Running out of other people’s money

There is much agitation in France concerning a number of cost-cutting measures the government is trying to implement in order to comply with the budgetary targets associated with our European commitments. Especially notable are the increase in a tax on pensions and the reform of maternity leave, whereby one is moving from a system where mothers can have up to 36 months of maternity leave, to a system where each parent has 18 months.

It is generally thought that this new system will, under a pretense of “gender equality” actually reduce spending, because most fathers will not take advantage of their eighteen months, while mothers will be compelled to halve their leave relative to the preceding system. It is also believed that the system will increase congestion in publicly-funded daycare centers, unless more slots are created there, which, as day-care centers cost more than 1000 euros per month per child, will wipe out any savings from the shorter maternity leave.

Angry middle class mothers contemplate being forced to separate themselves from their babies at a very early age, and, to add insult to injury, also being forced to fight against competitors for those coveted and rationed day care slots. Resentment builds up in anticipation of the suspicions of corruption, favoritism, and political and ethnic bias in the future allocation of this increasingly congested socialized resource. Ms Le Pen cannot believe her luck and is celebrating.

Generous maternity leave was implemented a couple of decades ago as a joint venture between “Santa Claus socialism” and “old-style feminism”. Old-style feminism recognizes that women are different from men, and concludes that taxpayers’ money should be used in order to promote the formers’  “work-life” balance. In the society that prevailed before the rise of the welfare state, women’s maternity leave was funded by their husbands; this was regarded as a form of exploitation. In order to free women, “society” had to pay for maternity leave. This meant that taxes had to be increased and consent withdrawn from the workers who had to finance those benefits regardless of their own personal choices and marital status. As for Santa Claus, his agenda was to collect votes from naive people by promising them freebies. Who could say no to 20 to 40 years of holidays (aka pensions) or to the dream of taking care of one’s kid at home while being paid an “allocation” and having her job kept warm at the office?

The problem was that as Santa Claus was pounding the population with benefits and entitlements,  costs inevitably soared, while the economy was nearing asphyxia under the burden of taxes and regulations. As people were more and more encouraged to participate in the zero-sum game of claiming benefits, and more and more discouraged to participate in the positive-sum game of voluntary exchange, the cake began to shrink. Santa Claus started realizing that the size of the cake was not sufficient to fulfill each kid’s Christmas list. Some of the children had to be reluctantly informed that there is no Santa Claus.

This is all the more painful than the poor people, after decades of being spoon-fed, can no longer take care of themselves. For one thing, they lost the habit; they cannot conceive that now that the government says they should stop work for eighteen months instead of thirty-six, they might remotely consider disobeying. But we can hardly blame them. The evil husband is no longer in a position to provide for his wife’s maternity leave. Half of his earnings are confiscated before they even land on his bank account, in order to fund, among other things, other people’s parental leave. The woman that the government has freed from the patriarchy has no other choice than organizing her life according to the government’s prescription, which means that the baby will stay with his mother for eighteen months, no more. Enjoy your freedom from the patriarchy!  Unless, of course, the family has enough money left, despite the heavy taxation…

So, in this society obsessed with egalitarianism and the fight against the “reproduction of elites”, we will observe that the children of the lower middle classes will be abducted from their homes at the age of eighteen months, to be taken care of by bureaucrats; at the same time, the children of the upper middle classes (among whom, conveniently, the apparatchiks who impose the Theory) will enjoy the benefits of staying with their mothers, or selected nannies, for much longer. Meanwhile, the boundary between those two social classes moves up, due to the swelling of the Tax Moloch.

Nobody in the establishment, though, will pay attention to that.

For one thing, the establishment is convinced that “professional” public servants do a better job at taking care of children than their mothers. I remember participating in a meeting of officials very concerned about “equality”, and they were brain storming about how to design schemes so as to prevent kids from the lower classes from spending school holidays with their family ( a number of representatives from NGOs which supposedly cared much about families, were nodding in approval). Their general prejudice was that kids from “privileged” families were spending those holidays taking intensive math and language lessons, while those from “disadvantaged” families were at best watching TV.  There was no mentioning of the inherent contradiction between subsidizing fertility at the lower end of the skill distribution and devoting public resources to separate the offspring of those subsidies from their “disadvantaged” environment.

