America’s Francification, Part Deux

Published August 17, 2017

National Review Online

Editor’s Note: In a series of columns, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a Paris-based conservative and Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, will write on an alarming trend, which he calls the Francification of America. (Read part I here.)

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. Writers such as Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century and Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber in the 20th wanted France to be more like America; today, Gobry argues, America is turning into France, and in the wrong ways.

A little personal anecdote. I was riding the subway in New York City with a fellow conservative (one who works for this magazine, in fact), and we were talking about France. I was trying to get at what makes France so infuriatingly untrustworthy, impervious to change, and enamored with regulation, and then it hit me: “The problem with France is that it’s a status society,” I said. My friend nodded along as if I had stated the obvious. Actually, thanks to the noise in the subway, he had heard me call France a “statist” society.

This was many years ago, and yet I still remember the moment because it encapsulated the key misconception that most American conservatives — and most classical liberals on both sides of the Atlantic, very much including my countrymen — have about France. When conservatives think about what’s wrong with France, essentially, they think “statism.” And they’re right in the most obvious ways: As of the most recent count, the French government spends an eye-watering 57 percent of the country’s GDP every year, with the crazy taxes that go along with that. The country ranks a paltry 72nd on the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index, behind such free-market champions as Kazakhstan and Malaysia.

But the point I was making to my friend — the one that French reformers forget, ensuring that they keep striking out on those few occasions when they have the levers of power and, for the purposes of this column, the point that helps us understand where America is headed as it continues on its path of Francification — is that statism is not the disease; it is the symptom. The disease is what I’ll call “the status society.”

The nation-state, the most successful framework for political life in the history of man, was concurrently invented, over the course of centuries, in two places: France, and England. And even though the end result was similar in the most important ways, the processes were different. In England, the change came from the bottom up., from the Magna Carta on through to the Bill of Rights, the common law, and the various twists and turns by which Parliament became the central focus of political power. The English state left feudalism behind when it achieved a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, but those powers were nonetheless constrained by law and custom. This is the Anglo-American model of government that has found such success on the American shores and also around the world in many other former English colonies.

In France, the process worked in the opposite direction. The long succession of French kings and governments built the French state, also one of the most successful on the planet for the magnitude of its accomplishments and the glory of the civilization it incubated, through the accumulation of power in the center and the relentless undermining of any checks on that power. Most of France’s numerous civil wars were about, and ended up with, the central government cutting down some challenge to its power. Indeed, you can interpret the French Revolution as the continuation of French absolute monarchy by other means. An administrative-law professor of mine once quipped, “In terms of administrative law, the French Revolution never happened.” By this, he meant that all one sees in the French law is just a long, uninterrupted power grab by the central government. The aristocracy and the Church had to go not because they were inegalitarian, but because they doled out status by birth or, what’s worse, by God, which challenged the State’s monopoly on status-conferring.

So the key to understanding “the French system” — its politics, its political economy, its social and government system, large swathes of its culture — is that over centuries of often violent political centralization, any French citizen’s status was essentially granted by the sovereign. To speak generally, what a typical Frenchman wants out of life is some status granted, directly or indirectly, by the government. The government’s job, then, is to find some way to distribute status and economic rent in a way that keeps the social peace while preserving its own power and paying off the losers.

Hence civil-service laws, whereby civil servants cannot be fired and are paid by the state until death. In France, to be a bureaucrat is not a job, it is a status. Under Brussels-mandated austerity rules, French civil servants have barely had a pay raise in five years, and they have mostly taken it lying down — but everyone knows they would strike or even riot if something was done to threaten their status.

Hence the two-tier labor market, with extremely regulated, extremely secure work contracts for those who can get them: A job, even in the private sector, must not just be a job, but a status.

Hence the strong licensure rules that protect countless professions, whether medicine, law, or even driving schools.

Hence everyone’s maniacal focus, even in middle age, on where everyone went to school. (Revealingly, when someone went to an elite school, you don’t say that that’s where they attended, you say that’s what they are, as in “Jacques is an HEC.” Ivy League educations count for something in America, but it would be very strange to introduce a fiftysomething by saying, “Here’s my friend Bob, he’s a Harvard,” but that is a commonplace way of speaking in France.)

Hence the dirigiste economic governance and the distrust of markets: If the marketplace isn’t just one way of allocating economic resources, but a way of distributing status, then its unpredictability threatens the integrity of the whole system.

Statism, then, is not the end, but the means. If the entire social order depends on the sovereign’s grants of status, then of course the government must regulate everything in some way. And of course it must pay off the losers with generous benefits lest they riot, since the competition would have no purpose if everyone won a first-place prize. People live with the high taxes, economic stagnation, and injustice of it all because the alternative is too hard to contemplate — shifting to free markets and limited government would affect not only people’s incomes but also their very sense of self.

Now, contrast this with the American idea. Traditionally, America venerates the self-made man — and again, this is bigger than economics, bigger than the idea of having a system based on entrepreneurship. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the hit Broadway show Hamilton, once noted that he had decided to write a play about this Founder because Hamilton embodies the values of hip-hop. We may laugh because of all the superficial differences between the first treasury secretary and Jay-Z, but Miranda’s observation is profound — it identifies a key aspect of the American idea. Hamilton was a born striver, an original, a talented writer and public speaker and entrepreneur.

In the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy, we should note that, historically speaking, there is one particular way in which America has indeed been a status society in the top-down French sense: the regime of white supremacy, which conferred status on whites simply for being white. But other than this status system — admittedly very important — the American tradition has been that one gains status through effort in civil society. French does have a word for “entrepreneur,” but it doesn’t have a word for “community leader,” since that word suggests a status granted on a purely voluntary, bottom-up basis.

Here is the point: Conservatives tabulate the ever-increasing march of government in terms of dollars and cents, increased spending, debt, and the estimated costs of regulations that hamper growth. These are all very important and alarming problems, but perhaps they are merely symptoms of an underlying problem of Francification: America is evolving into a society in which status is granted by central powers, whether elites schools, media behemoths, or the halls of Congress.

And so we see a country where the wealthiest and most expensive city, the one that never stopped growing through the financial crisis and slow recovery, is the capital, for the first time in its history. And so we see the connecting link between two phenomena: the unstoppable growth of the regulatory state, and the constant expansion of the higher-education industrial complex.

America still has some self-made citizens, but increasingly status is granted either through credentials or through various forms of government-granted sinecure, including licensure, the ballooning government-contracting industry, government-dependent industries such as infrastructure and utilities, or the multi-trillion-dollar health-care industry, which depends on government mandates and subsidies. It is alarming that self-taught Abraham Lincoln, who began his public career as a lawyer, could not be admitted to the Bar today — it is much more alarming that nobody seems alarmed by this.

The problem is not economic, it is almost spiritual. The problem is not with the economic damage of regulation, it is with the evolving idea of what it means to be successful as an American. And in this, America is Frenchifying.

— Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a Paris-based writer, is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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