Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Ron Smith: Pensions and Revolutionary Justice
The economic and demographic facts are as inescapable in France as they are in many other developed countries, including New Zealand, which made its first adjustments a few years ago. With varying degrees of severity, all have aging populations and problems in balancing the books. In the case of France, average life expectancy (men and women together) is now 80 years, as opposed to 66 years in 1950. The implications of this are enormous.
For the ‘revolutionaries’ presently wrecking French infrastructure, this is not a matter of economics but a matter of rights, or, in modern parlance, ‘entitlements’. It is as if the traditional distinction between political rights (freedom of speech, religion, representation, etc.) and social ‘rights’ (‘rights’ to education, housing, health care, pensions, etc.), had never been made. In the first category, we speak of what are effectively ‘free goods’, to the extent that there is no limit to the degree to which they can be offered, or utilised. In the second category, the subject is the provision of goods that are certainly not free, and whose supply is clearly limited by the capacity of the community to provide.
In fact, the real problem for France and countries like it (again, including ourselves) is how to reconcile conflicting interests and, perhaps, long-established expectations, with the capacity of the society to provide for those interests. In the case of pensions, there is the additional complication of increasing longevity (as noted above in the case of France) and the fast-growing potential of medical science to support it. These are hard decisions and they are not helped by gross simplification of the issue and the adoption of the tactics of violent coercion.
Of course, there is a particular temptation in France and it springs from a fond remembrance of the Revolution of 1789 and its echoes over the two centuries since. It needs to be resisted. The revolutionaries of 1789 were confronting an aristocratic and clerical autocracy against which their only power was numbers and determination. There were at that time no representative institutions. Notwithstanding the excesses of the ‘Terror’ that followed the events of 1789, the revolutionaries advanced the cause of democracy and political justice, not just in France but around the world.
The behaviour of the activists of 2010 will do neither of these things. Insofar as they are successful in their apparent aims, they will advance the interests of public servants (who may retire at 75% of their previous salary) at the expense of taxpayers, generally, including at the expense of those elderly persons who are not former members of the privileged group. They will also further subvert the democratic process in France and, incidentally, provide further opportunity for anarchists and hooligans to do their thing.
Regrettably, revolution and revolutionary behaviour have had a much better press than they have deserved. Revolution, apart from the French example (which is mixed), has generally had baleful consequences for the people upon whom it has been imposed, the most obvious of which has been the total loss of any control by the people of any power over their lives. This is exemplified by the awful history of the Soviet Union and the sorry state of Cuba, fifty years on. The same applies to revolutionary attempts; ‘direct action’, as it has sometimes been called.
As Winston Churchill famously observed, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried. We need to beware the fallacy of perfectionism, which applies not only to our form of government but to the quality of decisions we might expect from it and nowhere does this apply more than in dealing with the problem of aging populations with particular expectations, in the context of acute financial difficulties. Making a just decision here will require a careful balancing of interests and needs. It will not be helped by burning a petrol station, smashing shop windows, or attacking the police.
at 9:03 AM