Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Vive la république "big"

Just for the record, I like big government.  Last year big government took my three-year-old off for finger painting and a crash course in social skills, with mixed results; this year big government made sure he learned to color and write his name, albeit with the S still written backwards.  Big government helps me pay my kids' nanny, and in fifteen years big government will cover my kids' college education.  Big government brought double-decker air-conditioned trains to my transit line.  Big government footed the hospital bill when I gave birth, twice.

At a time when it has become fashionable in the US to distrust government in all forms and consider "Socialist" the ultimate political insult, I want to publicly come out in favor of the nanny state.  Yes, if my family were living in the US, we could probably simply pay out of pocket for most of what the French government provides us through our tax money.  It would be harder to plan for, less certain, and contingent up on us having the same kind of lucrative employment we have here now.  But I still think we'd do fine.  We might even have more choices available in certain situations. That's not the point: it isn't about us, it's about all the other folks who aren't as privileged as we are.  I feel better knowing that when I pay my nanny's employment tax, she has access to health insurance and retirement benefits.  I feel better knowing that high-quality daycare is available to other families on a sliding scale.  Perhaps I delude myself into believing that social inequalities are attenuated more by this than they actually are.  Perhaps it keeps me from feeling guilty.  But I believe, I honestly do, that our society is a more just one as a result.

All this is not to say that it's perfect here, far from it.  I had lunch with a friend today who opened a tea room a year and a half ago.  She's having trouble breaking even even though she's generating plenty of business, simply because the economics of hiring enough staff to handle things just don't make sense.  VAT and high employment taxes make it very hard to survive in the restaurant business, she's discovered.  It's no wonder so many of the workers in the sector are paid au noir, or under the table, she observed.  

I don't have to look too far to see government waste, either: just out my window, for example, at the elaborate municipal flower beds.  We're in a global economic crisis and France, just like everyone else, is blindly spending well beyond its means.  The bloated, apathetic ranks of civil servants in some quarters here are legendary, and nearly impossible to reduce.  Any time change is proposed whichever interested constituency stands to lose something is out in the streets.  

Still, here in France we assume that government serves a purpose.  It isn't a negative, controlling force, trying to infiltrate our lives and deprive us of free choice.  It is for the people, after all these centuries, and finally by the people as well.

Perhaps we're just not intimidated by a short, balding, unassuming Socialist president who wants a little change for everyone, now.  Perhaps we know that, should we need them, there are always more cobblestones to tear up from the streets of Paris.  Perhaps after experiencing tyranny in so many forms, the French know a good thing when they see it.

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