lives of all categories of Americans than do mass shootings. There are better priorities.

The indifference of the left to those more important preventable causes of mortality as compared to its display of strong collective emotion with respect to sudden death by shooting seems strange, on the surface. This strong emotion is usually, almost always associated with urgent calls for some sort of federal gun control.

The contrast is made all the more striking by the following legal facts: First, the regulation of behavior that is potentially harmful to others – such as driving automobiles – falls squarely within the purview of state legislatures, primarily, of Congress, secondarily. Number two, driving is nowhere a right, except by default. Possessing weapons, by contrast, is a right explicitly guaranteed by the US Constitution, and twice reaffirmed by the US Supreme Court.

So, why would the considerable emotional and political resources of the left, aptly guided by the mass media, be expanded on the deaths of comparatively few, on a problem that is difficult to understand, one whose resolution would also encounter strong legal obstacles? Why this relentless emphasis when there are obvious, bigger, more rational objects of collective compassion?

I am thinking of two answers. One, the unpredictability of shooting events make them seem more disruptive than the somewhat routinized highway deaths, including by drunk drivers. The logical implication of this explanation is that if mass shootings became more frequent, they would appear more routine, and thus, less disruptive, and less deserving of left-wing attention. Note that there is a long way to go between the few hundred annual casualties by mass killings, and the 10,000 I attribute to drunk driving alone.

Thus, mass shootings garner both attention and emotion – including on the left – precisely because they are comparatively rare. If this were correct, attention and emotion would diminish with an increased frequency of such events. That is not a trend I observe. Others may see it.

Two, the left, and its media component, may focus on mass shootings in preference to making more rational choices, not in spite of the legal obstacles in their path but because of them. In this perspective, the focus on mass shootings may not be an exercise in misguided compassion, but a means to a higher end.

Americans are, on the whole, much attached to their Constitution. Modifying it is an arduous and uncertain task. Shortcuts to this effect are much appreciated. It would be difficult to find a more effective shortcut than the guided emotionalism the left supplies on the occasion of each mass shooting perpetuated by an American who is not also a violent jihadist. The spectacle of perfectly innocent victims, including children, cut down by someone seemingly exercising his constitutional right to bear arms must be the most formidable nonrational argument against that constitutional right. It can be mustered to sidestep collective choices – such as further reductions in deaths by drunk drivers – that would make the most sense from the standpoint of simple compassion. Thus, a one tenth reduction in deaths by drunk driver, and the corresponding shrinking of human misery, would do about twice more good than would the total (total) elimination of mass shootings.

The outburst of emotionalism expertly guided by the media we witnessed following three civilian mass shootings in quick succession is not about compassion, it’s about power. Every reduction in the autonomy of individuals increases the power of government, of those who are in charge of it through legitimate political means, and of the permanent bureaucracy.

Incidentally, I suspect there must be libertarian solutions to the vast and continuing problem of death by drunk driver, solutions that don’t involve putting people in jail. I don’t know what those are. I would like to hear about them.

The 2020 Dems

The two Democratic presidential debates were performed against a broad background of consecrated untruths and the debates gave them new life. Mostly, I don’t use the word “lies” because pseudo-facts eventually become facts in the mind of those who hear them repeated many times. And, to lie, you have to know that what you are saying isn’t true. Also, it seems to me that most of the candidates are more like my B- undergraduates than like A students. They lack the criticality to separate the superficially plausible from the true. Or, they don’t care.

So, it’s hard to tell who really believes the untruths below and who just let’s them pass for a variety of reasons, none of which speaks well of their intellectual integrity. There are also some down-and-out lies that none of the candidates has denounced, even ever so softly. Here is a medley of untruths.

Untruths and lies

I begin with a theme that’s not obviously an untruth, just very questionable. Economic inequality is rising in America or, (alt.) it has reached a new high point. I could easily use official data to demonstrate either. I could also – I am confident – use official figures to show that it’s shrinking or at a new low. Why do we care anyway? There may be good reasons. The Dems should give them. Otherwise, it’s the same old politics of envy. Boring!

