Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Equality: Ideal or Norm

Everyone seems to be anxious lately about equality. Some economists have been worrying about whether globalization promotes greater inequality. Others have been asking whether some increased inequality might be a reasonable price to pay for more rapid growth. I have mused a bit myself about the political consequences of growing inequality and decreased social mobility in the U.S. Tocqueville of course thought that equality of condition was a "providential fact," that is, an inescapable finality inscribed in the very nature of things. It is no longer so clear that empirical equality has that character, even if one retains it as an ideal. The question I want to raise is whether erecting that ideal as a norm of political action is necessarily the best way to move toward the desired end state.

The question arises in the wake of François Fillon's speech today to the National Assembly. In it he said that university reform would be his government's number one priority. He promised to increase funding of the universities by 5 billion euros over the next five years and to aim to fund research at a level of 3 percent of GDP.

Now, this might seem like a lot of money, but 5 billion euros spread among 84 universities over 5 years is actually a rather modest infusion of cash to each institution, at least if the money is "equally" distributed (and even if "equality" is modified, as one hears it might be, to take account of existing variations among the several universities). If it isn't equally distributed according to some fixed principle, protests can be expected, because of the commitment of both the government and interested parties to an often-invoked but seldom defined "principle of republican equality." The notion of equality as a norm of political action rather than a property of the relation between man and man is a rather peculiar one. It is a serious constraint on reform. It implies, first of all, that the government cannot act incrementally.* It cannot experiment on a small scale, in a pilot program, with a reform that might seem promising yet hold in store unforeseen and unforeseeable complications. It must act across the nation, across the university system as a whole, taking a big gamble rather than experimenting with a hundred modest ones. Such a high-stakes and highly visible game is well suited to a presidency predicated on bold action and on the communication of that action to the public. Continued support depends on constant awareness that big changes are afoot. But big changes may not be the best way to renew a thing as complicated as the French universities (or the French economy). As Sarkozy himself said the other day, you can't just reform the university, because the university impinges on so many other social systems: the labor market, the primary and secondary schools, housing, construction, budget, European and international standards, etc.

Equality shouldn't become a mantra intoned to allay the fear of unreasonable risk.

* Curiously, in another passage of his speech, Fillon announced a "democratization of access to the artistic patrimony of the nation," an orotund phrase for free admission to museums, but this is to be introduced incrementally, with an experiment in a small "sample" of Parisian and provincial museums, to test the effects. Why incrementalism here, in a relatively less sensitive matter, and "republican equality" vis-à-vis the universities, which must all become autonomous in one fell swoop?

Why Blog?

Henry Farrell, the proprietor of the Political Science Weblog, has this to say on the subject:

Why are so many academics beginning to blog? Academic blogs offer the kind of intellectual excitement and engagement that attracted many scholars to the academic life in the first place, but which often get lost in the hustle to secure positions, grants, and disciplinary recognition. Properly considered, the blogosphere represents the closest equivalent to the Republic of Letters that we have today. Academic blogs, like their 18th-century equivalent, are rife with feuds, displays of spleen, crotchets, fads, and nonsenses. As in the blogosphere more generally, there is a lot of dross. However, academic blogs also provide a carnival of ideas, a lively and exciting interchange of argument and debate that makes many scholarly conversations seem drab and desiccated in comparison. Over the next 10 years, blogs and bloglike forms of exchange are likely to transform how we think of ourselves as scholars. While blogging won't replace academic publishing, it builds a space for serious conversation around and between the more considered articles and monographs that we write.

Farrell is also the co-editor of a forthcoming issue of Public Choice:

Daniel W. Drezner and Henry Farrell, Co-Edited Special Issue of Public Choice on Blogs and Politics, forthcoming. Including inter alia:

1. Daniel W. Drezner and Henry Farrell, “Introduction: Blogs and Politics,” Public Choice. Forthcoming.

2. Henry Farrell and Daniel W. Drezner, “The Power and Politics of Blogs,” Public Choice. Forthcoming.

Tactical Flexibility

Sarkozy showed great tactical flexibility when his university reform proposal was taken in a crossfire by university presidents and restive student unions. What had promised to erupt into a full-scale conflagration was quickly quelled. Will he be as adroit in dealing with the pending labor issues?

