We Are All Frenchmen

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9

I’ve been watching, from a afar of course, the protests in France this week. For those not “in the know,” French public sector workers are protesting a plan by president Nicholas Sarkozy and the French government, to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

Workers who would be affected by this policy change are incensed – they’ll have to work two extra years before retiring. Students are also protesting, often more violently. Their concern is that extending the retirement age will reduce the number of jobs available for them upon graduation.

While not the point of this post, let me note here that the French socialist system is unsustainable. It cannot possibly continue without destroying the French economy (even more) and ultimately cannibalizing itself. This is nothing new. The Greek system, the Italian system, even the British system – all headed toward painful failure. Guess what America, we’re not far behind.

My point though is not to trounce socialism. It’s too easy, too obvious, and quite frankly, it gets a little boring. Everybody knows that socialism doesn’t work economically.

Rather, my point is that the riots in France should not shock us. The demands follow a perfectly rational explanation, and the behavior is utterly human.

First, the demands. The French workers have a very generous benefits package. They get to retire at 60, with significant benefits until they die. The government is proposing to take something away from them – how did you think they would react? Even if they would rationally admit that the benefits must be reduced somehow to remain viable, you surely don’t think they’d want the reductions to start with them. No, it is quite expected for a group that is losing something they had to react in protest.

I remember listening to AM radio one morning a while back on the way to work. The host was lamenting the threat of XM and Sirius radio to get involved with local programming. No kidding, the host actually said: “hey, I’m as much of a free market guy as anybody, but if you let XM and Sirius into local broadcasting it will destroy the local stations.” Let me translate. “I believe in the free market until it threatens my cushy existence.” The free market is ruthless at eliminating profit and finding a more efficient means. Railing against freedom when it means we’ll have to work harder for less is not unique to French union workers.

The second point is that the behaviors are not uniquely French. I’ve read a number of articles on the subject, and the comments (apparently from Americans) nearly unanimously exclaim that the French are lazy. They hold that the French are spoiled and feel entitled to these over-promised benefits. This is not a French phenomenon.

When people have been promised benefits, they get a sense of entitlement. It’s the way we are. It’s even more true when we inherently understand that the benefits exceed our productivity. In that case, the human subconscious works quickly to alleviate the sense of guilt – enter entitlement. When somebody threatens to take away something that belongs to us, we will not react well.

If you think the riots and protests in France are unique, I say just give it some time. What will happen in America when benefits – whether welfare, or medicare, or social security, or government retirement pay – are cut? What happens if Republicans successfully takeover congress and repeal Obamacare? What happens when people who have been shielded from competition by government controls are no longer able to get a free ride and have to compete? I suspect we will respond poorly too. The entitlement mindset is a tough nut to crack.

Now, will American reactions be of the same vitriol and magnitude as French and Greek reactions? I hope not. I hope we have seen enough of this to choose a better way. But people are people. This country is not immune to a bad reaction to necessary belt-tightening at the federal, state, and local levels.

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2 Responses to We Are All Frenchmen

  1. Jessee says:

    So how do you ween the public off of entitlement programs?

    For years people have been telling me NOT to depend on Social Security and that by the time I’m ready to retire there won’t be any Social Security left. This tactic seems to be working on me – I don’t feel at all entitled to any SS benefits (despite how much I’m paying into it) because my expectation is that I won’t receive any. This expectation has led me to save on my own, so I’ll be happy to see SS eliminated. On the other hand, my parents and those closer to or in retirement are going to be very upset if they don’t receive their full SS benefits because they’re retirement planning depends on it.

    Perhaps setting expectations is the best way to eliminate entitlement programs. Set an expiration date far enough in the future for individuals to plan for it and aggressively advertise the upcoming change and ways to cope.

    • nomasir says:

      Ultimately, I believe it is a battle for hearts and minds, as always. If the role of the government is to exact economic justice, to make the economy “work” for us, to pick winners and losers, to provide sustenance for the citizenry – then we will ALWAYS have these problems. When the government role is, as Bastiat put it, “legal plunder” then there will always be groups organizing to make sure they get their share (and a bit more) of the plunder. It will always be class warfare and cries of “fairness” and even “social justice.” No, I suspect the answer is to teach a new generation that government is not the nanny.

      As for expectation management – realism is a great place to start. But that won’t get us all the way there. Eventually, when enough younger voters realize that they will get zero, zilch, nada from social security, they will come up with a rather simple result: “well then why are we paying into the system?” At that point, we have our French moment (albeit with older rioters). Perhaps they will just riot to the ballot box and exact ever higher penalties on the backs of their grandkids – perhaps.

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