Women need equal pay for equal work finally. But it’s been the law of the land for about forty years. Any company that does not obey that particular law is asking for a vast class action suit. Where are the class action suits?

What do you call a “half-truth” that’s only 10% true? Continue reading

Normal Joe and the 2020 Election

Sorry if this is a little disjointed. Summer has finally arrived on the California central coast. So, I have been trying to recover my toxic masculinity for the beach, not smooth sailing!

Mr Biden declared that President Trump poses an “existential threat” to the nation. This is not what bothers me because it’s unlikely Mr Biden understands the word “existential.” His team put it up for him to read or he cribbed it mindlessly from someone else’ speech, the way he does.

I am beginning to get a bad feeling about the Biden presidency for another, subtle reason so, pay attention. It’s not so much the continuing gap in the polls between him and Mr Trump, although that too, but only in the second position of my worries. What’s most disturbing is the continuing gap in the polls between Mr Biden and all other Democrat candidates.

Ex-Vice-President Biden is like a caricature of Mr Nobody. In politics for fifty years, he has mostly demonstrated a talent for being re-elected. His name is associated with few important pieces of legislation and the ones that are remembered are currently causing him problems. One such is the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, of 1994 which, critics from his party say, resulted in the needless incarceration of many black males. Of course, in his two terms as vice-president, he was vastly overshadowed by his boss, Barack Obama. The thought could cross your mind legitimately that he was selected for the post, in large part for his, this talent, a great capacity for being overshadowed.

I think I may be describing precisely the reason why he is thus far outpacing other Dem candidates. Briefly put: You can’t have everything. Mr Biden ‘s main quality is that he is – for a politician – NORMAL to the point of mediocrity. Repeating myself: In this context, mediocrity is another word for normal.

He is an older white man with a well known political track record (with little to see), one unlikely to generate surprises. His face and his voices are familiar, if nothing else because of his two terms as a vice-president. He is famous for his gaffes but that makes him perhaps a little endearing, like the dear old uncle who invariably drops cream cake on his tie at every family dinner. His main liability may well be his propensity to touch others, including children. But, hey, nobody is perfect and, one suspects, other male candidates – most of them or all of them – probably have much bigger skeletons in their closets, doesn’t every guy?

Just compare Mr Biden to the two current runners up – far behind him, Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elisabeth Warren. The first would, on the surface, also qualify as pretty normal. He looks like a handsome grandfather. He has been married to the same woman forever. He speaks well. He is abnormal mostly in a virtuous way: He did not get rich in office. But, but, most of the time, when he opens his mouth this terrible 1949 narrative comes out of it. (I chose that date because it precedes the death of Stalin and the torrent of revelations about the realities of Soviet socialism that followed it.) Mr Sanders has not learned a freaking thing in 70 years! That’s a lot, even for starry-eyed progressives. It’s a bit much even for millennials who feel existentially cheated (this word again) and thus have their own reasons to consider the absurd.

Or take Ms Warren. Actually, she had an honorable career as an academic. (I checked, little bitch that I am!) She expresses herself clearly. The bits and pieces of her extreme left-wing program make superficial sense, considered out of context, one-by-one. Tell the truth, I am a little frightened of Warren for this reason. However, I cannot believe that independents will forget or ignore the lamentable Pocahontas story. Either, she is a long distance liar who used an imagined ethnic identity to advance her career (and therefore, cheated real ethnic candidates, in the putrid calculus of racial advancement). Or, and this may actually be worse, she fooled herself for all of her adult life into believing that her archetypal WASP face was but a mask covering up strong Native American features. Her reactions on the occasion of the fiasco of her DNA analysis results make the latter explanation credible. She could have stopped publication and quickly changed the subject when it came out that her chances of having Native American genes were about the same as those of a recent immigrant from China. Instead, she dug in her heels. Ms Warren has spectacularly bad judgment. I mean that she is far from normal, that way.

