The society they deserve?

Yesterday, I posted a FrontPageMagazine symposium on France. Nearly all of the participants, and all of those who are French, agreed that France is in big trouble. Several contended, though, that the French people are not really to blame; rather the fault lies with France’s leaders, intellectuals, and journalists. I am always skeptical when this kind of argument is applied to a democracy. However, I can understand why critics would tend not to blame the French for the state of France. Whenever I’m in France, I too feel that the French deserve better than they are getting from their government and their intellectuals. The French people I know or encounter are reasonably hard working, serious, and well-educated. They may be a bit more risk averse than Americans, but many seem frustrated by the lack of opportunities to take chances and they yearn for a more fluid and vibrant society in which their talents can be put to better use. Indeed, my wife, who works at the French embassy here, tells me that “brain drain” to the United States is a growing problem for France.
When I discuss these issues with the French, I try gently to lead them into concluding that the problem is lack of freedom. Generally, I can get them pretty far down this road, until they realize that I’m holding out the U.S. and Thatcher’s Britain as an alternative model. At that point, I encounter the anti-Americanism that Jean-Francois Revel noted in the FrontPageMagazine symposium. I hear how Americans lack a sense of “social soliditary,” about how millions can’t get health care, about racism (although less about this than before), about huge disparities between rich and poor, etc. Thus, I think it is the French caricature of America that prevents them from taking the leap into the kind of free market thinking that constitutes the way out of the dead end they realize they have reached.
I can sympathize with the French in this regard because many of the same concerns prevented me from embracing American conservatism even after I realized that American liberalism was taking us down the wrong path (so many of us want to think there is a third way). And Revel and others are correct in identifying French politicians, intellectuals, and journalists as purveyors of the anti-Americanism that is holding the French back. But the French have access to the work of Revel and others who are pointing them in the right direction. They reject those voices because some combination of pride and envy makes anti-Americanism so appealing. Thus, as sympathetic as they may be in many respects, the French people, not their leaders, intellectuals and journalists, must shoulder most of the blame for the sorry state of France today.

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