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Transatlantic Blog

Elites, markets, and cronyism

It’s no great secret that France is facing social upheaval and has some longstanding deep-set economic problems. Nor is it revealing to say that France’s political class is despised across the spectrum as woefully out of touch.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, however, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry underscores an important point about this situation that has escaped the attention of most people, including in France itself. It’s not just that the country’s meritocratic elite—personified by President Emmanuel Macron himself—are perceived to be isolated from the rest of the country in a way that it is hard for outsiders to understand. It’s also the perception, and in many cases, the reality that many of the énarques, as they are called, are neck-deep in cronyism.

Over the past 30 years, successive governments in France have privatized or partly privatized some formerly state-owned enterprises. Gorby points out, however, that the process has managed to create “a lucrative revolving door between government and the corporate sector.” That’s called cronyism.

There are few things which discredit free markets or economic liberalization programs more than cronyism. Certainly France is, as Gorby states, in deep need of market reforms. He adds, however, that “énarque-driven reform has tended to have little market competition and lots of cronyism. The cohort that came of age in that decade is often called la génération fric: ‘the cash-grab generation.’”

It’s one thing for a society to have a political elite, or, more specifically, a group of people who have a disproportionate place in politics and the determination of policy. Every society, even those that pride themselves on being highly democratic, have such a group of people, not least because it’s not the vocation of most people to be in politics. They have families, start businesses, work to make a living, etc. The vast majority of people don’t want to make politics or policymaking a career.

But when the perception grows that those involved in politics or the formulation of policy, whether as legislators, government officials, or civil servants, are financially benefiting from their position, we should not be surprised that citizens become deeply unhappy and resentful.

Human fallibility is operative everything, including in politics and among politicians. Sound political systems build attention to this factor into the very way they function. It’s not reasonable to expect perfection from political leaders. Few things, however, undermine the legitimacy of political leaders than cronyism. Until we find a way to address it, or at least minimize it, the yawning gap between the political class in the West and everyone else is only going to grow.

(Photo credit: Kremlin.ru. CC BY 4.0.)


Dr. Samuel Gregg is director of research at the Acton Institute. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. He has an MA in political philosophy from the University of Melbourne, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in moral philosophy and political economy from the University of Oxford.