I grew up in the interwar years in the country. We were, to put it mildly, not very well off. Nearby, a fair-sized property and manor house had been bought by a film producer, who was manifestly very well off and aspired to make his way into the squirearchy. He went about in a elegant carriage and a pair of matched bay horses, all shining to the point that came close to flashy. Our own coachman, a bit jealous and also a merciless snob who regarded newly rich social climbers with contempt, used to pretend that the equipage of the newcomer was made up of two horses moving the carriage and four grooms moving the two horses. Each horse was managed by two grooms, one to put one foreleg before the other, the other to push the hind legs forward to keep pace with the forelegs. This was done to make sure the three horses trotted instead of cantering, walking or lazily staying in one place, that they kept to the road and that each pulled its fair share of their load. Clearly, the horses could not be allowed simply to do what horses have always known how to do and what they were in a few easy lessons taught to do, namely to move according to minimal schooling given by the coachman.

The allegory of the horses and the grooms is, of course, just made of sardonic humour. Its parallel about peoples and their governments is much to be regretted reality. It is reality of the clumsy, absurd and invasive kind. It seems as if it were getting clumsier and more invasive in our own lifetime, and this impression does have some objective ground in the year-to-year march of economic and social statistics. Although too much should not be read into what such numbers are displaying.

Of all European countries France is managing its people with the highest and most expensive team of “grooms”. For guiding, controlling and supporting a population of 66 million, it deploys 36,646 mayors in as many town halls, assisted by 100,000 deputy mayors and the staff that goes with them, as well as 526,000 town councillors, 14,305 inter-communal councillors, topped by 4,052 general and 1,880 regional councillors. The proportions are almost as generous as is the one of two grooms per horse. In addition, there are 577 members of the legislative assembly and 348 senators. Members of the assembly and the senate get a monthly salary of 13,5000 euros and various “indemnities” of discreetly camouflaged amounts. These mayors, councillors, and legislators are all anointed by being popularly elected in a democratic state proud of the fact. There are 37 ministers with portfolios ranging from the ordinary to the bewilderingly original. The guidance of local, regional, and national councillors is executed and enforced by 5.5 million public employees carrying out the functions of justice, police, tax collection, education, defence, rail transport, and a long tail of minor ones you would never think of but that the inventive fantasy of public-spirited politicians have little by little discovered as being essential for equality and the common good. Since nearly all public employees have tenure and benefits are difficult to cut, the state cannot economise in salaries and can only economise on purchases. Bills get paid ever later, and in the lower ranks of the administration two employees must share one pencil, though this is offset by lavish style in the higher ranks.

It is a subjective matter and not easy to quantify the degree to which the state constricts the autonomy of the individual. The question itself is hidden under a thick layer of woolly matter that is part truth, part wishful fiction, and part self-serving lie, all of which is telling you that your autonomy is far from constricted, that the state protects you and your liberty, and that in a democracy it is doing so at your own wish and command. Nevertheless, statistics do have an albeit limited use in getting at part of the truth. Out of France’s gross national product, the use of 57 per cent is decided collectively by the central government and the multiple levels of local authorities. Only 43 per cent is really disposed of as a result of individuals deciding it. With a 57 per cent collective ratio, France is in the international vanguard, beaten to top place only by Denmark. Western welfare states absorb usually about 45 per cent of national income collectively, and their peoples are hardly administered and looked after less well than the French. Judging by their economic performance, they are administered better. Left-wing intellectuals are eager to remind us that economic performance is not the only measure of social success and money does not produce happiness. This sort of statement is “cheap talk” for it cannot be falsified, but it cannot be verified either and is best left for adolescents to debate. Serious grownups must make do with GDP.

Why does France, that claims to be the greatest lover of liberty, is keen to foster a political system that stifles individual choices, at least in measurable material matters, more than nearly any other country? Why do the French, who like to pose as the inventors of logic and the champions of clear thought and talk, saddle themselves with a tax code and a labour code of mind-boggling complexity and enough peremptory instructions to shoot themselves in the foot? Nearly everybody is convinced that his own government is wasteful, pointless and dumb, because this is what real-life as opposed to dream governments are like. Perhaps, however, there are reasons that make French governments more government-like, more frustrating and illiberal than governments usually are.

Two reasons stand out that may be making French governments peculiar and not like most others. One is that at least since the 17th century, the will of the king, the emperor, or of the republic was always paramount and the rule of law, though not absent nor unknown, was often not strong enough to protect the individual from the state. Paramount state power was, in the intense experience of the 1789 revolution, consecrated by the adoption of equality as a state religion to replace Christianity, and egalitarianism as an undisputed moral imperative that could not be decently questioned. In today’s France, it is still indecent to question it both on the Left and on the Right.

The other reason, also historical but more recent, goes back to mob rule in the street during the Revolution and the guillotine during the Terror. Despite an exceptionally large riot police, modern French governments since 1968 still dread “the street”. They capitulate very readily when meeting the bluster and noise of opposition to long overdue reforms. They try to buy the labour unions with covert subventions and overt flattery, and do not hesitate to lean on management in industrial disputes. The labour code, several thousand pages long, is taboo and dismissing a redundant worker is usually harder than getting a contested divorce. The obvious result of maniacal job protection is a disgraceful level of unemployment lasting for a disgracefully long time.

It is beginning to look as if the horses, aided by the grooms, have unlearnt how to trot and canter unaided.


*Anthony de Jasay is an Anglo-Hungarian economist living in France. He is the author, a.o., of The State (Oxford, 1985), Social Contract, Free Ride (Oxford 1989), Against Politics (London, 1997), and Justice and Its Surroundings (Indianapolis, 2002). His most recent publications include Political Philosophy, Clearly (Indianapolis, 2010) and Political Economy, Concisely (Indianapolis, 2010). His next volume, Economic Sense and Nonsense: Reflections from Europe, 2007-?2012 (a volume in The Collected Papers of Anthony de Jasay), edited and with an introduction by Hartmut Kliemt, is forthcoming from Liberty Fund.

The State is also available online on this website.

For more articles by Anthony de Jasay, see the Archive.