But, more importantly, the Theory has changed. Old-style feminists have been replaced by Gender feminists. Now there is no difference whatsoever between women and men. In fact, there is no longer any presumption that the two parents should be of opposite sexes (actually those parents do not even have a sex, only an ectoplasmic “gender identity”). There is no longer a mother and a father, only a parent 1 and a parent 2. Surely, then, it would be unfair if parent 1 had a different parental leave from parent 2? So why don’t the people just obey and combine eighteen months of parent 1’s with another eighteen month of parent 2’s parental leave? Why does it matter to them? Don’t they know the Theory says it does not?

Now you may object that since — according to the Theory itself — parent 1 and parent 2 are interchangeable, one day of parental leave by parent 1 is interchangeable with one day of parental leave by parent 2. Therefore, why not give a total of 36 months to both parents, and let these two people decide on how to split it between themselves? Remember they are free. What does free mean? Or maybe “free” in “free from the patriarchy” has  a specific, unusual meaning, as in, say, “freedom is slavery“?

Now I am not familiar enough with the apparatchiks who apply the Theory to figure out why this obvious remark has escaped them. But I suspect they believe that Parent 1 and Parent 2, if left free to choose, would decide that the parent with the least stable and/or least paying job would take the maternity, sorry, parental leave.

This has two big drawbacks. First, it is what people want. Second, it is efficient. A Theory which would let that happen would be useless — it would make no difference if the Theory was not around. A Theory which makes a difference is one which compels people to do what they do not want.

The Theory is especially useful when the cake shrinks. It tells you who should have their piece, and who should be denied a piece. Households who prove the theory should have their piece. Households who disprove the theory should have nothing. Households who apply the theory will have 36 months of parental leave. Households who do not will just have 18 months.

You do not know how much you should bend human nature for the Theory to be true.  Lyssenko found out that he could not bend the nature of wheat by enough for his theory to be true. Others died. Our Theory is much more humane than Lyssenko’s; we just impose a little tax on those who do not conform to it. They are welcome to pay it and contribute to the consolidation of public finances; they are also welcome to dutifully take turns in child care between Parent 1 and Parent 2 and show that the Theory works.

 

 

 

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Limited government, consent, and supermajority

When you try to promote the notion of limited government in front of an audience, academic or otherwise, you are invariably confronted with two objections:

1. How dare you propose that the government should not intervene to redistribute money in favor of the poor and provide them with health and education?

2. We obviously need the government to intervene in order to correct market failures, the most important one being environmental externalities, and in particular global warming.

At this stage, you are in trouble. The first objection (often phrased in a borderline ad hominem formulation) makes you look like an unpleasant person. The second one makes you look like an idiot.

Of course none of these objections change anything to the fact that the government implements involuntary transfers under the threat of force.  From a libertarian perspective, there is no difference between environmental taxation and Greenpeace committing armed robbery in order to finance the cleaning of a river. Or between public welfare and a poor man getting 100 $ from you at gun point. Indeed, utilitarians should condone such muggings, as long as the marginal utility of wealth is larger for the criminal than for the victims.

Utilitarians know these difficulties and the reason why they lend so much legitimacy to government is because they dress its interventions under a pretense of consent. A naive concept of consent is the will of the majority, by which it is legitimate for two wolves and a lamb to vote over what to have for dinner. This parable illustrates that majority voting is not a source of legitimacy but (at best) a lesser evil, and that it makes sense only in places where a constitution imposes substantial restraints on the scope of government intervention. A less naive notion of consent is that of the “veil of ignorance”, by which we all pretend not to know who we are when making decisions. In the extreme, everybody would have the same preferences, which would conveniently turn out to be identical to some utilitarian social welfare function, with the weight on a person’s utility being equal to the probability that one is incarnated into that person’s type. If only people voted under such a veil, the allocation of resources would always maximize that social welfare function. All externalities would be addressed, and optimal redistribution would take place. In fact, such redistribution would rather be interpreted as insurance against being born poor. And all these policies would be consented to unanimously by the polity. Except that, in reality, there is no unanimity; instead there are salient conflicts of interest, which is prima facie evidence against people voting under a veil of ignorance. Therefore the question of consent seems untractable for utilitarianism. The only entity which voluntary submits to the policy prescribed by utilitarianism is an abstract being who pre-exists history and thus can vote under the veil of ignorance, or, worse, Rousseau’s “general will”.

