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Pascal Salin on Liberalism

June 22, 2000

Salin teaching at the Rothbard Graduate Seminar, June 22, 2000

Pascal Salin is professor of economics at the University of Paris-Dauphine, adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, and the author of many books on macroeconomics and public policy.

His new book is Liberalisme (Paris: Editions Odile Jacob, 2000; 500 pp.)

Professor Salin is on the faculty of the Rothbard Graduate Seminar. He was interviewed over lunch between sessions, June 22, 2000.

Mises.org: Americans suffer from a lack of clarity on the real meaning of liberalism.

Salin: The French do too, which is why I wrote my book. I wanted to go back to the principles of private property and responsibility, and show how you can solve nearly all social problems, not just those considered narrowly economic, by reference to the idea of liberalism.

Mises.org: What is the most basic assertion that liberal theory makes about society?

Salin: It is an assertion not so much about society but about individuals: it is the conviction that individuals can manage themselves in every aspect of their lives, with only one constraint: that they respect the rights of others. It is important to stress that this assertion constitutes a principled body of thought, not just a pragmatic solution to particular political issue. It is not a utilitarian idea but a broad attachment to a way of looking at all problems of society.

Mises.org: Can you contrast your view with the utilitarian view?

Salin: It is one thing to understand that certain regulations need to be liberalized or that taxes need to be reduced in one area or another. It is quite a different thing to see the advantages of the entire liberal program. There is a difference between holding liberal opinions and having liberal principles.

Maurice Allais, a famous French economist, for example, considers himself a liberal, and many others consider him a liberal too. He is against certain forms of economic control. He is sometimes inclined to think that it is better to leave people alone to do as they will. But there is no general theory of how society works. As a result he favors ad hoc interventions for research, education, and many other areas. He is also one of the most vocal proponents of protectionism in France.

Mises.org: Is your book structured like Mises's? Did you look to his treatise as a model?

Salin: I would never attempt to duplicate, much less improve, what the master has done. I really hoped to draw attention to the liberal tradition and explain how it applies today. I open with the general theme of property rights and individual responsibility, and discuss the contributions of Hayek, Mises, Rand, Rothbard, Bastiat, Lepage, and others.

I then move to specific applications to problems of society: immigration, ecology, speed limits, laws against tobacco and drinking, and other matters. I show that solutions to all these issues can be found by reference to property rights. I do this early in the book to show that liberalism isn’t just about economics. It is about all of social and political life–all human activities. I finish the book with more traditional applications of the liberal idea: free trade, globalization, macroeconomic stabilization, monopolies, etc.

Mises.org: You are mostly known as a specialist on monetary economics and fiscal policy. So this is quite a step for you.

Salin: Certainly not one I would have taken unless I had seen the need. But in France today, almost all political problems are approached from the point of view of the socialist left or the restrictionist, protectionist right. Meanwhile, even the word liberalism is disparaged on all sides, and by people who know nothing of its history or meaning. I became so frustrated with this stalemate, I felt I had to do something. We are so much in need of another approach.

Mises.org: And yet French intellectual history contributed profoundly to the liberal tradition.

TurgotSalin: Certainly such liberals as Bastiat, Say, and Turgot are exemplary. But they are not known today. I am so pleased that Rothbard chose to highlight the French tradition in his History of Economic Thought. There is this impression that liberalism is something Anglo-Saxon or more specifically, and worse from the French point of view, American. We must remind the French of their great tradition of liberal thought.

In "The Counterrevolution of Science," Hayek provides a very compelling explanation for the decline of liberalism in France. Hayek had no real link with French culture, except for the French nanny he had a boy. And yet he was so insightful in his explanation. He says that at the end of the 18th century and into the 19th century, the French scientists accomplished amazing work that made them famous the world over. Their methods became the standard by which all progress was measured.

French intellectuals came to believe that their methods could be applied directly to the management of society itself. Positivism came to dominate economics and sociology, in the model of the natural sciences. Adding to this was the support the French state gave to positivist methods and thinkers. In France, the universities have mostly always been public, and this problem remains to this day. These universities have produced very clever people but they have a bias against liberalism and a propensity for policies that involve social engineering.

Mises.org: Guido Hülsmann has pointed out that in the U.S., young people do not appear to aspire to hold government jobs, but in France, they still do. To be a bureaucrat is still considered the highest professional achievement.

