Sunday, April 16, 2017

Response to a Reader on Why I Do Not Support Mélenchon

Yesterday, a reader wrote:

You suggest "My two chief desiderata are to preserve both the European Union and the French welfare state."

But Mélenchon ​ does not seem to pose a threat to the welfare state, and his opposition to the EU​ is ​based on the body's neoliberal leanings, ​not unreasonably so.

Otherwise, ​you've not been specific about your concerns. What is it specifically about the man's positions that bothers you? Perhaps this should be in a blog post.
This reaction is typical of some quarters of the left, so let me answer briefly.

Mélenchon does pose a threat to the welfare state, because he believes that it is enough to make redistributive demands without proposing a plan to manage the economy so as to generate the revenue needed to meet them. This was what left-wing politicians often did propose before the 1930s, back when the state's role in managing the economy was minimal. This is no longer the case today. One cannot simply decree that pensions should be increased, working hours reduced, the legal retirement age lowered, taxes on households decreased, nuclear power eliminated, etc., without explaining how you expect the economy to respond and how you might manage any adverse consequences. Mélenchon has nothing to say on these matters.

I do not like the term "neoliberalism," however useful it may be as shorthand on occasion. But if you think that the EU suffers from "neoliberal leanings" that would justify leaving it, you have to explain what France will do once it is no longer a member. Capitalism is not going to disappear if France withdraws from the EU; the global market is not going to evaporate; competition from low-wage states is not going to vanish; and financial institutions are not going to be more inclined to lend to states that run deficits far larger than permitted under the EU's Stability and Growth Pact. Mélenchon seems to believe that if France withdraws, it will be free to stimulate its economy at will and devalue its currency until its products become competitive. This is identical to Marine Le Pen's position, and it is in my view dead wrong. France's borrowing costs will rise, as will its trade deficit. Consumers will feel the pinch as the prices of imported goods, especially food and fuel, rise. Remember what happened to the Mitterrand government between 1981 and 1983. Most Socialists do; Mélenchon left the party because he thought his comrades were cowards; if only they had had a little more revolutionary fervor in their hearts, he thinks, things would have turned out differently. He's wrong about that.

Mélenchon appears to believe that he can run the economy by fiat, as Chavez, whom he admires, did in Venezuela. But harsh realities cannot be overcome by mere defiance. Mélenchon is good at enacting defiance rhetorically. I wonder how he will respond when the popular anger turns on him, as it surely will if he comes to power and he fails to deliver on his unrealistic promises.

Finally, I believe that Mélenchon is right when he says that France has more power to affect the course of the EU than it has realized in recent years. But there is no chance of deflecting Europe toward a better equilibrium by confronting the Germans with non-negotiable demands, as Mélenchon intends to do, and by telling them that they are fools for not seeing the wisdom of the course Mélenchon proposes as an alternative. Opponents can be persuaded, but not by making empty threats. Mélenchon's stance toward the EU is like that of a child who threatens to hold his breath until his mother does what he wants. He will turn blue in the face, but eventually he will have to start breathing again, and his mother will still be standing there with her arms folded.