Libertarians have exactly the opposite problem. By insisting that any transfer of resources must take place under the consent of both parties, they run into the issue that obvious gains from trade involving the coordination of a large number of agents (such as solving environmental issues) may  not take place. Even enforcing private contracts requires resources, and people would free ride by trying to undercontribute to the enforcement infrastructure.  It looks like operating society under consent, unless you believe that all the functions of government, including contract enforcement, can be delegated to the private sector, is a practical impossibility.

In principle, though, that is not the case. There may be a coordination problem in creating the infrastructure which is necessary for the conduct of the collective decision-making process. But once such an infrastructure exists (and historically it has been provided by the coagulation of violent armed gangs into actual governments), there is no reason why public policy should violate the natural rights of private individuals.  The reason is that if a policy (such as clean air) indeed improves social welfare, it can be implemented in such a way that all individuals are better-off. In other words it should command unanimous support, and therefore will not be implemented against the consent of any citizen. Indeed, imposing such discipline would compel authorities to systematically come up with a satisfactory scheme of transfers in order to compensate the losers from their policies. And if they cannot come up with such a scheme, it means the proposed policy cannot increase social welfare.

Of course, this remains theoretical. There are plenty of informational problems involved in eliciting the costs and benefits of policies; and some voters will lack the cognitive ability to make the correct choice. Nevertheless this suggests that, if we take consent seriously, there is considerable legitimacy in imposing that public interventions should be supported by a supermajority rather than simple majority. For example, a constitution should prescribe that any policy which involves imposing coercion on individuals needs approval of, say, 75% of the electorate.

Such a supermajority rule would compel policy makers, when proposing laws that solve an externality, to actually implement a side-transfer scheme that would compensate the losers.

For such a rule to respect natural rights, it is of course necessary that the default option – the option that is implemented absent a 75% majority in favor of a proposal — obeys liberal principles and has minimal government coercion. If the initial status quo is such that the corporation of shoemakers is highly subsidized, and if shoemakers amount to 26 % of the population, a supermajority of 75 % will be insufficient to remove the subsidy. A liberal constitution should make sure that the default option remains the one with minimal government intervention. In other words the default option should be different from the status quo. If the status quo were the default option, under the influence of shocks such as technical progress, one may end up with a situation where neither consent nor natural rights are respected. Suppose, for example, that a car toll for entering London is in place, so as to reduce pollution. Suppose that clean, non polluting cars based on nuclear energy are invented. The car toll should be removed. But if it is designed in such a way that 26 % of the relevant constituency benefits, it won’t go away. Or it could go away in exchange for large transfers in favor of those beneficiaries, which is unfair (it is fair to compensate you for a violation of your property rights; it is not fair to compensate you for losing a rent based on violation of other people’s property rights). In other words, public interventions should not be designed as entitlements, but as renewable schemes that must pass the 75% majority test each time they have to be renewed.

