25 February 2013

Nous n’avons pas de leçons à apprendre: The French React to American "Can Do."

- from our correspondent at the Augean Stables

"L’État, c'est la grande fiction à travers laquelle tout le monde s’efforce de vivre aux dépens de tout le monde." - Frédéric Bastiat, Journal des débats.

There is nothing really new in this debate of today, the same question was already debated at the French Assemblée Nationale around 1850, when Frédéric Bastiat was an elected member and his admonitions fell on a majority of deaf ears. It was the time of the discovery of democratic politics in France after the 1848 February revolution. Once you've started to confuse interests and claims with rights, you're into an endless debate and struggle to make your interests and claims prevail over those of others. Misrepresentation of each other's interests, claims and motives is a necessary weapon in that struggle. Honour-shame culture is just another name for the culture of self-righteousness, it's not an explanation in itself. The culture of self-righteousness is better explained, I think, as the inevitable consequence of the disrespect of the natural law (the respect of individual natural rights). And Frédéric Bastiat said the same thing in 1850.

It's like those girls who come to a public place like a café to show off their new cell phones and boots, and then start a fight with you because they don't like you when you're looking at them in an incomprehending manner. They feel like they have a 'right' to tell you what is the 'right' thing for you to do. That's the meaning of the word self-righteousness. I told them: "Ce n'est pas parce que vous n'avez rien dans la tête, que vous devez avoir des prétentions. Je comprends bien, n'ayant rien dans la tête vous avez du mal à vous en apercevoir. Mais c'en est pas moins vrai pour autant." Incomprehending stares is all I got. And silence, which is not too bad under the circumstances.

As long as you haven't found a way to effectively shame the self-righteous about their self-righteousness, these debates are totally hopeless. Socrates was sentenced to death for it, and accepted the death sentence because of that hopelessness.

I'm thinking of politics, not of dimwitted girls, who are a nuisance, not a real danger, as French politics is for Europe. The most promising strategy I would think is to ask for an opt-out: instead of trying to invalidate self-righteous claims directly, just let them have it, but ask for respect of your right not to be part of it. Their self-righteous maliciousness will then come out into the open. Because respecting your right to be on your own would mean defeat for them.

Last time I was in Paris, I couldn't find Raymond Boudon's "Pourquoi les intellectuels n'aiment pas le libéralisme" (2004) in any bookstore (Amazon still has it, though). The woman I asked at Gibert-Jeune even remembered the book, said she had read it, while showing that she hadn't liked it. So I don't know how Raymond Boudon explains it. I know how Anthony de Jasay explains it: (classical) liberalism is anti-political, and political attempts at redemption are like toys for bright boys, they don't want to give them up.

It's a sad story, because the French had in fact far better liberal thinkers than the 'Anglo-Saxons': Alexis de Tocqueville, Frédéric Bastiat, Benjamin Constant are much better at giving you an idea of the connection between liberty (to each his own) and the achievement of the human spirit than a puritan like Adam Smith. That's why French social-democrats concentrate on fustigating Anglo-Saxon liberalism and conveniently forget their own more convincing liberals. Fundamentally, the best explanation for the anti-liberal bent in French politics is still in Tocqueville's "L'ancien régime et la révolution": they lost the taste and practice of liberty and self-government already under the ancien régime, a long time ago.

Someone should have warned Maurice Taylor about that, because now he has only made things worse.

PS: Saturday evening in a restaurant I met a French woman temporarely staying in Brussels and a couple from her home town Tours who were paying her a visit. When I invited them for a drink afterwards, they dragged me to some street bar offering exotic cocktails and shots of Brazilian rum. I had one too, but didn't like it, told these Frenchies that I liked cognac better. It has become too expensive, they said. And why is that, I asked. They didn't know, but they liked to talk a lot about France going backwards. The guy even maintained that French Laguiole pocket-knives are now made in China. I have one in my pocket, and I don't believe that it is made in China, it can't be that bad. 

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