So, I am telling you that Mr Biden’s advantage, perhaps his single advantage, may be that he appears normal, even impressively normal, Central Casting normal, I am tempted to say – but that would be cheap- abnormally normal. That would explain his advance against other Dem candidates in spite of the fact that he violates many tenets of current received wisdom about the Democratic Party: He is a man, an old man, white, heterosexual, (probably, he only sniffs females’ hair), not transgender, not even socialist.

Mr Biden’s normalcy may also explain the polls gap with Mr Trump in a projected one-on-one contest for the presidency. In fact, it’s difficult to think of anything else that explains both the gap between Mr Biden and his Dem rivals and the gap between himself and Mr Trump.

It’s possible that this shift in the electoral game has gone largely unperceived thus far because both left and right commentators are distracted. The pro-liberal media are entranced by the antics of the newest and of the oldest members of Congress. Surely, Bernie Sanders’ 1949 economic and social ideas are more riveting than Mr Biden’s normalcy. Certainly, the many surrealistic pronouncements by the best-looking female member of the House are more exciting than Mr Biden’s normalcy. And then, there is the continuing fascination with the left’s desire to hurt Mr Trump, somehow, sometimes, impeachment or not impeachment.

I, myself, may be typical of a mistake conservatives have been making systematically that would blind us to the importance of Biden’s normalcy. Let me explain. I am not a Trump cultist, not by a long shot. I think Mr Trump is rude, crude, unreliable in his words; I think he often speaks before he thinks, many of the things he asserts are just not true. I decided early in his administration that these kinds of features and mishaps would not bother me. I still think they are unimportant against the background of his successes that liberals don’t like, such as his two Supreme Court appointments, and next to his successes that even liberals ought to like, such as low unemployment and solid economic growth. And then, of course, there is just no way I will miss Mr Trump’s only realistic 2016 alternative, the thoroughly crooked Ms Hillary Clinton.

For the past two years, I have been on kind of automatic exercising my rationalist bias. I have been dismissing the obviously hypocritical mass media and its caste-based hatred of Mr Trump. I have treated lightly the howls of pain of the few liberals with whom I remain in contact. I have been seeing them first as expressing loser’s rage, an especially painful rage because the loss was unexpected. Second, the inability of the few liberals with whom I am still in contact to justify their howling on factual grounds also contributed to making me dismissive. Every time I asked one of them to give a single instance of Mr Trump acting illegally, or unconstitutionally, as they abundantly claimed he did, they failed lamentably. And, of course, I believe that immaturity is one of the sources of liberalism.

But, my approach may be too rational by half. When a liberal accuses Pres. Trump of being a would-be dictator, his words may not matter; he may just be expressing the depth of his indignation within the scope of a limited political vocabulary. He may be simply shouting out his disarray in the face of the abnormality of the current American political situation. His words may not mean what they are supposed to mean; they may simply mean, “I am disoriented and scared!”

So, Mr Trump’s main adversary, in 2020, may not be the uninformed and woolly socialism of the left of the Dem Party. It may not be the climate alarmism of practically all its candidates, which leaves the mass of the American public notably cool. (Yes, that’s on purpose!). It may not be the resonating but hard to pin down claim for greater equality, or “social justice.” In his 2020 campaign, Mr Trump may have to fight the lure of a return normalcy incarnated by Mr Biden. Frankly, the prospect makes me nervous.

If the coming race is all about restoring the republic to normalcy, Mr Trump’s road is going to be rocky. (Strangely, someone in his entourage seems to have such foreboding. The 6/15-16/19 Wall Street Journal describes a markedly conventional organization of the 2020 Trump presidential campaign designed to make the president appear more normal – my choice of word.)

In practical terms, in this context, the strategic questions will be as follows: Are there enough Dem voters who would not otherwise bother who will be enticed to vote by Mr Biden’s conventional looks and actions? Are there enough independents who will take the Trump policy achievements for granted, and who are rebuked by the Democratic Party’s new extremism but who will nevertheless vote Democrat because the Party’s candidate, the colorless, marginally live Joe Biden – seems normal?

