The old-time caché of "public service" — that is, running other people’s lives at taxpayer expense as a bureaucrat for the government — is taking a beating in France. A new generation is coming to see that "public service" is not a high calling at all, but a very low one.
For example, applications to France’s most prestigious public educational institution, the National School of Administration, or the ENA, have plummeted 30 percent in the last four years. And though its graduates are guaranteed high-level lifetime jobs working for the government, many recent alumni are choosing private-sector careers working for capitalist ventures where the money and the real social prestige can be found.
This is an incredible trend considering the national context. Government work has been out of favor among average people for decades in the US, and it slides further by the day. But in France, the power and prestige of state management of society has maintained an implacable grip all through the 1980s and 1990s. Even after the fall of socialism, the intellectual climate remained so left-wing that any book or article calling into question the glorious legacy of communism was greeted with shock and horror by the intellectual elite.
Until recently, every smart French student dreamed of attending the ENA, an educational citadel of government planning founded by Charles DeGaulle after World War II. His goal was to create an institution that would attract the top-performing students in all of France to be trained in social and economic engineering to manage the peace the way they had managed the war.
The entrance exams were legendarily difficult, and acceptance rates ran 1 in 200. Its graduates have ruled France with an iron fist, enforcing high taxes and the 35-hour workweek, doling out welfare benefits to all takers, restricting competition with rigorously tight regulations, and administering its nationalized industries.
What a waste! The ENA drained France of some of its best thinkers and put them to work doing destructive instead of productive jobs, and the result has been a decades-old economic stagnation that hasn’t mitigated until very recently. This form of brain-drain has caused a dead-weight loss all over the Western world since the end of World War II, but the effect has been huge in France. A sure sign of change, reports Suzanne Daley in the New York Times, is that ENA graduates, because of their high IQ combined with real-world ignorance, have even become the butt of jokes like this one:
A young man stops by a herd of sheep and bets the farmer that he can count them at a glance. If he is correct, he says, he gets to take one. The young man guesses right, and grabs his prize. The farmer then offers a counter-bet that if he can guess the young man’s alma mater, the animal stays. The young man agrees, and the farmer correctly guesses the ENA. How did he know, the young man demands? "Because," answers the farmer, "that is my dog you have under your arm."
Jokes at the expense of bureaucrats are a staple of the US, but to see it in France, where the administrative state has been so deeply entrenched, indicates that the decline of the state is affecting the entire developed world. The bureaucratic apparatus can no longer even pretend to keep up with the technological innovations, efficiencies, and pay scales of the private sector. As a result, it is losing people and resources to the capitalist economy.
And yet these factors alone are not enough to enact a revolution against the ancien régime. What is also needed is a dramatic intellectual change as well. This is particularly difficult to imagine in a country where the educational system is controlled from top to bottom by left-wing ideologues and would-be social and economic planners of all sorts.
But somehow in the midst of this rubble there has emerged a champion of freedom who, in his command of intellectual history and understanding of the present state of the world, can run circles around France’s intellectual elites. His name is Pascal Salin, a professor of economics at the University of Paris, Dauphine. He is the author of a 500-page treatise on political economy that can be found in most of France’s good bookstores. The name of the book is Liberalisme (Paris: Editions Odile Jacob, 2000). The title refers not to modern liberalism but to classical liberalism, the political ideal of freedom and the rule of law.
Essentially, Salin’s book is a restatement and re-application of the worldview of Frederic Bastiat, the old French liberal who so effectively debunked every form of statism in the 19th century, and earned the scorn of a century of social planners afterward. Salin shows that the tradition he represents is exactly right, that the state leaves nothing but destruction in its wake, and that the energy and development of a social order relies wholly on the liberty and creativity of individuals and their private associations.
This is a message that resonates very strongly with a new generation of French students who are fed up with the failures of the administrative state. Indeed, in an interview with Mises.org, Salin noticed the trends at the ENA before the New York Times got around to reporting them:
"I have recently spoken to some professors who have confided that the best students in France no longer want to go there to study. This is a very good sign. It suggests that the social prestige of the state is beginning to decline. There are several factors that help explain why. First, there is the daily news of corruption in government. It is overwhelming. And after a while, that begins to take a toll on the status of public service generally. People are deeply disappointed with politics."
Second, "there is the changing economic environment that encourages bright young people to pursue careers in film, technology, and industry. The young understand the new technologies, so they are paid a premium for private-sector work."
His third reason: the European Union, which Salin has opposed as bureaucratic and centralist, at least has the good effect of weakening the bonds of the French youth to their own central government and drawing their attention to economic and political developments in other countries.
At the same time, Salin warns that as young people continue to lose faith in the system, the bureaucrats and their media counterparts are becoming more vehement in their defense of the old order. Allied with them are the economic nationalist elements who think that burning down a McDonald’s is an acceptable "nonviolent" protest against the rise of international capitalism in France.
The battle between the forces of genuine liberalism and the centralized administrative state is far from over. But there’s a new generation being raised to see the benefits of capitalism and striving to join the productive classes, and a new generation of intellectuals following Pascal Salin instead of the drones at the ENA. In the future, will the state become an abandoned shell, drained by the private sector of all intellectual resources? We may only see the barest outlines of this vision now, but it is beautiful to behold.