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.