Published September 27, 2017
Editor’s Note: In a series of columns, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a Paris-based conservative and Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, writes on an alarming trend, which he calls the Francification of America.
France and America are countries linked at birth and have always seen in each other funhouse-mirror visions of the other, and they have used the other to try to understand themselves. Gobry argued that America is turning into France, and in the wrong ways — in the last column in the series, he looks at ways America might imitate France to the good.
Do I hate my home country? You might be forgiven for thinking that, after so many articles denouncing creeping “Francification” as an existential threat to America. As a matter of fact, I love and cherish my country greatly. France and America share a tradition of patriotically motivated self-critique, and it is because I love my country that I want to be honest about her flaws.
At the same time, there are many things that make France great, some features of which America could use to counteract the social crisis I have been describing in previous entries. Make America France Again (But in a Good Way) is not much of a bumper sticker, but it’s a start.
A Bipartisan Commitment to Family Policy
America has a strange bipartisan blind spot. The Left’s social liberalism and the Right’s libertarian tendencies combine to make the family the great forgotten institution in American politics. Republican officeholders can talk a good game about “family values” and, sometimes, social issues related to the family, but when it comes to policies aimed at materially supporting and strengthening families, one hears crickets. But the family is the basic unit of society, and if supporting the family isn’t conservative, then that word is meaningless.
By contrast, family policy is an ancient commitment of the French political class, shared broadly across almost every political divide, for over a century, through regime changes and constitutional crises. There are quibbles around the edges, but there is broad agreement on the idea that strengthening the family is one of the pillars of government policy.
None of the objections on the right to pro-family policy hold water. The libertarian Right argues that pro-family policy is “social engineering,” but this is nonsense. The idea that tax policy, for example, should take into account only the individual as the most basic economic unit is an a priori metaphysical stance that is no more or less “social engineering” than structuring policy around the family, which after all was considered the basic economic unit for the great bulk of human history. What’s more, in practice, pro-family policy would only — though far from sufficiently — act as a pushback against the decades of effectively anti-family social engineering pursued by the Left.
Every one of the ills I’ve been writing about in this series is connected to the atomization of American society, which has been perhaps the main driver of the country’s deleterious turn over the past few years. In the face of runaway divorce and illegitimacy rates and declining birth rates, the decline of the American family is not merely one problem among many, it is a national emergency. In this context, policy tools such as marriage incentives and child tax credits are not luxuries, but bare minimums.
I should stress here that I am not proposing that the United States copy and paste France’s big-government pro-family policies. The two countries are too different, and the way France implements its pro-family policy has many of the problems associated with big government programs. France often gets the “how” of family policy wrong, but it has the “what” right. As conservatives, we believe that most of America’s problems can be taken care of by its “little platoons” better than by the state — today, the little platoons are ailing because the littlest of all of them, the family, has been wrecked. It is the most urgent and most important place to start rebuilding.
In French lycées, philosophy is a mandatory subject in high school, and one of the most important ones in the baccalauréat, the national school-leaving exam; French philosophers are publishing sensations and media stars. In America, philosophy is a punchline to unemployment jokes. (“Want fries with that?”)
And yet, it’s hard to think of an idea that the Founders would more ardently subscribe to than that the success of the American experiment depends on the mass of citizens understanding “the American idea” and what makes it tick. (Abraham Lincoln would also vehemently agree.) Indeed, the decline of philosophy in American life would surely be among the things that would appall the Founders most about the country in 2017. For millennia, philosophy has been understood in the West as one of the necessary fields of study for any life well lived, but the issue is all the more crucial for America, a nation built on ideas. Such a nation cannot long endure if neither its citizens nor even its elite have the literacy required to be able to truly understand those ideas.
It is impossible to understand the Constitution and America’s civil order without understanding The Federalist Papers, and it is impossible to understand that without understanding the philosophers — Locke, Montesquieu, and the rest — who inspired the work’s authors, and so on down the precious unbroken line all the way to Aristotle and Plato. (And yes, there are ways of making this material accessible and engaging to the average high-school student without dumbing it down.)
It is already a disaster that philosophy has become almost virtually unknown among American elites. Not only is it no longer considered a requirement of proper elite education, most university philosophy departments have been so infected with postmodernism that many who do elect, against all odds, to study the subject leave it with scarcely any additional understanding. Or course, in a democratic society, it is not only among the elite and elite institutions that a push to study philosophy should happen, but among all citizens, since it is they who, through their votes and their choices, shape the future of the country.
Now, America does not have a Ministry of Education that can promulgate curricula for schools across the country, and thank God for that. Changing tests such as the SAT and the ACT to include philosophy sections would be a big start. For all the justified criticisms of Common Core, it provides a template for how a social movement can have dramatic impact on curricula nationwide. But what is required fundamentally would be a renewed appreciation for America’s founding ideals –among which one of the most overlooked is an appreciation for the classical liberal arts, both for their own sake and for sustaining an enlightened polity.
— Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a Paris-based writer, is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.