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France Has A Problem With Money And Wealth

A book published recently by French writer Pascal Bruckner cuts to pieces the taboo of money in French society. For him, it's one of the barriers French needlessly impose on themselves.

Nothing wrong with that
Nothing wrong with that
Gérard Moatti

PARIS — Getting rich isn't immoral, it's even commendable. This, in a nutshell, is the view laid out by Pascal Bruckner, a French author with a taste for prodding his compatriots. In his latest book La sagesse de l'argent ("the wisdom of money"), full of twists and turns as well as digressions, Bruckner serves a curious combination of philosophical reflection and moralizing as he takes on "our money taboo."

It's a vast subject: Our attitude towards wealth is one of the touchstones of philosophical and religious tradition. Plato believed that wealth corrupted souls, while Aristotle deemed a certain material comfort essential for good domestic management. Original Christianity condemned profit, unlike Judaism, Islam and, later, Protestantism. The subject of money also provoked conflicting views during the Enlightenment era, with Rousseau, for whom money "poisons" pleasures, and Voltaire, who was rich and no stranger to luxury. But in France, when the 19th century rolled around, things were finally settled: hostility towards money, those who earn it and those whose jobs revolve around it spread to literature, from Balzac to Flaubert and Zola.

Triple legacy

Is this hostility a permanent feature of the French mentality? Today, one might argue that the financial crises, slowdown of economic growth and increasing wealth disparities are enough to explain and justify it. In fact, however, its origins go back further in time.

According to the author, they stem from our triple legacy: feudalism (for the nobility, working to earn a living was unthinkable), Christianity and the Revolution of 1789, all of which instilled a profound sense of egalitarianism in us. We could add that, in a country that stands out for its state socialism, the political class has almost always been suspicious of the world of money and business. It's blatant with left-wing presidents such as François Mitterrand and François Hollande, but it was already obvious with Charles de Gaulle, who was allegedly quoted as saying: "My only enemy ... has never ceased to be money."

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To confirm that this aversion to wealth truly is a French trait, the book develops a parallel analysis of the United States, where money is seen above all as a sign of success. There, accumulating wealth can also pass for a patriotic endeavor; John Rockefeller once said that "the power to make money is a gift of God to be developed and used to the best of our ability for the good of mankind." One might be amused at this touching statement from one of the first oil magnates — generally classified in the category of "robber barons" — but doesn't the underlying sentiment resemble Bill Gates' "The Giving Pledge" campaign, in which he encourages billionaires to donate half of their fortunes to great humanitarian causes?

Our "money taboo," on the other hand, has harmful side-effects. French egalitarianism not only targets income and property gaps, it also extends to entrepreneurial and professional success, and even education: academic success in France, Bruckner says, is a form of insider trading, because it is entirely determined by the position of a person's parents on the social scale.

This blanket denunciation of generalized egalitarianism is admittedly overblown, but it's also frequently on the mark. The increasingly negative connotation of the word "elite" is a case in point: It's generally used in reference to a group, emphasizing its inclusion of the wealthy, politicians and intellectuals.

A liberator and a despot

Money, the author says, isn't all good: It's both a liberator and a despot. A liberator in that money circulation, by facilitating exchange, promotes a peaceful society, emancipating people and improving their well-being. A despot, because the desire money arouses is limitless.

Capitalism, with no real ideological rival since the collapse of communism, is getting overly comfortable, so to speak: Outrageous managerial wages, tax evasion and wild financial speculation undermine social cohesion and erode trust. Wealth, the author tells us, is tolerable as long as one abides by three keywords — integrity, proportion and sharing.

That's all very well, but the moralizing author leaves the reader dissatisfied: When talking about economics, one needs to at least provide context. Limiting inequalities, but how much? Rewarding risk-taking, but to what extent? One is naturally allowed to regret that France "exports its rich" because of its tax system (page 68), and simultaneously advocates wealth redistribution (page 289), but then one must clarify where to point the cursor. When it moves, society changes.

Bruckner calls for a "moral revolution." But morals need bearings.

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