Where does that leave the need for “social justice”? For one thing, simple majority rule itself has no reason to deliver “social justice”. Indeed the most important items of the welfare state (health, education, and pensions) cater to the median voter. It is unclear to me why, in a modern affluent society, these people could not pay for their own health, education, and pensions (which they do, to a large extent, through the taxes they pay, except that it funds other people’s health, education, and pensions). As for the welfare state items that benefit the poorest members of society, since they benefit only a minority of people, they must either be the outcome of altruism or of the objective of avoiding “social unrest”. As for altruism, it has no reason to be mediated by the government: people can and do contribute to charities. Furthermore, what is considered as poverty in advanced economies is not poverty but inconvenience. For example, in the US, 95 % of households own a car, and of the 5 % that remain, many are affluent urban families for whom owning a car is just impractical. The fraction of households that are truly needy must be small enough for voluntary transfers to take care of them. As for the concern for “social unrest”, it is an externality and therefore there must exist a redistributive scheme for tackling it that should pass the test of supermajority.

 

The political economy of the Breton upheaval: I. No taxation without representation

 

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The central government in Paris is facing an old-style peasant wave of unrest in the westernmost part of the country. Small entrepreneurs, workers, farmers and many other people have congregated to oppose, with some degree of violence, a new tax on commercial road transport (with the trendy P.C. label “écotaxe”) that is currently being implemented and had been decided by the preceding government in the name of “sustainable development”.

France is famous for its street protests of a more or less violent form, and this tradition is continuing because it works. Historically, governments have backed down on many policy measures because opponents managed to make life impossible for them.

On paper, there is nothing legitimate in trying to cancel the choices of a democratically elected government through violence. And Brittany has given a large majority to the current government in 2012, thus endorsing more expenditures, more redistribution, more regulation, and more taxes. Who did they expect would foot the bill?

If however we turn to the substance, the root cause of the upheaval is two-fold. First, if you administer people a hefty dose of mad-cow-nomics, they predictably become crazy. Second, people are increasingly taken hostages by a ruling elite which seems totally out of control.

The mad-cow-nomics of the Breton upheaval are the following. On the one hand, people are asked to be competitive in the European single market. On the other hand, the institutional context in France and most recent policy measures are just prohibiting them from becoming competitive. The écotaxe is just the turburlence which triggers the final blast of the pressure cooker.

On the one hand, the Breton agricultural producers are supposed to compete with large German plants that reportedly hire workers from Romania and Bulgaria at Romanian and Bulgarian wages, thanks to the Bolkestein directive.

On the other hand, they have to pay their own workers French minimum wages, topped up by high social security contributions, abide by a myriad of costly regulations, and are a privileged target for more regulations and taxes in the name of “sustainable development”. In particular, the Bolkestein directive is not implemented in France to the same extent as Germany, so they cannot replicate the German strategy of importing cheap labor from the East. The French road transport tax is more severe for medium-size trucks than the German one, adding to the problem. And Schröder-style reforms are unheard of around here, meaning that the minimum wage has kept crawling up — some 17 % of the employed are paid the minimum wage, an astronomical proportion by international standards.

Historically these handicaps were offset by subsidies. But as the subsidies are phased out, the Breton producers can no longer break even.

In the context of the upheaval, we notice repeated attacks on speeding radars, which may sound anecdotal. In fact people have been furious against those radars from the start; they epitomize the contempt of the ruling class for them. They are strategically located at places where the speed limit is abnormally low given the configuration of the road. They impose a mental torture on drivers, especially of course on those who have to drive constantly in their profession. Nobody believes they have anything to do with road safety. They are a consequence of a global ideology where politicians incarnate some moral principle — sustainable development, gender equality, public health, solidarity, European unification — and consequently people are accountable to politicians instead of the other way round. In turn this ideology serves as an excuse for the elites to increase their power and extract more resources from the population.

In 2007 people voted for Sarkozy because he sounded more receptive to the actual problems of the people. Immediately after he was elected he scattered the territory with those radars, while at the same time hiring politicians from the defeated socialist party in his government. At that point people understood that they had been grudged.

How can one explain to the Bretons that there is any good for them in enlarging the European Union to the East and in implementing the Bolkestein directive? This is made more difficult by the fact that there is no democratic legitimacy to such enlargement. Nobody in France was asked their opinion about whether Bulgaria, Slovenia or Latvia should be part of the Union: There was no referendum. To be sure, the parliament agreed. But the two main parties are unanimous over everything European. That is, the scope and scale of the European Union are simply taken out of the debate — in the former Eastern Germany there were 11 political parties; but things like freedom of speech, a market economy or reunification were, similarly, taken out of the debate.

