The title of a March 17th post to this blog by my colleague Ed Morse suggests that French students who are protesting a government proposal to loosen restrictions on employers might wish to take a course in basic economics. While I wholeheartedly agree with such a sentiment, I think it instructive to consider just what it is that these French students are protesting. Can it be that they really do not understand their own interests, as some television commentators have contended? I think that a case can indeed be made for this. Knowing the French education system, however, it is more likely that the French students have taken quite a bit of economics. So much so that they have come to the conclusion that they virulently oppose the international economic order that is based on the principles that they learned in these economics courses. In other words, it is not the law that is the target of the wrath of these students, it is the international economic order itself. French students want their government to engage in deconstructing that economic order, not responding to it by passing laws that further legitimate it. That, in fact, is a sentiment widely shared in France; and it is why France voted against the proposed European Union constitution.
The French students (as well as government employees and unions) are not likely to succeed; and if they do, it will be a pyrrhic victory. Trying to deconstruct the world capitalist economy, while a century-and-a-half dream of Marxists of all stripes on the left (who dominate thinking in the Sorbonne and other elite French institutions), is a bit like standing in front of an on-coming freight train in the hopes of derailing it. The end result is likely to be that France’s economy will continue to list while the rest of the world benefits from investment capital and jobs that might have otherwise found their way to France. So be it!
What troubles me more are students, government workers, union employees, and others in the United States who protest against the same things without having a clue about the world capitalist order. At least the French protesters understand that they are protesting the fundamentals, not consequences. In the United States a growing number of individuals are protesting the consequences, while thinking that they support the fundamentals. Witness the movement against Walmart, the pharmaceutical industry, and oil companies, a movement that is fueled by radio and television talk show hosts who are manipulating so-called “conservative” citizens. Such citizens haven’t a clue about what capitalism is. I am much more concerned by them than I am by French students who reject capitalism on principle. How are we to reason with those who object to consequences without any understanding that those same consequences are rooted in the very principles of capitalism, principles they say they support? Where would we even begin the conversation? They will simply respond that they are capitalists. But just what kind of capitalists are they if every position they take on important issues is in fact in opposition to the very notion of free markets?
If I were a conspiratorial theorist I would conclude that Marxists have succeeded much more admirably in the U.S. than have their comrades in France. They have turned out several generations of economic illiterates from our institutions of higher education. Hence, unlike in France, where people still argue about philosophical principles, such as those that lay at the heart of global capitalism, the only Americans who do so are generally Marxists. Their so-called conservative and moderate opponents, on the other hand, are increasingly less able to do so, as a consequence of which they are subject to manipulation that in the end leads them to take almost identical positions to those of the far-left!
If the process of the dumbing-down of the right in the United States continues, we will soon have a government pursuing non-market policies in pursuit of global capitalism supported by a so-called “conservative” population that is actually populist. I hope we can avoid such a fate, but we are not likely to until conservatives begin defending free market capitalism from its detractors. I suggest they begin by helping their less astute “conservative” colleagues understand that Walmart, higher oil prices, outsourcing of jobs to the 3rd world, immigration, and the like are not threats to free markets and capitalism. They are capitalism!