Macron Just Doesn’t Get It
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The sorry truth is that both progressives and neoliberals still don’t get it, and that seems true in France most of all.
Since the election of President Emmanuel Macron in 2017, I have read or heard that he is the leader of the free world, the hope for Europe, and a model for the U.S. Instead, he increasingly seems to be a well-meaning guy elected in the wrong historical era.
From the beginning I’ve been a supporter of Macron and his desire to extend economic globalization. But here’s the problem: The West is experiencing a loss of relative status, due to diminished power and influence. Western societies, including France, are being transformed by immigration beyond what many of their native-born citizens had expected. The rising prominence of terror, migration and security issues have boosted some of the less salubrious sides of the right wing. Add to that mix wage stagnation and the increasingly common view — held by 91 percent in France — that today’s children will not have better lives than their parents. Finally, the decline of organized religion, especially pronounced in Western Europe, has created a spiritual vacuum and a crisis of meaning.
In response, people want something beyond more income redistribution (what the left is offering) or more globalization (what the pre-populist right used to offer). People want ideas and inspiration, and when no good new ideas are put forward, the current default seems to be nationalist ideas, including of the less tolerant variety.
Macron doesn’t have any new ideas or vision, however much you might like the old ideas he has embraced. And so, however promising it might have seemed at first, his tenure has accelerated the collapse of the traditional European liberal order. For some time, his approval ratings in France have been lower than those of U.S. President Donald Trump.
If you doubt the lack of inspiration, consider Macron’s response to the protests, outlined in his recently televised speech. In lieu of ideas, or for that matter cold-hearted technocracy, he served up abject financial pandering. He promised to boost the minimum wage by 100 euros per month, but at no cost to employers. He also promised no taxes or charges on overtime in 2019, and he requested employers to pay year-end bonuses, which would be tax-exempt, and he canceled the charges on some pensions.
Some of those may be acceptable changes. But when you throw money at protesters, you are likely to get further protests and rising demands. Buying off the opposition works best when it is not explicitly framed as such. It is harder yet to pay political tribute when you are not building much of an inspiring vision for the future.
France now runs some chance of becoming the next Italy, complete with fiscal irresponsibility, and it is hard to see the nation as having the political strength or domestic consensus to hold the European Union together. The French have an amazing country: high labor productivity, a quality civil service, incredible vacations, and perhaps the most refined level of cultural taste in the world. Yet all that, sadly, is not enough. A quick comparison with 19th-century French culture, with its emphasis on progress, utopia and the rationalization of social systems, shows just how much the forward-looking perspective is lacking.
The one intellectual group that really gets what is going on right now are the much-maligned libertarians. For decades they have been told that they are too analytical, that they lack empathy, that they don’t have much to offer the public in the way of inspiration. For all the (mostly failed) attempts to pretend otherwise, that is mostly true — and libertarians have to hope that analytical perspectives become more ascendant.
The thing is, libertarians are used to dealing with this weakness. Neither the progressive left nor the more mainstream neoliberal crowd knows how to handle it. Because they can’t quite believe their vision is so weak and unappealing, they keep looking for another savior. Macron is the latest fall guy.
In America, the left’s rejoinder is often simple: More income redistribution is necessary. This French backlash, as well as the rise of populist alt-right ideas in Germany and the Nordic countries, is making that remedy seem increasingly implausible.
The French protests have been especially painful for environmentally oriented reformers. The main demand of the yellow-vest movement has been a repeal of gasoline taxes— in other words, carbon taxes, which might alleviate climate change. That is the ultimate technocratic policy, but it has now caused four weeks of riots in one of the West’s most important and beautiful cities, the very one where the world agreed three years ago to take action on climate change.
In this drama there are sweeping historical forces, spiritual and ideological vacuums, and remarkably few heroes. The sooner we realize that, the better.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”
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