19 October 2010
France: Entitlement in the Flesh
Americans across the national ideological spectrum are likely to scoff at the sight of French citizens rioting in the streets to protest a proposed advance of the age of eligibility for retirement benefits from 60 to 62. The (by French standards) conservative government of Nicolas Sarkozy has determined that such generous benefits are no longer sustainable, and an objective analysis of longevity might back up advocates of advancing the retirement age in any industrialized nation. The change is up to the national legislature and from what I understand it's a done deal, with the mobs in the street unlikely to terrify legislators into reconsidering. While an objective case could be made for this particular change, the protesters aren't necessarily wrong to see it as a first step in a Sarkozy scheme to reduce the French welfare state until he deems the nation safe for "American-style capitalism." Entitlements, as many an American will tell you, may be incompatible with such an economic system, but the French protesters may be more interested in a civilized society than with maximizing wealth creation for an entrepreneurial class. Theirs isn't necessarily an unsustainable viewpoint. In simplest terms, the only legitimate reason to have a nation-state is to keep the people within its borders alive and in enjoyment of what the majority deems a decent standard of living. Civilization itself, as I've written before, is an entitlement claim, whether it's based on natural law, the general will, or some other abstraction. Anyone who wants anything different from the strong simply taking what they want from the weak, or a gang taking what they want from an individual -- anyone who claims a right to keep something they could not keep by pure force in a state of nature -- is making an entitlement claim. The French protesters represent entitlement in relatively raw form. They reject accommodation with alleged economic realities because they have a shared notion of civilization that takes priority over debatable economic considerations. The age of retirement isn't necessarily the ideal battleground to fight for their sense of entitlement, but there may be real battles yet to fight -- and not just in France. While some Americans will look at scenes in Paris and sneer at the tantrums of spoiled dependency, I can't help viewing the same scenes with a certain sense of envy. If some tea-drinking Congress of the future decrees an end to American entitlements, and Americans don't protest the way the French are now, will that be because Americans are more reasonable, because they're more conditioned to take "personal responsibility" for their futures, or because they're simply more passive -- or bigger cowards?