And if you are one of those conservatives who airily dismiss polls because of the previous presidential campaign, think again; the pollsters called the popular vote just about right in 2016.

Tariffs and Immigration

Pres. Trump announced yesterday (6/7/19), on returning from Europe, that the threatened tariffs against Mexican imports were suspended “indefinitely.” It looks like Mexico agrees to do several things to stop or slow immigration from Central America aiming at the United States.

Well, I am the kind of guy who, on learning that he has earned the Publishers’ Clearing House Giant Jackpot immediately worries about accountants, and about where to stash the dough. So, here it goes.

Mr Trump never did specify how much Mexico would have to do to keep the threat away durably. Two problems. First, if I were the Mexican government, I would worry about his moving the goalposts at any time.

Second, – and those who hate him won’t miss it – absent specific goals, Mr Trump put himself in a position to claim a (considerable) political victory no matter what happens next. To take an absurd example, if the number of migrants from Central America decreases, by 1% in July and August, he will be able to say, “ I told you so, my tariff pressures work.” As the French say, “ Why cut yourself the switches that will be used to whip you with?”

Part of the agreement reportedly, incredibly, includes a provision that those migrants who are waiting for their American formal court appearance will be allowed to so in Mexico, and be allowed to work there while they wait. This sounds amazingly unfair to Mexico. (I sure hope some significant money changed hands in the background on the account of his provision.) Mexican public opinion is not going to respond well to this feature if it understands it.

Another feature of the agreement is that Mexico will allow itself to be designated as a third and “safe” country. This has to do with ordinary international asylum and refugee agreements language which generally specify that an asylee or refugee may not chose his country of destination but must seek legal status in the first safe country he reaches. So, for Syrians, that would be Greece, or Turkey, rather than say, Germany, or Sweden. You know how well this provision worked out in Europe! Even more seriously, Mexico is not safe by any measure: The Mexican homicide rate is more than five times higher than that of the US – which is itself not low. (Wall Street Journal, 8-9 2019, p. A6). Imagine what it will be against an alien, vulnerable population.

As I write, Mexico is already deploying its National Guard on its southern border to impeach passage. This is a brand new force; it has no experience; expect accidents or worse. When this happens, it won’t play well with the Mexican public. The southern border of Mexico is short, only about 150 miles but still, the Mexican National Guard has only 6,000 members, total.

American conservative opinion remains badly confused about the facts of immigration in general. This, in spite of my own valiant efforts. ( See my “Legal Immigration Into the US” – in 37 short parts, both in Notes on Liberty and on my blog. Ask me for the blog’s name via jdelacroixliberty@gmail.com.) On Friday evening (6/7/19), in less than 30 minutes, I heard two different Fox News commentators refer to the migrants arriving in caravans from Central America and that are overwhelming our national processing capacity as “illegal immigrants.” That’s wrong. People who run after the Border Patrol to turn themselves in as a prelude to their claiming asylum are not illegal immigrants. There is nothing illegal about such acts, however you deplore them. And, in our constitutional tradition, nothing can be deemed retroactively as against the law. If we don’t like what the law currently produces, we must change the law. Period.

I used to hope for a wholesale, inclusive change in our immigration laws. I now think this is not going to happen in a bi-partisan manner because there are still many Dems who deny the obvious: We are currently facing an immigration crisis. If the plight of would-be immigrants held in overcrowded facilities or let loose in strange cities without resources, does not move their hearts, nothing will. I now think the administration should opportunistically seek piecemeal reform as may be facilitated by temporary situations. Big change will not happen until the GOP gains control of both houses of Congress, in addition to the Presidency. I believe that equivalent Dem control would not make immigration reform possible because there are too many liberal ideologues and too many Dem politicians who want open borders, for different reasons.

