Acton Institute Powerblog

France: What Not To Do

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franceSince the French Revolution, Americans have glanced over to our friends across the Atlantic Ocean as a model of what a country should not do. That tradition continues. France’s centralized planning of the economy, health care, education, the family, religion, and so on is not working. The New York Times reports:

The pervasive presence of government in French life, from workplace rules to health and education benefits, is now the subject of a great debate as the nation grapples with whether it can sustain the post-World War II model of social democracy.

Well, those who champion economic, moral, and political liberty predicted this ages ago. As expected, government control of French society has crippled France’s “capability to innovate and compete globally.”

What is more, “investors are shying away from the layers of government regulation and high taxes.” Again, not surprising.

The French government continues to raise taxes and create reasons to redistribute workers’ earnings. According to the article, in France “most child care and higher education are paid for by the government, and are universally available, as is health care.” The cost of health care is “embedded in the taxes imposed on workers and employers; workers make mandatory contributions worth about 10 percent of their paycheck to cover health insurance and a total of about 22 percent to pay for all their benefits.” This is unsustainable.

One of the enduring legacies of the centralized planning of all of life is that generations of French citizens now believe that a welfare state is a natural right. They seem to think it’s normal. The social assistance state is just the way things are supposed to be. Has France lost her imagination for a free and robust civil society? Generations have now been conditioned to the notion that it is government’s role to subsidize everything humans need. For example, in France’s entitlement society, “parents get a monthly payment for each child after the first, starting at $176 for their second child, and most salaried workers are required to take five weeks of vacation.” This may sound like a great idea on paper but France is learning that this is increasingly becoming economically impossible to maintain.

Why won’t France change course? Maybe it is because French society is addicted to government. Not only does the state have its tentacles all over French society but about 56% of France’s gross domestic product is spent on paying government employees. To make matters worse, nearly one in four would-be workers under 25 is now officially unemployed in France, according to the latest government figures, and living on welfare. A culture that is this dependent on government sabotages all of life. Pope John Paul II prophetically spoke about countries like France in 1991: “By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.” We are seeing this play out in France.

The article ended with an honest confession by a French labor union representative saying “The state has put in place a system…But we are also slaves to this system.” In the end it seems that “liberty, equality, fraternity” has turned into slavery, despair, and blindness. With every new social program American politicians create in Congress we move toward making France’s present America’s future. We can do better.

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.


  • But are the French saying the same about us? Before Obamacare, health costs were one of the biggest reasons for personal bankruptcy, millions of people lost their homes because of the fraud that occurred from the economic crisis, we have the biggest wealth disparity among industrialized nations, and we have the highest incarceration rate in the world are just some of our problems. One of the differences between us is that we can print our money when we run short and they can’t.

    And yet, there are things that the both the US and France has in common. They are both western nations, they are both industrialized nations, and they both rely on a neoliberal, capitalist economy. The difference is that while they believe in collectivism, we take an all-or-nothing approach to individualism in that if any part of our individualism is compromised, we claim that it is lost.

    So neither our individualism nor their collectivism has worked. Perhaps we need to look to them, while looking at ourselves, to see where the problems lie so we can find a solution.

    • The French would be furious to be called capitalist. They are proud of their socialism. The US is nearly as socialist as France but believes it is capitalist. Neither system is sustainable but no one will change until a major crisis, like that in Greece or Spain, forces change.

      • Again, the first marker of a socialist system is worker control. The workers do have a voice and there is a fair amount of collectivism in France, but most of Europe are social democrats and they live by a capitalist system. What has kept us from having to change is the fact that the dollar is the reserve currency so we can print what we need. Again, definitions are important. The conservative mantra that socialism is big government is as deliberately misleading as it is grossly wrong.

        However, realize the causes of the economic problems. All of the economies of Europe follow a neoliberal capitalism. The Greeks, who are in crisis allowed for gov’t-private sector corruption and everybody tried to avoid paying taxes. How does that differ from us?

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