François Chérèque has fired the latest of several warning shots from union leaders. The CFDT head doesn't like the proposal to require employees to declare their intention to join a strike 48 hours in advance, nor is he keen on holding a referendum among employees a week after a strike begins to see whether they support continuation. And he notes that if the government wants to introduce flexicurity in France, it has to reckon with the fact that in Scandinavia unemployment benefits are much more generous than in France (up to 90 percent of wages), and employment agencies are more heavily staffed (1 agent for every 40 job-seekers, compared with a ratio of 1 to 120 in France).

Of course, if additional functionaries were added to the rolls of the ANPE, Chérèque's union would represent many of them. Is this coda to his interview with Le Parisien therefore an offer of a possible tactical bargain to the government, which is to consider a draft of the labor reform bill tomorrow? A suivre ...

LATER: Meanwhile, Sarko isn't sounding conciliatory ... but one always goes into a negotiation asking for a little more than one is going to insist on holding when push comes to shove.

Suburban Blog

Those of you who read French and are interested in everyday life in the banlieues of Paris, those mysterious zones limitrophes that seem to emerge from the depths of the social forest only when something untoward happens there, might enjoy the blog Jours tranquilles à Clichy-sous-Bois, which provides a running narrative by many hands and in the local patois. There is a kind of soothing musicality to some of the prose, a cadence-free chromaticism that seems capable of being extended indefinitely, with an almost Proustian penchant for meandering like a slow stream in a territory without topographical relief, where all variety depends on the inventiveness of the observer:

Houla ça l'air sérieux tout d'un coup, il s'intéresse à ce que je fais parce que bon le passage sur la fac et le travail il avait l'air de s'en foutre un peu et écoutait d'une oreille, un peu comme moi lorsqu'il m'expliquait tout ce qu'il pouvait faire pendant trois quarts d'heure (fameux syndrome du «qu'est ce que tu deviens ?» où l'on a droit à un roman qui nous oblige à rester là à écouter alors qu'on a des choses à faire après).

One can almost hear the words spoken, and the familiar experience of encountering a lost childhood friend and not quite being able to renew the connection is nicely rendered in a French that might not pass muster in the fac that it evokes in passing: " ... parce que bon le passage sur la fac et le travail il avait l'air de s'en foutre un peu et écoutait d'une oreille, un peu comme moi." Lovely. From time to time one needs to take a break from the prose of the newspapers and return to the source, outside the news cycle, where time insists on creeping in its petty pace, even though on a des choses à faire après.

"Complicity in Genocide"

Francisco asks if I'm going to comment on the release of documents yesterday regarding French actions in Rwanda during the genocide there. He calls attention to this article in The Independent. Although this story stresses Mitterrand's alleged "obsession" with maintaining French influence in Rwanda, there is a report in Le Monde, which notes that Antoine Comte, the attorney for a group of survivors of the genocide in a suit against the French Army, wants to call as witnesses a number of government officials who were serving at the time and who are still alive. They include Pierre Joxe, who was minister of defense in 1993; Alain Juppé, who was foreign minister in 1994; General Christian Quenot; and Hubert Védrine, who was secretary general of the Elysée, and who, as I reported yesterday, has just been assigned a mission to "reflect on globalization" by Pres. Sarkozy. A criminal investigation of possible "complicity in genocide" was initiated in 2005.

I don't have enough information to comment further, but I thank Francisco for calling this important story to my attention.

ADDENDUM at 7:49 A.M.: Libé adds a comment by Paul Quilès that "there is nothing new" in the release of documents and that the charge of "Mitterrand's complicity in genocide" is contradicted by facts already brought to light by his earlier investigation of the matter.