At the same time as we have no say on the frontiers of the Union, we are told that we need more political unification, which of course makes it even more important that enlargement should be subject to referendum. It’s as if the U.S. congress suddenly decided that Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia would now become U.S. states. What would the American people say? In fact such a scenario is not even conceivable.

Once upon a time, transfers of political sovereignty to Brussels were subject to referendums. In 1992 the French said yes to the Maastricht treaty, after a campaign which skillfully lumped together membership of the Euro area with the very existence of the EU (then EEC). In 2005 the French said no and since then there has not been a referendum. We are allowed to have referendums only if we say yes.

The Bretons are angry because they (and other French people alike) have not given consent to any of the things that are imposed on them. They have not consented to the Eastern enlargement, they have not consented to the Bolkestein directive, they have not consented to the écotaxe, and they have not consented to the speeding radars (another bipartisan consensus).

From 1300 to 1660 the kings of France, when levying new taxes, needed the consent of a popular assembly called the Etats Généraux. While political representation was not equal across people, the members of this assembly were not professional politicians but genuine representatives of their constituency. It was not rare for the assembly to say no to a tax proposed by the king. The scope for manufactured consensus to make a mockery of popular representation was lower, precisely because the representative of shopkeepers was not a career politician but a shopkeeper, who would personally experience the pain of any new tax on shopkeepers. Circa 1660 the Capetian dynasty stopped resorting to the Etats Generaux and became a dicature called absolutism. It lasted another 130 years.

Ubu sets prices

The French government is about to pass a law (so-called Duflot II) that establishes rent control for 70 % of privately-owned rental housing. The local representative of the government will regularly set a rent ceiling which will not exceed 20 % of the median rent in the area. Owners who have an “exceptional” house will have to ask for a derogation (once again) and demonstrate to government officials that their house is indeed exceptional.

This law is intended to address the problem of housing shortages  in selected areas (only these selected areas represent 70 % of the total supply).  No, there is no typo in this sentence. The supposedly educated elites in charge seem to believe that when demand exceeds supply, reducing the price by law helps.

In the face of such abysmal idiocy one’s first reaction is clearly to remain speechless.  But some economist has  to speak out…

How does the private housing market currently work? First, it is extremely heterogeneous. Even in a given area, apartments differ a lot by quality. So far we do not know how the bureaucrats who will set the dreaded local median rent will operate. How large will the relevant geographical area? How will apartment quality be imputed? Clearly apartments with vastly different market values will be forced into the same price. Second, even controlling for quality there is substantial price dispersion. The more expensive apartments stay longer on the market and the owner can pick among fewer applicants. The opposite holds for the cheaper apartments. These have many applicants, and the owner will usually pick the most solvent one.

The immediate impact of the reform will be to force the price of a large fraction of housing below its market level. Since the ceiling is indexed on the median in the area, these were the most expensive ones in relative terms. So the reform is not so much about reducing rents overall as about truncating the upper tail. These apartments were more expensive than average for a reason. Either quality was higher or the owner preferred income over applicant quality. In both cases, when the price is forced down, the apartment will either be withdrawn from the market or it will have more applicants. As pointed out above, this means that those who will get the apartment will be richer.  Poorer people who could have rented the apartment because they liked it and were willing to pay the price will simply be forced into lower quality products.

In the short run, the reform is simply making life harder for the very people it is supposed to help.  Similarly, a ban on renting rooms smaller than 9 square meters by the preceding government (amidst hateful  speeches against supposed “sleep merchants”), subsequently heightened the student housing crisis (the evil sleep merchants would no longer rent the rooms that the good people in government outlawed).

