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The French must rediscover the taste for individual freedom: an interview with Professor Pascal Salin

by Matthieu Creson

Interview originally published for the website of Revue Politique et Parlementaire: -pascal-salin/  

Pascal Salin is an economist, professor emeritus at the University of Paris-Dauphine, and was president of the Mont-Pelerin Society from 1994 to 1996. Among the extensive list of books Professor Salin has published, mention can be made of the following titles: La Vérité sur la monnaie (Paris: Odile Jacob, 1990), Libéralisme (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2000), Français, n’ayez pas peur du libéralisme (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2007), Revenir au capitalisme pour éviter les crises (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2010), La Tyrannie fiscale (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2014) –  translated into English under the title Tax Tyranny (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd, 2020) -, Le Vrai libéralisme : droite et gauche unies dans l’erreur (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2019).

Matthieu Creson is a docent and researcher living and working in Paris.

Matthieu Creson (MC): How do you judge Emmanuel Macron’s first five-year term economically and socially? You said in an interview with Le Figaro Magazine, at the time of the 2017 presidential campaign, that Emmanuel Macron was not a classical liberal, and you wrote in 2018 that his tax policy was fiscal tinkering. Is this still the case in your opinion?

Pascal Salin (PS): Indeed, I published an article in Le Figaro-Magazine in 2017 entitled “No, Emmanuel Macron is not a classical liberal” (contrary to what was then the case of François Fillon – who was then also running for president). France had experienced low growth in previous years because the policies that had been implemented, far from being inspired by classical liberalism, were on the contrary based on the growth of taxation and regulations. Emmanuel Macron was appointed in 2014 Minister of the Economy by President François Hollande. It then seemed obvious to me that he was not a real classical liberal, contrary to what was sometimes claimed. Public spending represented 59% of GDP in 2021 (and 63% in 2020), a slightly higher amount than in all previous years; and public deficit has also become more significant. It is obvious that one cannot consider as a classical liberal a president who increases public activities in relation to private ones. For example, health insurance expenses are public rather than private and the choice of retirement age is the result of a public decision and not a private choice.

MC: What do you think of the assumption (from which most of the media seem to start in their coverage of current political divisions) according to which there would be on one side the “globalists” and the “liberals”, and on the other the “populists”? For a long time, the main political and ideological dividing line was that between classical liberals, supporters of economic freedom and globalization through the market, and socialists, favorable to redistribution and state interventionism. Doesn’t the current cleavage which seems to serve, particularly in the media, as the one and only interpretative framework of today’s political world, mask the real cleavage, that is to say that which opposes the authentic classical liberals on one side, and the collectivists on the other?

PS: It is true – and regrettable – that the opposition between classical liberals and socialists is generally not highlighted in today’s world by politicians and by all citizens. Thus it is not appropriate to consider that the political parties of the left are socialist and the parties of the right classical liberal. Both have more or less the same ideas and tend to make the same decisions. This is also why a book I published in 2019 is titled True Classical Liberalism – Right and Left United in Error (in French: Le Vrai Libéralisme: droite et gauche unies dans l’erreur: Paris, Odile Jacob, 2019). The examples in this book prove that equivalent (non-classical liberal) policies have been taken over the past decades regardless of the parties in power.

MC: I’m going back to Emmanuel Macron and his economic policy. Do you think he has a chance (and already a real will) to lead, since the start of his second presidential term, some of the structural reforms that France has actually needed for at least 40 years? Or is it more likely for you that other so-called “reforms” (in the continuity of those carried out by Chirac, Sarkozy or Hollande) will see the light of day in the years to come, against a probable background of presidential and governmental communication centered on necessary “transformation” and “modernization” of France – a transformation and modernization which should indeed be a priority for our country?

