The Cost of France’s Safety Net

November 10th, 2013

Recently during a book event, someone asked why, after World War II, America did not follow the European model of single-payer health care. I don’t have a good answer to that question (yes, I know that the government preferred employer-subsidized plans as a means to permit non-taxed forms of compensation, but this wasn’t the answer she was looking for), but this story from France may shed light on the impact of that decision, and where we are headed.

The pervasive presence of government in French life, from workplace rules to health and education benefits, is now the subject of a great debate as the nation grapples with whether it can sustain the post-World War II model of social democracy.

The spiraling costs of cradle-to-grave social welfare programs have all but exhausted the French government’s ability to raise the taxes necessary to pay for it all, creating growing political problems for President François Hollande, a Socialist. The nation’s capability to innovate and compete globally is being called into question, and investors are shying away from the layers of government regulation and high taxes.

But on the streets of this midsize city 325 miles southeast of Paris, the discussion is not abstract or even overtly political. Conversations here bring to life how many people, almost unconsciously, tailor their education, work habits and aspirations to benefits they see as intrinsic elements of their lives.

“You cannot take away guns from Americans, and in the same way you cannot take away social benefits from French people,” said Louis Paris, the 25-year-old son of a couple who live on the Rue Louis Braille, a typical neighborhood in St.-Étienne, which has deep working-class roots and historically has leaned Socialist.

“They won’t stand for it,” said Mr. Paris, who is unemployed and has been searching since leaving college for a full-time job that offers benefits.

What an interesting dichotomy that works so well–guns and healthcare.

Americans cling to negative liberties–the Constitution keeps the government out of our lives so we can take care of ourselves (what guns do). Europeans, in contrast, cling to their positive liberties–that the state exists to take care of the people, and people shape their lives towards these state-run lives.

Heller and NFIB do a good job summing up the difference, and perhaps answer the question I began with.