In the long run, the private rental market, which is already undersized, will likely disappear.  Investment in quality will fall because the owner will be able to reflect it in the rent only if Big Brother says it is OK.  There will be a race to the bottom in quality, because quality will be poorly measured by the officials and this will be a device to raise the effective (quality-adjusted) rent while complying with the law. If, as a result the median rent eventually falls — which is far from certain since withdrawing houses from the market will per se lead to rising prices — this will only make things worse as it will negatively impact the official rent cap.  (And furthermore one will be under the illusion that the law has worked in reducing rents while this would be incorrect adjusting for quality)

People with enough cash for an upfront payment will buy (you need to put 30 % of the value to be able to buy a house, because of regulation). Others will suffer in the jungle of public, rationed, rent-controlled housing and end up with a place they don’t like, in a neighborhood they don’t like, and be stuck with it for the rest of their life. More apartments will be rented through informal channels such as relatives or the black market.

The reform denotes pure contempt for individual property rights as well as ignorance  of even the most basic economic principles.

Curfew

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A recent law, effective July 1, prohibits the lighting of offices, buildings, churches and shops during the night. We are being told that such practices are useless and wasteful, therefore they should obviously be prohibited. Such a prohibition is good for the Planet and is meant to allow city dwellers (as in cloudy Paris) to watch the night sky, which UNESCO has recently classified as part of mankind’s heritage (it is unclear to me whether UNESCO has officially recognized that we share that heritage with aliens).

Of course, conceivably, some people may want to light a building for good reasons. For example the mayor of a town may want to light a historical building during some celebration. Or, say, a fashion house may want to light its headquarters on the Champs-Elysées, which contributes to the “image of France” abroad.

Well, in this case there is no problem. You just have to ask the “préfet” (a local official nominated by the central government) for a derogation. This is the same guy who decides where and when you may want to open your shop on sundays or have a sale.

You cannot get a derogation for murdering you grand mother or having a picnic on your neighbour’s yard. But you can get a derogation for violating the curfew or opening a shop on sundays. There are crimes for which the degree of criminality is a matter of judgement.

You see, everything is simple and nice. What’s the point of having this outdated concept called “rule of law” if people abuse it to do useless things and harm the Planet? Instead, let’s have people submit their motives to bureaucrats, and let them decide on a case by case basis which motives are noble and which ones are ignoble. And since the government is the source of morality (otherwise there would be no point in letting it grant derogations to the prohibitions it has made), there is no need for public officials to ask for a derogation to the curfew should they want to break it. By definition, their motives are noble.

For example, the “Nuits Blanches” is a cultural event sponsored by the Paris municipality which precisely consists in engaging citizens to spend the entire night out, visiting museums and attending cultural events (this link gives you an idea). A naive mind might ask why it is good that these events, which could happen during the day, or at least not during the curfew (which the law sets at 1 am – 7 am), have to be scheduled at a time when most people normally sleep, and why suddenly the health of the planet is no longer a concern when politicians stage massive festive events, while it remains so when it is the private people who want to have their own festive events.

It is hard to believe that breaking the curfew in order to have the Nuit Blanche would follow from a pure utilitarian argument.  After all, if the happiness of the Planet is important enough to warrant a curfew, surely the utility loss from having the Nuit Blanche events during the day instead of the night must be small (assuming it is a loss at all) compared to the marginal unhappiness inflicted upon the Planet.

So the reason why Nuit Blanche 2013 will stand despite that the government just passed a law making these sort of things illegal is that the event has some special moral meaning. In a recent interview, the Paris Mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, gives us a hint on the true meaning of the Nuit Blanche: “Nuit Blanche has a political dimension. The night is not owned. The night is shared”.

I suppose Mr. Delanoë really meant that the night is shared under the terms of those who own it. And the Nuit Blanche and the curfew both remind us who owns the night.

This week in social engineering

The French government has been in great shape lately and this week it has launched a number of policies to make the country a better place to live. I would complain however that they sound unimaginative, a disappointment coming from the country of nouvelle vague, nouveau roman, nouvelle cuisine and nouveaux philosophes.