PS: Given what has just been said and the fact that Emmanuel Macron has not profoundly changed France’s economic policy, I imagine that it will be the same in the future. But it is certain that if ever classical liberalism became a major objective of the political convictions of the French (and therefore of their political representatives) there could be a significant change in economic policy in favor of classical liberalism. This is obviously not the case at the moment, but it would be very desirable for classical liberalism to be mentioned more often and for it to be part of the convictions of important political parties. But if we took the trouble to publish a large number of articles in favor of classical liberalism, it could be that the French would become increasingly convinced by it and that it appears more often in political debates and in the platforms of political candidates.

MC: The French (at least that’s the impression you get when talking to many of them) still seem quite suspicious of capitalism, the free market and flexibility in employment. Many still seem to start from the principle that capitalism, in order to be “just”, must necessarily be “regulated” or controlled by the state. How do you explain the persistence of these received ideas? Do the media and the public school system have a share of responsibility in the way many people still perceive capitalism and classical liberalism?

PS: Certainly most French people are suspicious of capitalism (and classical liberalism), partly for different reasons. Thus, producers are not in favor of free international trade, though it makes it possible to better meet consumer needs (and encourages producers to improve their production). Moreover, it is often considered that capitalism consists in favoring producers over employees and consumers and it is therefore preferred that politics be able to impose behaviors on producers. Of course, players from specific categories consider that the state can provide them with advantages, which would not be the case with classical liberalism. But these benefits obviously represent financing costs for many people.

MC: In 2007, you wrote a book whose title could be translated into English as My fellow French citizens: Don’t fear classical liberalism (in French: Français, n’ayez pas peur du libéralisme:Paris, Odile Jacob). Do you think that the French, in 2022, are still so afraid of classical liberalism? Do you think this fear is linked to our fellow citizens’ loss of taste for individual freedom and responsibility?

PS: Yes, I think the French are still just as afraid of classical liberalism. For some individuals this fear may come from the fact that they fear the freedom of other people may incite them not to respect what may result from exchanges with others or what the State may require.

MC: One thing strikes me in particular in the French media: the fact that we very rarely talk about what works elsewhere, including our own European neighbors! Take the case of Estonia for example, which is a member of the European Union, and which you have talked about in some of your books. Major reforms were carried out there in the 1990s by the Prime Minister then in office, Mart Laar (implementation of a flat tax, privatizations and liberalization of trade). But today, according to the 2022 ranking of the Heritage Foundation, known for its index of economic freedom by which the degree of economic freedom in the world can be measured, Estonia ranks 7th! (In contrast, France ranks… 52nd.) Other European countries are also at the top of this ranking: Ireland is 3rd, the Netherlands 8th, Finland 9th, Denmark 10th, Sweden 11th, Norway 14th, Germany 16th, Lithuania 17th, Latvia 18th. How do you think it is that we hardly ever talk about our European neighbors who have undertaken profound reforms and who are doing much better than us today, economically and socially? Do the persistent incantations chanted about the alleged benefits of our “social model” blind us to the point of not even wanting to know what works elsewhere and could thus be beneficially transposed at home?

PS: It is true that we can consider this situation as surprising and regrettable. But it seems obvious that this is so because classical liberalism is not an objective for most French people, who, therefore, have no particular interest in classical liberal policies applied in other countries.

MC: You wrote an opuscule in 2014 entitled in French: Libérons-nous! (Paris, Les Belles Lettres – a title which could be translated into English as Let us free ourselves), in which you try to convince the French of the importance of rejecting the weight of statism in order to finally reconnect with the taste for individual freedom, without which no lasting prosperity can be achieved. How could even more of our fellow citizens, in 2022, realize that it is in their interest to no longer follow the “road to serfdom”, to quote Friedrich Hayek, that is to say the road to collectivism and statism?

PS: It is obvious that I have not been able to convince many French people that decisions should be made to help reduce statism. This is not surprising since they have never been convinced by classical liberalism ever since they went to school or to university, or when they read newspapers and watch television. But it is obviously desirable that a considerable number of publications concerning classical liberalism may soon exist.

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