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France's 200 roads to serfdom

One of Europe’s most robust welfare states may be proving that government intervention and true social solidarity are inimical forces.

Many economic interventionists on both sides of the Atlantic cite the Catholic social teaching of “solidarity” – or, at least, their own conception of it – to justify far-reaching government policies of wealth confiscation and redistribution. The British philosopher Julian Baggini wrote in The Guardian that “Tax Freedom Day” should be celebrated as “Social Solidarity Day.”

But heavy-handed government policy appears to be weakening the bonds of social cohesion just across the English Channel, according to a French think tank writer.

Philippe François reports that France has more than 200 social benefit programs. And, he writes on the website of Fondation iFRAP, these are undermining rather than enhancing solidarity:

With “Equality” and “Fraternity” in our national motto, solidarity is a very sensitive theme for the French. Voluntarily helping their loved ones or funding charitable organizations seems natural to them, and very few oppose the obligations of solidarity vis-à-vis fellow citizens facing difficulties (e.g., illness) or assuming responsibilities deemed useful by society.

 

However, French society has developed less and less feelings of solidarity, while the mechanisms of compulsory redistribution have become more numerous. It has become difficult to apprehend the real situation of the contributors and the beneficiaries of these transfers, which are transiting by multiple channels set up by the State, local authorities, and public and private social organizations.

 

This multiplicity of aid is also risky for democracy, since this distribution favors patronage relations … And this busted distribution system has carries very expensive administration costs.  (My translation.)

His latter point echoes Pope John Paul II in Centesimus Annus:

[T]he Welfare State, dubbed … the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need.

Solidarity exists under the most ideal situations when it springs freely and organically from the goodwill latent in society. Government cannot legislate love or compel heartfelt charity.

As Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate:

Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone, and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State. ... Unfortunately, too much confidence was placed in those institutions, as if they were able to deliver the desired objective automatically. In reality, institutions by themselves are not enough, because integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone.

Solidarity, he goes on to note, must also include a relationship with God for each person to fully fulfill his or her vocation as a human being. France, the “eldest daughter of the Catholic Church,” essentially banished this prerequisite more than a century ago by legally codifying its adversarial policy toward religion into a doctrine known as laïcité.

In place of a religiously informed culture that spontaneously provides for the needy – and empowers the needy with greater opportunities to provide for themselves – France has produced ten scores of impersonal entitlements and transfer programs. This seems both a costly and inadequate replacement.

Yet to point out that solidarity begins in the parlor rather than in the Parliament can subject someone to having his very faith questioned. In 2012, America magazine criticized House Speaker Paul Ryan for raising the private foundations of solidarity. The author also accused Speaker Ryan of attempting “to enfeeble solidarity by flanking it with the principle of subsidiarity.”

Of course, it is not Ryan who conjoined the two principles but the Roman Catholic Church’s social teaching. As Pope Benedict wrote in the aforementioned encyclical, “The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa.” (Emphasis in original.) “Subsidiarity,” he wrote, ‘is the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state.” 

And, as France appears to be learning, an all-encompassing welfare state is an effective antidote against true social solidarity.

(Photo credit: ericd. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 3.0.)


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.