For one thing the subjects — sorry, the citizens — have been reminded that they do evil things with their lives, in particular smoking and driving, which victimize public health and the planet respectively. Therefore the price of cigarettes (80 % of which consisting of taxes) is going to go up again by a large amount. And similarly, to save the planet (which presumably means making more room for the emissions of Chinese coal plants), the price of gasoline (80 % of which consisting of taxes) is also going to go up again.

I suppose Messrs Sunstein and Stern would happily argue that there is something like an optimal cigarette tax level and an optimal carbon tax level. But the governments here and there take it as meaning that these two things should ever be growing. First because once you have set a policy instrument at its optimal level, you have nothing else to do, and you won’t be in the media. Second because it would be so much nicer if nobody drove and nobody smoke at all.

In the case of smoking I have my little theory. Once a number of people have quit smoking, the remaining pool of smokers consists of those who are far more hooked. Therefore they are more price inelastic which makes it tempting to go for another round of taxation in order to generate revenues. Perhaps a similar story could be told for gasoline taxes. Once more people in cities have switched to public transportation, the remaining drivers are those that are “stuck” in the countryside.

First you tax the good because it is “bad” and you want to deter consumption (a “Pigovian” tax). Second you tax it again because your first tax has made demand inelastic (a “Ramsey” tax). There is always a theory out there which allows you to get away with whatever you planned to do in the first place. This is why theories exist.

Of course sometimes the theory goes wrong, even by the standards of those who use it opportunistically. It is  a bit mysterious, though, why educated people failed to predict that wheat could not grow in Siberia, or that organized crime would increasingly be involved in the French tobacco retail activity, as discussed in this fascinating web site (in French)?

Then considerable advances have been made on the front of “gender equality”. Too many men are involved in sports and too many women breast-feed. We need more men breast-feeding and more women playing rugby. For this reason the government has reduced the parental leave for mothers (now known as Parent 1) and increased it for Parent 2 (formerly known as fathers). And the government has decided that no “gender” will account for less than 25 % of the boards of sports leagues and associations. But since the government also tells us that “gender is a social construct”, and plans to teach it to 6 years old, because it is presumably as important as reading and writing, it is easy for sports leagues to comply with the law. They just have to socially construct themselves so as to declare that whatever proportion of people in their board are women (or whatever they call them nowadays).

Also the scope of the law imposing a quota of 40 % of women in corporate boards has been broadened and the associated penalties have been increased. This quota is good because the Norvegians have it. Obviously, everybody knows that whatever the Norvegians do should be imitated.

It is not obvious to pin down which theory is being used here, because most of the intelligentsia holds as self-evident that “gender equality” is good and similarly that whatever       the government does in the area indeed promotes “gender equality”. So we can only speculate.

There is the idiotic theory of gender equality, which states that the optimal proportion of women in whatever activity is 50 % regardless of the activity. This presumably explains why a fishing permit in France costs less than half for women than for men. Yet I don’t see many women fishing, perhaps one should pay them to do it? However I will have doubts about this theory until I hear about men quota in nursing or teaching.

There is the tautological theory of gender equality, which says that we need more women in sports, because sports are good, and sports are good, because this is what men do. This theory manages to be both tautological and self-defeating. It is counter-performative. Once you have increased the proportion of women in an area, it is by definition no longer good. If you believe in this theory you will always be unhappy and frustrated.

There is the patriarchy theory of gender equality, which holds that men dominate and exploit women. For example, men are more in executive positions than women, therefore the latter are exploited by the former. Let’s have more women in executive positions so that we will have more women dominating and exploiting other people. It is hard to see a mechanism by which not breast feeding or injuring oneself in a football match is a form of exploitation, but I’m sure there is a theory on that.

It must be depressing to be in government:  People constantly organize themselves to do the opposite of what you planned for them, and then you are forced to pass all those laws to correct that. Why don’t people just realize what is good and bad instead of giving the government such a hard time? This is unfair!

What is totalitarianism?