One more thing: Mainstream conservatives and some spoiled libertarians have been clamoring on the social media that tariffs are wrong, always wrong, wrong, no matter what. They point out rightly that tariffs are first and foremost taxes on the consumers of countries that impose them. I am myself completely persuaded of the merits of free trade as a means to maximize production. This does not prevent me from seeing that trade pressures, including the imposition of tariffs, can be used to extract advantages from other countries. In fact, I suspect such maneuvers may often be the best alternative to military pressure. In this case, and temporarily, I understand, Mr Trump’s tariff mano-a-mano with the tough leftist Mexican president, seems to have borne fruit. So, I would like the never-never–never tariffs people on my side to provide a rough estimate of how much this particular tariff action – against Mexico – may have cost American consumers, total.

Paris Islamophobia, 2019

Here is a little story that may confuse you for a short while. At least, I hope it does.

The story takes place in the eastern Paris neighborhood where I grew up. It used to be frankly working class. I guess that it may have become a little gentrified but, I guess, not much. It’s at a bus stop next to a large park built over a former 1900 mushroom farm that used the abundant horse manure then available in Paris. (That’s another story told in my book of memoirs, I Used to be French…. Ask me.)

Anyway, two youngish women are waiting for a bus in broad daylight. When one shows up, they signal for it to stop. The bus slows down and then speeds away. It’s stopped shortly at a red light. One of the women runs to it, pounds on the door, and demands to know why the driver did not stop to pick her and her girlfriend up. “You should dress better,” responds the driver motioning at her short skirt.

The next day, a man tried to place a formal complaint with the Paris Transport Authority (“RATP”). His name is Kamel Bencheikh; he is one of the young women’s father. He is a well-known Algerian poet who writes in French. I don’t know if he is a French citizen but he seems to live in France. He demands exemplary punishment for the driver.

The Transport Authority announced publicly that it would investigate the alleged incident as a violation of driver’s rules. It added that its hands were mostly tied in the absence of contact with the two young women – including Bencheikh’s daughter – who were the victims in the reported incident. The daughter is 29.

Bencheikh took the opportunity to announce to the media that he claims forcefully his Islamophobia.

Poverty Under Democratic Socialism — Part III: Is the U.S. Denmark?

The Americans who call themselves “socialists,” do not, by and large, think in terms of government ownership of the means of production. Their frequent muted and truncated references to Sweden and Denmark indicate instead that they long for a high guarantees, high services state, with correspondingly high taxation (at least, for the more realistic among them).

When I try to understand the quasi-programmatics of the American left today, I find several axes: End Time-ism, a penchant for demanding that one’s collective guilt be dramatically exhibited; old-style pacifism (to an extent), a furious envy and resentment of the successful; indifference to hard facts, a requirement to be taken care of in all phases of life; a belief in the virtuousness and efficacy of government that is immune to all proof, demonstration, and experience. All this is often backed by a vigorous hatred of “corporations,” though I guess that not one in ten “progressives” could explain what a corporation is (except those with a law degree and they often misuse the term in their public utterances).

I am concerned that the last three features – nonchalance about facts, the wish to be cared for, and belief in government – are being woven together by the American left (vaguely defined) into what looks like a feasible project. I think that’s what they mean when they mention “democratic socialism.” The proponents seem to know no history. They are quick to dismiss the Soviet Union, currently foundering Venezuela, and even scrawny Cuba, as utterly irrelevant (though they retain a soft spot for the latter). And truly, those are not good examples of the fusion of socialism and democracy (because the latter ingredient was and is lacking). When challenged, again, American proponents of socialism refer vaguely to Sweden and to Denmark, about which they also seem to know little. (Incidentally, I personally think both countries are good societies.)

The wrong models of democratic socialism

Neither Sweden nor Denmark, however, is a good model for an eventual American democratic socialism. For one thing, the vituperative hatred of corporations on the American left blocks the path of economic growth plus re-distribution that has been theirs. In those two countries, capitalism is, in fact, thriving. (Think Ikea and Legos). Accordingly, both Sweden and Denmark have moderate corporate tax rates of 22% (same as the new Trump rate), higher than the German rate of only 16%, but much lower than the French rate of 34%.

