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May 04, 2006

Economic reform and France's intellectuals: William Coleman explains why the status of the French intelligentsia has made France incapable of economic reform and doomed French youth to unemployment

Posted by William Coleman

The birth of the French intellectual is usually recorded as taking place during the Dreyfus affair 110 years ago. It is probably no accident that the same period saw the end of major French contributions to economics.
French intellectual life is deeply imbued with anti-economic thinking, argues Dr William Coleman - Reader in Economics at the Australian National University and the author of Economics and its Enemies: Two Centuries of Anti-Economics. But it is not the power of ideas that stops France from reforming. It is, Dr Coleman argues, that France has raised the status of the intellectual higher that it has been raised anywhere else in the world. What French intellectuals know about - literary criticism, semiotics, anthropology, sociology, hegelianising Marxism - has nothing to offer in analysing economic life. If an intellectual is someone who can claim an intellectual authority in areas where there can be no expertise, then French intellectuals have a powerful vested interest in the continued repudiation of economic expertise. They thus maintain their pre-eminent position; it is - if you like - in their class interest.

I suspect readers of the Social Affairs Unit web review will need no persuasion that French government's decision of April 10th 2006 to withdraw its youth labour law reform is a bad decision, indeed a very bad decision. The proposed reform - a modest but useful measure - would have allowed employers to dismiss (with one month's notice) workers under 26 who had been employed for less than two years. This exemption of young employees from France's rigorous anti-dismissal legislation would have moderately reduced the 23 per cent unemployment rate amongst her 15-24 age-group. And - even apart from the lost opportunity to relieve some of France's youth from the frustrations of unemployment - the measure's withdrawal on account of mob protest is a disastrous precedent for French governance, and is quietly acknowledged as such around the world.

It is a puzzle how France could have ended up injuring itself so badly. The journalists have emphasised the prestige – and power - of demonstrations in French political experience. They also note an addiction to government employment – a de-marketised style of employment; something noticed and lamented long ago by de Tocqueville.

This column wants to identify a different source of the perverse rage of French youth against a measure that could only have helped them. It wants to suggest this rage arises, in part, from an utter innocence of the way the world works; or more precisely how the economic world works. And that this innocence is characteristically French, and something that distinguishes it from the "Anglo-Saxon" world. For, in spite of the contributions of French economists (Jean- Baptiste Say, Leon Walras), economics has never loomed significantly in French intellectual life. When not scorned it has been ignored; and when not ignored, yawned over.

A detestation of economics has long time been manifest in "the hexagon". In 1848 - the same year J. S. Mill published, to considerable public approval (and sales), his Principles of Political Economy – France, in a revolutionary, spasm abolished its only chair in economics, at the College de France.

The sixty years since 1945 have seen three distinct waves of anti-economics. During the 1950s there sprouted a thick field of supposed exposés of "la crise de la pensée economique"; a spiny, desiccated literature which had absolutely no analogy in the anglophone world of that decade.

In the 1970s saw the eruption on the public stage of l'Anti-Économique by Jacques Attali, best remembered today as the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, until his removal in 1993 amid scandal (and press reports that, at cost of more than $1.2 million, the Travertine marble in the EBRD's lobby was replaced with imported Italian Carrara marble on the grounds that the original didn't give "the right feeling"). Attali's "anti-text" that supposedly exposed economics was made known to vast numbers in France by the publicity of the mass-media. Still more significantly, Attali enjoyed for many years the generous patronage of Francois Mitterand, who - having studied economics with Jacques Attali - had, as one commentator dryly noted, "an interesting vision of this science".

In 2000 came another wave of anti-economics, centred this time on a student petition against the "hegemony of neoclassical economic theory", that soon became a cause célèbre. The Minister of Education quickly announced that he would study it closely. Le Monde, L'Humanité, L'Express, and Marianne, along with French radio and television, rushed to take up the students' cause. The media agreed that "a debate should be opened” on university economics. One paper with glee predicted that the coming year "promises to be agitated".

French anti-economics is, not surprisingly, sustained (in part) by ignorance of the subject. In 1870s Hippolyte Taine noted that economic principles:

are considered in England and America as so important that not even a barely educated man is a stranger to them.
By contrast, Taine lamented:
There are only three classes in political economy in Paris, and I do not know of any others in France.
Eighty years later it was no different. In 1955 Pierre Mendès-France (the Free French Finance Minister, and French Prime Minister 1954-55) confessed, in the preface to the English translation of his Economics and Action:
when a Frenchman writes … with the purpose of explaining the usefulness of economics, it is with considerable measure of embarrassment that he faces his Anglo-Saxon readers.
This is because, he explained:
the present book may, on many points, seem elementary and "obvious" to our Anglo-Saxon readers.
This ignorance is in turn traceable to ennui. In 1880 the Italian historian of ideas Luigi Cossa noted that in France political economy was known as the littérature ennuyeuse. A century later, one close student of French intellectual life maintained the same [Tony Judt, Marxism and the French Left, Clarendon Press, 1986]:
French intellectuals in general had little interest in the study of economics–as an independent discipline it had no recognised existence before the early 1950s.
But whence this ennui? Let me take as one clue a remark drawn one of the many anti-texts that France has produced [André Marchal, La Pensée Economique en France Depuis, 1945]:
One knows that the whole history of France has been dominated by the aspiration, not a great welfare, but to a more perfect justice.
This suggests to me that what may be snuffing out any interest in economics is Moralism, the doctrine that morality is the supreme, necessary and sufficient resource to the solution to the world's problems. Moralism – that believes that good will win if only it puts to the field - bespeaks an optimism of the power to modify human conduct. In this view human nature is plastic.