We could opt for an analytical definition, but it is also interesting to define totalitarianism by its symptoms. You can tell the world around you is becoming totalitarian if you observe the following:

  • Being yourself is illegal
  • Everybody lies (but it is not common knowledge, so that nobody says the emperor is naked)
  • Everybody agrees, political decisions are unanimous, in a single-party fashion
  • The government mandates changes to the language
  • People are being jailed for having said, or thought, something
  • People are encouraged to report their neighbours, colleagues, and relatives for speakcrime, or thoughtcrime. This was a favorite sport under the French Terror, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and the Vichy regime.
  • When you start thinking objectively, you inevitably experience a feeling of fear. You have to choose between repressing your thoughts, and being a coward, or putting your social status, material welfare, physical integrity, or life in jeopardy.
  • You live in a contradiction: society is imposing contradictory obligations which make life unlivable. It is as though somebody deliberately tried to make you crazy.
  • As a result, double standards prevail. Because of X’s status, membership in  a priviledged group, ability to corrupt others, or sheer luck, X gets away with what could send Y in jail.
  • People devote considerable attention to protecting themselves from government arbitrariness. Innovation and risk-taking disappear.

It is one thing to recognize these patterns in well-identified totalitarian societies, and another to observe them in ours. I suspect that whenever such symptoms appear, cognitive dissonance operates full speed. After all, aren’t we supposed to be the “free” world and to have won the cold war, we can’t possibly behave like the horrendous regimes mentioned above…

The new French sexual harrassment law, inspired by the US one, makes it a crime to “impose upon somebody, in a repeated manner, speech or behaviour with a sexual connotation which create an intimidating, hostile or offending situation”.

Some well meaning organizations have complained that the law is not enough, because the poor victim might have to prove the repeated and sexual character of the offenses. God forbid that the accuser might have to prove her (or his) allegations!

The law has been passed unanimously by the French senate. I have failed to find a single blog entry disagreeing with it, altough the late French writer Philippe Muray, in his time, was appalled that one could get away so lightly with the abolition of the presumption of innocence principle.

Essentially the law makes it illegal to court somebody in your workplace: Whether or not what you do constitutes illegal sexual harrassment is up to the “victim”. If she is offended by your courting, or finds you “intimidating”, then she just has to file a complaint with the police and you can be sent to jail for two years. There is no objective measure of what “intimidation” or “offense” is, contrary to burglary, homicide or rape. The new law defines a crime so that there is no objective way to establish that it has taken place. In other words, it is a Kafkaian nightmare.

Note that the law applies even if the “perpetrator” is not in a hierachical position vis-à-vis the victim. Also, people are actively encouraged to report to the police any potential sexual harrassment that they might observe. It is obvious — there are many precedents in US academia — that sexual relationships between consenting colleagues are going to be criminalized.

On the one hand people spend more and more time in public education, postponing marriage; once they enter the workforce they spend most of their time at the workplace, which is where they most naturally meet other people (this need not be the most efficient technique but this is the way it is in contemporary society). On the other hand, the sex ratio at the work place is roughly even, due to the rise in female participation in the last few decades. Thus the workplace increasingly is a mating market at the same time. The law attempts to make life unlivable by shutting down the most important mating market that we have.

The government says that I am better protected by this law. It is a lie. By removing essential legal protections (for which people have fought since at least 1214), the law makes me vulnerable to arbitrary accusations, it gives ill-intended people the power to send me to jail on the grounds of unprovable and undisprovable claims. Nobody needs a law to protect them against offenses, innuendos, or intimidation. This is part of life. I am being innuended, offended, and intimidated all the time. I am strong enough to cope with these things that are not the government’s business.

Incidentally, by the standard of this law, I am sexually harrassed all the time. I cannot go to the movies without seeing sexually explicit scenes. Ditto with provocative theatrical or operatic productions. Ditto with advertising and art, especially state-subsidized contemporary art which often indulges in obscenity. Not to mention compulsory sex education at school which matches all the law’s criteria. A sex-obsessed society which makes sex connotations illegal is a contradiction. The contradiction will be resolved by the double standards: some will get away with “sexual harassment”, and others pay dearly for the same actions.