Monday, November 07, 2005

The French Revolution, cont.

World history took one of its momentous farks in the road with the American and French Revolutions. While the American Revolution was founded on the principles of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," the French version was inspired by a trinity more diabolical in its implications, "equality, fraternity and liberty." In short, while the American revolution emphasized liberty first and foremost, the French revolution gave it third billing behind the all-important "equality."

As the contradictory ideals of liberty vs. equality began to ramify through history, it resulted in the very different nations we see today, for the more liberty a nation has, the less her people will be equal, while the more equality is pursued by state policy, the more freedom will necessarily be attenuated.

The nations of the European Union are, of course, the embodiment of the perennial leftist dream of a cradle-to-grave welfare system. But in order to achieve the goal of radical equality, the Europeans must maintain a confiscatory tax system that radically undermines liberty, since they begin with the assumption that your money does not belong to you, but to the state.

In fact, this flawed understanding of equality is an atavistic and deeply pernicious holdover from our most primitive social arrangements. While it might have made sense in the "archaic environment" of psychobiological evolution in small face-to-face groups, in order for human beings to evolve psychohistorically, it was necessary for them to overcome their "envy barrier," and to tolerate the painful idea that some might possess more than others.

In his classic work, Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour, Helmut Schoeck notes that our most economically misguided ideas stem from the futile attempt to eliminate envy. In order to placate the envious individual, government must intervene with policies that do achieve the desired end of of creating more equality, but at the cost of inefficiency, lack of economic growth, and ultimately far less wealth for everyone. Only by tolerating envy is economic development possible: "the more both private individuals and the custodians of political power in a given society are able to act as though there were no such thing as envy, the greater will be the rate of economic growth and the number of innovations in general." A society is best able to achieve its creative potential if it functions "as if the envious person could be ignored." Likewise, well-meaning leftists who seek the completely "just society" are doomed to failure because they are based on the idea that it is possible to eliminate envy, when human beings inevitably find something new to envy.

Ironically, the pursuit of equality achieves its goal in a perverse sort of way, by dragging everyone down to a lower level of prosperity. The Fall 2005 Claremont Review of Books contains a revelatory article by Gerard Alexander, spelling out some of the dire results of the pursuit of equality. For example, on average, U.S. per capita income is 55% higher than the average of the 15 core countries of the European Union. In fact, the largest E.U. countries "have per capita incomes comparable to America's poorest states." Alexander points out that if France, Italy or the U.K. were somehow admitted to the American union, "any one of them would rank as the 5th poorest of the 50 states, ahead only of West Virginia, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Montana." Ireland, which is currently the richest E.U. country, "would be the 13th poorest state, Sweden the 6th poorest.... 40% of all Swedish households would classify as low-income by American standards."

In addition to impeding a nation's wealth-producing capacity, the mindless pursuit of equality results in chronically high unemployment. France has lived with unemployment between 8-12% for some 25 years, and if anything, this underestimates the true figure because of forced early retirement and extensive but futile job-training programs. And there is a disproportionately negative impact on the poorest sectors of society, since a high unemployment rate pushes aside the least skilled workers first.

But "ironically," the sense of entitlement that is nurtured in the entitlement society means that its victims will feel entitled to more entitlements, thus resulting in even worse conditions. This is just part of the underlying dynamic of what we are seeing with the Muslim riots in France. "Buying them off' with yet more social programs will only result in a greater sense of entitlement and more unrest, since, once the spigot of a person's sense of entitlement is opened, it is very hard to shut off. This is partly because our sense of entitlement is rooted in the earliest infantile experience, when we are, for the only time in our lives, actually "entitled" to mother's magical ministering of our every need and whim. The universe revolves around the moment-to-moment needs of the baby, which is as it should be. For a baby.

But for a variety of psychological and cultural reasons, it is possible for human beings to become arrested at the stage of narcissistic entitlement. In 2002, shortly after the attacks of 9-11, I wrote an article on the psychopathology of the Islamic world, entitled, "The Land that Developmental Time Forgot." In it I discussed the psycho-social implications of the pervasive sense of male superiority over women that pervades the Islamic world: "For example, when boys grow up thinking they are superior simply by virtue of 'being' rather than 'doing,' by actually accomplishing anything, it undermines the drive to achieve." I quoted the economist David Landes, who wrote that one "cannot rear young people in such wise that half of them think themselves superior by biology, without dulling ambition and devaluing accomplishment. One cannot [tell boys] they have a golden penis, without reducing their need to learn and do."

And the resultant fragile sense of manhood in the Muslim world feeds directly into the violence of the region, because "violence is the quintessential, testosteronic expression of male entitlement." What we have to imagine is the incredible disorientation these "chosen" men feel, growing up with unrealistically high self-esteem, and believing they are heirs to a superior civilization, but all around being confronted by the social and political disaster that is Islam. Something has gone wrong . . . and someone must pay. Thus the search for scapegoats begins.

I do not know if the young Muslim men of France suffer from the same collective pathology of the peers they left behind, but it would appear so. When you place such an individual in the context of a welfare state that mirrors their grandiose sense of entitlement, then a sort of alchemical explosion takes place: the giant sucking sound you hear in France is unlimited desire meeting unlimited attempts to placate it, with predictable results.

Have you ever seen a baby when it is not getting what it wants? Oh my. It happened just yesterday, when Daddy was ultimately powerless to stop the unseemly emotional outburst that ensued. The same thing will happen in a nation of babies accustomed to an omni-nurturant Mommy who shields them from life's pain and disappointment. If I were to foolishly attempt to inculcate manly virtues such as self-reliance and delayed gratification in the Gagdad boy and tell him to "suck it up," he would take it quite literally and immediately request Mommy. For him it is obviously way too early to "be a man." For France it may be too late.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous diablovision said...

Goddamn right.

It seems the democratic party and the entire welfare state is stuck in some type of infantile entitlement that no one has the courage to deflate.

They need to grow up and stand on their own two feet.

11/06/2005 11:36:00 PM  
Anonymous dilys said...

What a well-thought post. An opportunity, regrettably, to overcome the envy of moi not having been able to write it...

"the incredible disorientation [they] feel, growing up with unrealistically high self-esteem, and believing they are heirs to a superior civilization, but all around being confronted by ... social and political disaster..."
seems to me to apply also to the French, so, so far above les Américains maladroits who seldom eat snails and labor obesely at their desks -- transpirer cochons! -- in the August holiday.

There is no proper satisfaction in the implosion of Western Europe, schadenfreude is genuinely shortsighted; but the French welfare state plus this particular batch of étranger looks from here like an ambivalent archetypal formula consisting of repelling magnetic poles, one of those bad marriages that won't dissolve until one of the partners becomes, how to put it, morte.

11/07/2005 06:21:00 AM  
Blogger TherearenobellsintheBastille said...

Incisive and insightful, as usual.

11/07/2005 11:10:00 AM  

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