One of my fellow academic bloggers, Brad De Long, has a regular feature entitled "Why, Oh Why, Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?" I was tempted to use that query as the title of this post. The reason for my consternation is an article in Libération. The writer, Catherine Maussion, is so intent on branding the work of the Attali Commission as "ultraliberal" that, in discussing the commission's proposal to intensify competition in retail commerce in order to lower prices to consumers, she invokes criticism from Olivier Desforges, president of the Institut de Liaisons et d'études de consommation (ILEC). M. Desforges says that if the Royer, Galland, and Raffarin Laws are repealed, industrial firms will come under pressure to lower prices to big distributors. "We don't want an ultraliberal system where distributors would get whatever they want."
Mme Maussion seems to be unaware that the position represented by M. Desforges, who claims to be the enemy of "ultraliberalism" and therefore the friend of the common man, is hardly innocent of the original sin of liberals everywhere, self-interest. If she turned to Victoria DeGrazia's book "Irresistible Empire: America's Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe," p. 451, which can be viewed through that other tool of American imperialism, Google Books, here, she would learn that ILEC, the Institut de liaison et d'études de consommation, was "organized at the initiative of US multinationals in 1960 to prevent price-cutting by local outlets." In other words, ILEC's mission is to sustain the market power of manufacturers by limiting competition in retail commerce. This is precisely what the Royer, Galland, and Raffarin laws accomplish.
So the question is not, as Libé seems to believe, how to throw the invading ultralibéraux back into the sea, but rather what sort of regulation best serves the interests one wants to serve. Does one want to award "economic rents" to manufacturers and small store owners, or does one want to reduce retail prices? To be sure, the debate is not cut-and-dried. There may well be perverse consequences to greater retail competition: domination of the market by large chain outlets ("the Wal-Martization of the world"), harsh working conditions for store employees, shift of supply to low-wage countries, relaxation of product safety standards, unconscionable pressure on suppliers to produce at ever lower costs resulting in squeezes on labor, etc. One shouldn't be naive about the possible negative consequences, but neither should one be dishonest about the negative consequences of the current restraints on trade. Such trucage of the debate, such mindless use of empty scare words such as ultralibéral, is not a contribution to intelligent politics. Whatever course is taken, there will be trade-offs and perverse consequences. The art of politics is to decide whose interests one wants to serve and how best to serve them while minimizing the unwanted side-effects. This is what Libération ought to be discussing, rather than collecting press handouts from an interested party in the debate: ILEC.