Salin: What he says has been completely true for a long time. I was asked to speak at the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, the school that educates people for high civil office. I presented my views. It became clear to me that these students were not interested in thinking but only in discovering the proper behaviors for succeeding in government. So Guido is right. And yet, I believe this is beginning to change. I have recently spoken to some professors who have confided that the best students in France no longer want to go there to study. This is a very good sign. It suggests that the social prestige of the state is beginning to decline.

There are several factors that help explain why. First, there is the daily news of corruption in government. It is overwhelming. And after a while, that begins to take a toll on the status of public service generally. People are deeply disappointed with politics. Second, there is the changing economic environment that encourages bright young people to pursue careers in film, technology, and industry. The young understand the new technologies, so they are paid a premium for private-sector work.

Third, there is the European Union. I am no fan of the bureaucracy of the EU, but it has had the good effect of opening up the minds of the French people to realize that there is a world out there that extends beyond the borders of France. Smart young people are now interested in moving to other countries and learning to speak English. These are all goods signs for the future of liberalism.

At the same time you have this move toward liberal thinking among people and students, the opposite is occurring in government and media. They are more and more anti-capitalistic. They think in Marxist categories: capital and labor, the rich and the poor, and all the rest. They present all the news in terms of these old categories, and they want to know: whose side are you on? And in politics, we have two socialist parties that are dominant, no matter what name they choose to call themselves. I wrote my book to encourage the new trends and counter the dominant ideological strains in politics and media.

Mises.org: American newspapers are always reporting on the burning of McDonald's restaurants in France. What's the deal with that?

Salin: It is a complicated situation. Of course, anti-Americanism is very strong in France. It may stem from jealousy or resentment of American global dominance, of which McDonald’s is a symbol. French people want to believe that they have the best of everything, and resent the presence of Americanism in their culture.

Now, I don't personally eat at McDonalds. I prefer traditional French cuisine. But the fact is McDonalds couldn't sell a single hamburger without the consent of the French consuming public. If people don't like that, they should complain about the French, not about the American company that provides food many people like to eat.

You may have heard of Susan George, the French author of this book called "The Lugano Report: On Preserving Capitalism in the 21st Century". She was a main inspiration behind the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. Her book is set in the form of a novel, in which the businessmen conspire to kill hundreds of thousands of people in order to preserve their system of economics.

It is completely crazy, but the book sells very well. In fact, I had to read the book because I debated her on television. I have been shocked to see that some liberal intellectuals in France have even felt the need to concede many points in her book. And yet it is factually wrong at every point. Liberals need to come out strongly against her. In bookstores, my book is often displayed next to hers. I don't mind this. She hates capitalism, and I defend it. I only wish my book were selling as well as hers.

Mises.org: Have you been pleased with the reception of your book so far?

Salin: Yes, in fact, I received a letter from a professor of mathematics just before coming here. He says that he has always been a socialist but he is now rethinking his opinions on this subject. This pleases me greatly. Sometimes it only requires that people think about subjects in a new way that liberalism permits.

Consider, for example, the question of immigration. The subject is usually discussed in terms of free immigration or no immigration. But the liberal position is different: it favors immigration insofar as it accords with property rights. That is to say, immigration requires invitation and contract. This is a completely different way to think about the issue, and yet it resolves so many political disputes that have surrounded this question.

Mises.org: What was your impression of the debate over The Black Book of Communism?

Salin: This was a very important debate, because it helped people come to terms with the deadly destruction wrought by the grand socialist experiment. Intellectuals have so far proved to be unwilling to face the facts. As Jean-Francois Revel says, the intellectuals have been deliberately blind to the horrible reality of communism. Even today, the collapse of socialism in the Eastern Bloc is seen as a failure of non-democratic institutions, not as a failure of socialism. The solution, they say, is democracy, not the free market. This is a very clever way of getting around the central problem liberalism raises: should the state or individuals be the organizing force in society?

Mises.org: Have you enjoyed the conference so far?

Salin: Of course it is wonderful. There are so many great students here, and the lectures have been extremely stimulating. I have so many new ideas to think about. I wish France had something like the Mises Institute. Liberalism would have a much greater chance for advancement and triumph in France if it had the institutional support that it has here in the United States.


See also Pascal Salin interviewed in the Austrian Economics Newsletter, Summer 1996.


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