July 15, 2011


France and US: Vive la différence (Edward L. Glaeser, July 14, 2011, Boston Globe)

Before Louis XVI’s dismissal of his finance minister conjured a mob in Paris in 1789, France had been centralizing for hundreds of years. Political institutions reflect the trade-off between dictatorship and disorder; the greater the disorder in a country, the greater the appeal of a strong man on horseback. In all of the last 10 centuries, major wars have bloodied French soil, and the French have sought protection from powerful centralizers from Philip Augustus to Henry IV to Napoleon. As late as 1958, France produced a new constitution, with an empowered chief executive, Charles de Gaulle, to safeguard against a dangerous military coup.

America’s geographic isolation has meant that we never needed a Napoleon to organize us against the angry armies of a hostile continent. Down to the Tea Partying present, many Americans understandably see far more harm than good in a strong central government. Yet while America’s relative safety allowed us the luxury of a national political system well-designed to protect our freedoms, that system is poorly structured to greatly improve public services.

Washington has been less able than Paris to push through more beneficial nationwide reforms. In the late 19th century, France, humiliated by the Prussian Army in the 1870s, sought a stronger, better educated nation. Concurrently, a vast public works program, led by the technocratic public-works minister Charles de Freycinet, invested in the ports, roads, and railroads that connected France.

For Americans who crave radically better schools and public infrastructure, it’s tempting to wish for our own Freycinet - a forceful, superbly trained engineer who could be trusted to invest federal dollars wisely in America’s needs. But those Gallic-inspired dreams ignore the nature and strengths of our country.

Americans can take pride in the fact that our political system has survived, more or less, benign and intact, since 1789, while France experienced Robespierre’s terror, two Napoleonic Empires, and a Bourbon return. During the post-war world, our decentralized, constrained government has avoided major policy mistakes like large-scale industrial nationalization and over-regulating labor markets.

Our revolution--not much of one, since it just extended the English--has endured at home and spread across the globe because its primary focus is liberty, the idea that every citizen should be treated equally before the law. The French has been a disaster and has failed everywhere it was influential because its focus is equality of results forced by law, which is what requires such massive centralization..

Posted by at July 15, 2011 5:21 AM

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