The two countries pay for their generous welfare state in two intimately related ways. First, their populace agrees to high personal income taxes. The highest marginal rates are 60+% in Denmark and 57+% in Sweden. (It’s 46% currently in the US.) The Danes and the Swedes agree to such high rates for two reasons. For one thing, these rates are applied in a comparatively flat manner. Everyone pays high taxes; the rich are not publicly victimized. This is perceived as fair (though possibly destructive to economic growth). For another thing, their governments deliver superb social services in return for the high taxes paid.

This is the second way in which Danes and Swedes pay for their so-called “socialism” (actually welfare for all): They trust their government and the associated civil services. They generally don’t think of either as corrupt, or incompetent, as many, or at least a large minority of Americans do. As an American, I think of this trust as a price to pay. (I am not thinking of gross or bloody dictatorship here but more of routine time-wasting, exasperating visits to the Department of Motor Vehicles.) The Danes and the Swedes, with a different modern experience, do not share this revulsion or this skepticism.

Denmark and Sweden are both small countries, with populations of fewer than six million and about ten million, respectively. This means that the average citizen is not much separated from government. This short power distance works both ways. It’s one reason why government is trusted. It makes it relatively easy for citizens’ concerns to reach the upper levels of government without being distorted or abstracted. (5) The closeness also must make it difficult for government broadly defined to ignore citizens’ preoccupations. Both counties are, or were until recently, quite homogeneous. I used to be personally skeptical of the relevance of this matter, but Social-Democrat Danes have told me that sharing with those who look and sound less and less like your cousins becomes increasingly objectionable over time.

In summary, it seems to me that if the American left – with its hatred of corporations – tries to construct a Denmark in the US, it’s likely to end up instead with a version of its dream more appropriate for a large, heterogeneous county, where government moreover carries a significant defense burden and drains ever more of the resources of society. The French government’s 55% take of GDP is worth remembering here because it’s a measure of the slow strangling of civil society, including in its tiny embodiments such as frequenting cafés. In other words, American democratic socialists will likely end up with a version of economically stuck, rigid, disappointing France. It will be a poor version of France because a “socialist” USA would not have a ready-made, honest, elite corps of administrators largely sharing their view of the good society, such as ENA, that made the unworkable work for a good many years. And, of course, the quality of American restaurant fare would remain the same. The superior French gourmet experience came about and is nurtured precisely by sectors of the economy that stayed out of the reach of statism.

Poverty under democratic socialism is not like the old condition of shivering naked under rain, snow, and hail; it’s more like wearing clothes that are three sizes too small. It smothers you slowly until it’s too late to do anything.


(5) When there are multiple levels of separation between the rulers and the ruled, the latter’s infinitely variegated needs and desires have to be gathered into a limited number of categories before being sent up to the rulers for an eventual response. That is, a process of generalization, of abstraction intervenes which does not exist when, for example, the apprentice tells his master, “I am hungry.”

[Editor’s note: Part I can be found here, Part II here, and the entire, longform essay can be read in its entirety here.]

Poverty Under Democratic Socialism — Part II: Escaping the Padded Cage

There aren’t many signs that the French will soon free themselves from the trap they have sprung on themselves. The Macron administration had been elected to do something precisely about the strangling effect of taxation on French economic life and, on individual freedom. (The latter message may have been garbled during his campaign.) Are there any solutions in sight for the French crisis of psychic poverty, framed by both good social services and high taxes?

I see two kinds of obstacles to reform. The first is comprised of collective cognitive and of attitudinal deficiencies. The second, paradoxically, is a feature of French society that American progressives would envy if they knew about it.

Cognition and attitudes

After four months of weekly demonstrations, the gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) protesters had not found the language to articulate clearly their frustration. I mean, at least those who were left protesting. They seem to be falling back increasingly on crude views of “social justice” (“les inégalités”) as if, again, the issue was never to produce more, or to retain more of what they produce, but only to confiscate even more from the (fleeing) rich. Over the many years of democratic socialism, French culture has lost the conceptual vocabulary that would be necessary to plan an exit out of the impasse. Here is an example of this loss: In the past twenty years of reading and watching television in French almost every day, I have almost never come across the single word “libéral.” (That would be in the old English meaning of “market oriented.”) The common, nearly universal term is “ultra-libéral.” It’s as if favoring an analysis inclined toward market forces could not possibly exist without being “ultra,” which denotes extremism.

