The French Cassandra

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“Liberty is in fact only a secondary need; the primary need is security.”

– Bertrand de JouveneP

My youthful education in the freedom movement began with the writings of Henry Hazlitt, James Burnham, Russell Kirk, and William F. Buckle~ Jr., among others. But it wasn’t long before I came across a challenging French writer, Bertrand de Jouvenel. His little book, “The Ethics of Redistribution,” published originally in 1952, was an unforgettable indictment of the welfare state.

Bertrand de Jouvenel (1903-87) was a journalist, political philosopher, and economist, and a member of Friedrich Hayek’s Mont Pelerin Society. Jouvenel’s mother Sarah was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. His father Henri, the son of a baron, was a member of the French senate, and, after divorcing Sarah, husband to the famous novelist Colette. Bertrand spent his life

in the worlds of diplomac party politics, and letters. Before World War II, he was a journalist who interviewed such notables as Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill. In the postwar period he wrote books and essays, and lectured at Oxford, Cambridge, Berkeley, Yale, and the University of Paris.

Jouvenel’s economic essays, compiled in “Economics and the Good Life” (Transaction Publishers, 1999) and other works, are as pithy as his works on politics. I found “The Art of Conjecture” useful in my career as an economic forecaster. Though even the best econometric models involve some form of guessing, Jouvenel recognized the vital significance of anticipating future events (“A forecast is never so useful as when it warns man of a crisis,”) and believed that nothing is more worth- less than a “war-excluded” economic forecast. An economic model that can’t predict the next war, depression, or monetary crisis isn’t worth much. Interestingly Jouvenel made the ominous observation that those in power have “the least foresight.”3 You can’t count on government officials to warn you of impending disaster.

I always found Jouvenel’s writings compelling and persuasive, and want- ed to read more, so I was pleased, last

You can’t count on government officials to warn you of impending disaster.


year, when Bill Bradford commissioned me to review the new political biography “Bertrand de Jouvenel,” by Daniel J. Mahoney, a professor f politics at Assumption College.

I began by rereading the classic essay “The Ethics of Redistribution,” which was based on 10 lectures Jou- venal gave in 1949. The first thing I noticed is that the title is misleading – Jouvenel says hardly anything about the ethics or morality of progressive taxation or the transference of wealth from the rich to the poor. Does the state have a right to confiscate proper or to tax incomes at different rates? He never says. But what he does say is profound. No matter what the justification, redistributive policies inevitably increase government authority. “The more distribution,” he concludes, “the more power to the State.”4 Worse, when the wealth and income of the rich are taxed away, new burdens are imposed on government, which must now take over the activities of the rich, the”social responsibility and utility of surplus income”: savings and investment, welfare for the need arts and culture, higher education. Heavy progressive taxation discourages entrepreneurship and creates a bloated welfare state. Jouvenel finds the results “disquieting.” So do I.

This brings me to Jouvenel’s most expansive work, “On Power,” written in French in 1945 and published in English in 1948. It is a pessimistic book whose theme is the inexorable growth of state power. “The history of the West,” he writes, “shows us an almost uninterrupted advance in the growth of government power.”5 The book is similar in tone to Hayek’s bleak “Road to Serfdom.” Political philosophers who lived through the first half of the 20th century – the Great Depression, sandwiched between two world wars – tend to be pessimists, and Jouvenel is no exception.

Jouvenel compares the state to the minotaur, the half-bull, half-man monster from Greek mythology. But unlike what happens in the myth, there is no heroic Theseus to slay this monster. It keeps on growing. Leaders, whether in a dictatorship or a democracy, are ambitious and greedy egotists. Even good men tum bad once they are elected and enjoy the “intoxicating· pleasure” of power. They inevitably expand their authority through the growth of (a) war, (b) permanent armies and officials, and (c) universal taxation. The rule of law is replaced by the”arbitrary power” of men. Does this all sound familiar?

Democracy is no salvation, Jouvenel informs us. It can actually make things worse because the voters reflect the “general will,” as Rosseau calls it. Universal suffrage, broad taxation, conscription, social security – all lead

Jouvenel compares the state to the minotaur. But, unlike the Greek myth, there is no heroic Theseus to slay this monster.


to totalitarianism, even if this be democratic. (Should you doubt the corrupting influence of democra~ just watch one season of “Survivor.”)

If there is one flaw in Jouvenel’s study of state power, it’s his failure to expand on the ways in which the minotaur can be tamed. To make his case for the inevitability of total war. and total government, he analyzes three revolutions: the English Civil War (1642-51), the French Revolution of 1789, and the Russian Revolution of 1917. But strangely, he ignores the one revolution that worked – the American Revolution of 1776, followed by the establishment of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Why did the American experiment succeed, while the others failed? I believe it is because the United States did a better job separating the functions and powers of competing groups, instituted a written bill of rights, and retained English common law rather than adopting administrative (e.g., Napoleonic) law.

In a sense, Jouvenel’s work on state power is understandable as a tract for the times. The second half of the 20th century was much more susceptible to optimism than· the first. Government grew, but the private sector grew even faster, and the size of government declined in most countries as a percentage of national output. Certainly Jouvenel would never have considered the possibility of a collapse of the Soviet model of socialism, nationalization, and central planning. He could never· have imagined that an Index of Economic Freedom (such as those produced by the Fraser Institute and the Heritage Foundation) would show a trend toward economic liberalism.

Yet we must not casually dismiss Jouvenel’s list of danger signs. The gradual progress in the world toward greater freedom may be short-lived in an era of terrorist activi~ explosive wars, and natural disasters. The minotaur is wounded, but not killed.

One of the surprising things I learned from reading Mahoney’s biography is that Jouvenel was far from a consistent proponent of liberty. He was a radical socialist in his youth and a critic of “scandalous” laissez-faire capitalism. and the “evil of unemployment” during the Great Depression. But he broke with the socialists and the Parti Populaire Francaise over their refusal to oppose the Nazis and German militarism. Late in 1943, fearing arrest, he fled with his wife to Switzerland. After the war, he wrote 1/0n Power” and “The Ethics of Redistribution,” both of which endeared him to conservatives and libertarians. An economist by training, he rejected the command-and-control model of the Soviets and the 1 “shackled” economy of the socialists. He favored a “social market” economy along the lines of Wilhelm Ropke’s “Humane Economy” over the extreme individualism and materialism of the consumer society: a common framework (cf. Rousseau’s general will”) of controlled growth, common-sense environmentalism, and the ideal society as aI/garden” state. His essay, ”A Better Life in an Affluent Society,” is especially profound in mak-

Universal suffrage, broad taxation, conscription, social security – all lead to totalitarianism, even if this be democratic.


ing a modern case for Adam Smith’s “system of natural liberty” and “explosive” wealth creation but warns of the potential neglect of the “good life” in a material world.

Mahoney offers a damning indictement of the later Jouvenel, who in the 1980s became disillusioned again with the liberal democratic order and drifted back to his socialist roots. He was friendly to Mitterand and the socialists,

Should you doubt the corrupting influence of democracy, just watch one season of “Survivor. “


supporters of government redistribution schemes and nationalization. He wrote a shockingly affectionate and apologetic work on “Marx et Engels” (1983), which happily has not been translated. For Jouvenel, Marx was a “Samson” of revolutionary subversion who supported human emancipation yet opened the road to despotic regimes. Tragically, Jouvenel’s son, Hu- gues, who edits Futuribles, his father’s journal, is a typical French statist.

Notwithstanding these dizzy political oscillations, I would like to think of Bertrand de Jouvenel as the premier French critic of the state in the 20th century. His early works stand as a testament of this singular contribution.


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