Employers may, like other human beings, act on incentive. Employers may, like other human beings, be self-seeking, competitive, and averse to downside risk. Employers may be all the things that will imply that "employment protection legislation" will actually destroy employment. But, says the moralist, they should not be these things, and need not be these things; and they are only those things on account of the insufficient application of good. Human nature is just a contingent truth.

This contempt for contingent truth that lies at the centre of moralism coheres with a much more indisputable and recognizable characteristic of French intellectual life: rationalism, and its concomitant attachment to necessary truth. To quote Judt again, on French intellectual life:

Again and again… we see the essential privileged over the (merely) contingent. … As anyone who has ever engaged in serious argument with a French educated person … the accidental just doesn't really matter.
Human nature is a brute fact, but any brute fact just doesn't really matter.

Having traced unemployment in French youth to, ultimately, certain philosophic tics of French intellectual life, the obvious move would be now to flourish Keynes' much repeated quote about "the power of ideas". Many who have never opened Keynes' General Theory will be aware that (at its closing pages), Keynes draws a contrast between two models of conflict. In one model of conflict (a "materialist" one), the world has heterogeneous interests, but a homogeneous cognitive apparatus. Conflict is a battle of "vested interests". In the other model (an "idealist" one), the world has homogeneous interests but is populated by many, heterogeneous cognitive apparatus. Conflict now is a battle of ideas. Keynes, as we all know, opted for the "idealist" model of conflict, with the attendant spectacle of a:

madman in authority distilling their frenzy from an academic scribbler.
I, however, am too much a materialist to join Keynes' in his salute to the "power of ideas". I plump for interests. This does not mean I am required to hold that "ideas" are without significance. And this is because any "cognitive apparatus" will itself constitute an interest. The phenomenon of the "French intellectual" is a case in point. Nowhere in the world is there more status to being "an intellectual". Nowhere is more of a career to be made out of being an intellectual. There is a lot invested in that status. Regrettably, what French intellectuals know about - literary criticism, semiotics, anthropology, sociology, hegelianising Marxism - have nothing to offer in analysing economic life. Economic life - and its significance - thereby becomes inimical to the importance of the intellectual. And the antagonism is rooted more deeply than just the irrelevance of literary criticism etc. to the economy. For it has been sagely suggested that an intellectual is someone who can claim an intellectual authority (and thus an importance) in areas where they can be no expertise. In other words, the absence of expertise is a pre-condition for the intellectual. It is, therefore, in the interest of intellectuals to repudiate expertise, including economic expertise. Thus l'Anti-Économique.

The birth of the French intellectual is usually recorded as taking place during the Dreyfus affair 110 years ago. It is probably no accident that the same period saw the end of major French contributions to economics.

Dr William Coleman is Reader in Economics at the Australian National University and the author of Economics and its Enemies: Two Centuries of Anti-Economics, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).


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It would seem that the insistence of the intellectual on "areas in which there can be no expertise" to exercise his authority must eventually result in all art and no science. If intellectualism is to be reduced to those topics where one can never be correct except by peer acclaim, then it must become no more than a matter of style. Worse, it is the style of self-appointed arbiters, a clamoring, competitive horde reminiscent of the NICE in Lewis's That Hideous Strength.

Posted by: Assistant Village Idiot at May 5, 2006 03:40 AM
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It seems that intellectuals everywhere don't want to trouble themselves with economic matters. It is beneath them. For them economics is this thing that happens on the periphery, by itself. It is like, if they talk about it they will soiling their hands. However, nothing could be more central or basic to human existence.

Posted by: David Airth at May 6, 2006 04:04 PM
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Perhaps a little off the subject, maybe, but I thought I would include this little extract from On teaching mathematics by Vladimir I. Arnold, one of Russia’s foremost contemporary mathematicians. He really knows how to sock it to the French: this is taken from an address on teaching of mathematics in Palais de Découverte in Paris on 7 March 1997.

To the question "what is 2 + 3" a French primary school pupil replied: "3 + 2, since addition is commutative". He did not know what the sum was equal to and could not even understand what he was asked about! Another French pupil (quite rational, in my opinion) defined mathematics as follows: "there is a square, but that still has to be proved”. Judging by my teaching experience in France, the university students' idea of mathematics (even of those taught mathematics at the École Normale Supérieure - I feel sorry most of all for these obviously intelligent but deformed kids) is as poor as that of this pupil. ".

Mentally challenged zealots of "abstract mathematics" threw all the geometry (through which connection with physics and reality most often takes place in mathematics) out of teaching. Calculus textbooks by Goursat, Hermite, Picard were recently dumped by the student library of the Universities Paris 6 and 7 (Jussieu) as obsolete and, therefore, harmful (they were only rescued by my intervention).

Utilius scandalum nasci permittur quam veritas relinquatur.
(One should speak the truth even at risk of provoking a scandal.) Pope Gregory IX.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at May 16, 2006 09:29 PM
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When Dr Coleman says "the way the world works; or more precisely how the economic world works", what does it really mean? There is a lot of different ways Economics could (perhaps should?) be. Is Pareto the new God? As a human being, I am part of History and I have the right to choose in what kind of society I want to live. Surely, the world I'll rise children in won't be closed to my values but I need to make sense. This social implication is called Democracy. Isn't Democracy what America wants to teach?

A primitive European.

Posted by: Charly at May 19, 2006 12:10 PM
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