What started as a fairly subtle insult against those who discreetly appreciate capitalism has become fixed usage: You want more free market? You are a sort of fanatic. This usage was started by professional intellectuals, of course (of which France has not shortage). Then, it became a tool tacitly to shut off certain ideas from the masses, all the while retaining the words derogatory muscle. So, in France today, one can easily think of oneself as a moderate socialist – on the center left – but there is no balancing position on the center right. (3) It makes it difficult to think clearly, and especially to begin to think clearly about politics. After all, what young person wants to be an extremist, except those who are really extremists?

I saw recently online a French petition asking that French economist Frédéric Bastiat’s work be studied in French schools. Bastiat is one of the clearest exponents of fundamental economics. His contribution is not as large or as broad as Adam Smith’s but it’s more insightful, in my judgment. (He is the inventor of the “broken window” metaphor, for instance.) He also wrote unusually limpid French. Bastiat has not been part of secondary studies in France in my lifetime. His name is barely known at the university level. Marx and second, and third-rate Marxists, on the other hand, are omnipresent. (Some cynics would claim that whatever their conversation, the educated French do not read Bastiat, or A. Smith, but neither do they really read Marx!)

Few, in France, are able to diagnose the malaise that grips the country because it has ceased to have a name. The handful who understand capitalism are usually allergic to it because it does not guarantee equal outcomes. A minority, mostly business people, grasp well enough how it works and how it has pulled most of humanity out of poverty but they are socially shamed from expressing this perception. There is little curiosity among the French about such questions as why the American GDP/capita is 35% higher than the French. They treat this information as a sort of deed of Nature. Or, for the more ideological, among them, it’s the sad result of America’s unfairness to itself. A debate that ought to take place is born dead. How did this happen? Socialists of my generation, most good democrats, born during and right after WWII largely, early on took over the media and the universities. They have shaped and constrained public opinion since at least the sixties. They have managed to stop discussions of alternative economic paths without really conspiring to do so, possibly without even meaning to.

A really deep state

In 1945, after the long night of the 1940 defeat and of the Nazi occupation, many French people where in a mood to engender a new society. They created a number of novel government organizations designed to implement their vision of clean government but also, of justice. (They took prosperity for granted, it seems.) One of the new organizations was a post-graduate school especially designed to ensure that access to the highest levels of the government bureaucracy would be democratic and meritocratic. It’s called, “École Nationale d’Administration” (ENA). It accepts only graduates of prestigious schools. The ENA students’ per capita training costs are about seven times the average cost for all other higher education students. ENA students are considered public servants and they receive a salary. France thus possesses a predictably renewed cadre of trained administrators to run its government. And, repeating myself here, its members are chosen according to a strictly meritocratic process (unlike the most prestigious American universities, for example), a process that is also extremely selective.

In 2019, ENA is flourishing. The school has contributed four presidents and eight Prime Ministers to-date. Its graduates are numerous among professional politicians, as you might expect. In addition, they are teeming in the highest ranks of the civil service, and also of business. That’s because they go back and forth between the two worlds, with some benefit to their careers and to their wallets. This iteration does not imply corruption. Mostly, ENA graduates do not have a reputation for dishonesty at all. They help one another but it’s mostly above board. (4) This being said, it’s difficult to become really poor if you are an ENA graduate.

Graduates of ENA are often disparagingly described as a “caste,” which is sociologically inaccurate because caste is inherited. The word is meant to render a certain collective attitude of being smugly sealed from others. The intended meaning is really that of “upper caste,” of Brahman caste, to signify: those who think they possess all the wisdom.

