Vive La France


Henry Farrell has a good post taking on some odd recent punditocratic assertions that the United States is in danger of imminent Frenchification. To take this idea a bit more seriously than it merits, it’s worth observing that if you take ideas about path dependence and institutional structure seriously—and you should!—you’ll see right away that the United States couldn’t possibly become France, whether or not Barack Obama or I or anyone else wants it to.

Nothing can happen in U.S. federal politics that’s the equivalent to the scenario that arises in the Fifth Republic when the President commands a majority in the parliament. Barack Obama’s relationship with the congressional Democrats is just nothing like what Nicholas Sarkozy is, in practice, empowered to do with a parliamentary majority. Similarly, the powers of the national government are completely different in the two countries—the subordinate levels of government in France, for example, have no authority to set tax rates. But the United States has its own currency and its own monetary policy which France doesn’t. There’s no metropolitan area in the United States that plays a role even remotely resembling the centrality of Paris in French life, and given the size of the United States there’s nothing you could possibly do to give any metropolitan area that kind of centrality. For all these reasons, to try to do something like adopt the French approach to education would be completely impossible in the United States. But the French education system is integral to the entire operation of the French political and economic system.

Meanwhile, the general habit of looking at departures from the status quo in the United States and immediately comparing them to France is incredibly lazy and inappropriate. Total taxation (including state and local government) in the United States amounts to 28.3 percent of GDP. In France, it’s 43.6 percent of GDP. We’d have to go past such more-generous-than-the-US Anglophone welfare states as Australia, Ireland, Canada, and New Zealand before arriving at the legendary statist nightmare of Germany at 36.2 percent and then plow through the U.K., Spain, the Netherlands, and even such Nordic all-stars as Iceland, Finland, and Norway before you got a French level of taxation. Under the circumstances, it would make a lot more sense to ask if Barack Obama is trying to turn the United States into Ireland—universal health care, slightly higher taxes, somewhat more unions, different St Patrick’s Day celebration—than France. France is just a weird bugaboo for Americans, but it’s just about the least-enlightening comparison you could ask for.