All ENA graduates have made it to the top by taking the same sort of exam. The style of exams and the way they are corrected become known over time. Naturally, ENA candidates study to the exam. The ENA formula for success is not a mystery although it’s not just a formula; ENA also requires a sharp intelligence and character. ENA graduates have important traits in common, including a willingness to spend their adolescence cramming for increasingly difficult competitive exams. There are few charming dilettantes in their ranks. They all emerge from a process that does not reward imagination.

ENA graduates – dubbed “énarques” – seem overwhelmingly to share a certain view of the desirable interface between government and the economy. It’s not hard to guess at, based on thousands of their speeches reproduced in the media, and with the help of a little familiarity with French classical education. Its origin is neither in capitalism nor in socialism. (Sorry for the only slightly misleading title of this essay.) It predates both by 100-150 years. It’s rooted in the well known story of the Minister Colbert’s 17th century economic reforms. (It’s well known in the sense that every French school kid knows his name and a thing or two about the reforms themselves.) Colbert (1619-1683) raised tariffs, regulated production in minute detail and, above all, he created with public funds whole industries where none existed, in glass, in porcelain, but also in textiles, and others. I believe his main aim was only to increase government (royal) revenue but others think differently. At any rate, there is a widespread belief that general French prosperity rose under his administration.

To make matters worse, Colbert is a historical figure easy to like: hard working, honest, an effective patron of the arts. With such a luminary to look up to, it’s fairly effortless to ignore both the actual disorderly origins of capitalism, and also the initially compassionate roots of its socialist counter-reaction. (On capitalism’s origins, and originality, you might consult my entry: “Capitalism.” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Blackwell Publishing. Vol. 2, Malden, Mass. 2006. Make sure of that particular edition – 2006 – my predecessors and successors were mostly opaque Marxist academic lowlifes.)

For seventy years, French economic policy has thus been made largely by deeply persuaded statists, people who think rule from above natural (especially as it takes place within a broadly democratic framework), who judge government intervention in economic matters to be necessary, fruitful, and virtuous, people who believe that government investment is investment, people who have given little thought to private enterprise, (although they occasionally pay lip service to it, largely as if it were a kind of charity). Almost none of them, these de facto rulers, is a bad person. Their pure hearts make them all the more dangerous, I believe. The result is there in France for all to see: a sclerotic economy that has failed to provide enough jobs for fifty years, a modest standard of living by the criteria of societies that industrialized in the nineteenth century, a worsening unease about the future, a shortage of the freedom of small pleasures for the many.

I do not use the conventional words of “tyranny” or “despotism” here because both are normally more less deliberately imposed on the populace. Nothing of the sort happened in France. On the contrary, lack of individual freedom in France is the accumulated consequence of measures and programs democratically adopted within the framework described above. Together, these well-meaning social programs are squeezing the liveliness out of all but the upper layers of French society.

There exists in the country a growing resentment of the énarques’ basically anti-capitalist rule. One recent president, Sarkozy, even declared he partly owed his election to bragging about not being a graduate from ENA. Yet, the thousands of énarques permanently at the levers of command for seventy years are not about to relinquish them, irrespective of the political party or parties in power. Few groups controlling as much as they ever does so voluntarily. The deep sentiment of their collective virtuousness will make them even more intransigent. Most French critics believe that the énarquesare incapable of changing as a cadre, precisely because they are really an intellectual elite of sorts, precisely because they are not corrupt. And, as I remarked above, ENA’s statist (“socialist”) reign has lasted so long that the French people in general have lost track of the very conceptual vocabulary an anti-bureaucrat rebellion would require. (We know what we don’t want, but what do we want?)


(3) It’s true also that historical accidents have deprived France of a normal Tory party. Its place is currently occupied by reactionary nationalists (currently the “Rassemblement national,” direct descendant of the “Front National,” of Marine Le Pen) who don’t favor market forces much more than does the left.

(4) I take the ENA graduates’ reputation for probity seriously because, right now, as I write, there are clamors for abolishing the school but its generating corruption in any way is not one of the reasons advanced.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part I, and here is the entire longform essay.]