November 8, 2011
To My French Friend:
It was good to talk to you again, Jean-Luc, and to hear that you still have not given up. You may be right that this is only because your stubbornness exceeds your good sense. But I find it admirable that, against all odds, you keep trying to start a business in France.
Your perseverance is admirable in itself but even more admirable is the great good you will do, if you succeed. New businesses create new jobs—all the new jobs between 1980 and 2005, according to one report I read recently—and that is what we need if unemployment rates are to fall in France, as well as the United States.
It is disheartening to hear about the negative attitudes in France toward someone starting a business on his own. But I have to admit it is not surprising. I think of France as a country where the state, in the name of the people, has played a large role in the economy and has actually owned, at least in part, many large firms. This would almost make it a Frenchman’s duty to work for one of those government directed large firms. A strange duty, it seems to me.
But what you describe suggests an attitude more troubling still. It is as if your fellow citizens resent or even find immoral someone breaking free to follow his ideas and ambition. If that is the prevailing view there, no wonder laws and regulations in France make it so difficult for someone to exercise what James Madison called our “unequal faculties for acquiring property.”
We have had a different attitude in the United States. We admire Bill Gates or Steve Jobs—college dropouts—who from almost nothing built vast personal fortunes but also wealth for many others, including the thousands employed in companies they created.
I hope we don’t lose our admiration for those who help others like this, but I fear we might. Perhaps you have heard about the recent finding that over the past couple of decades the income of the very wealthiest Americans grew many times more than the wealth of the poorest Americans. This report on growing income inequality has caused some comment, as you can imagine, for Americans value equality as do the French.
Two things have struck me in these comments. First, none of the comments I have seen noted that the income of the poorest Americans increased by 18 per cent during the period covered by the report. Even the poorest Americans, then, got wealthier, although their wealth did not increase as fast as did that of the wealthiest. Indeed, the report shows that American households experienced an average increase of 62 per cent in their wealth.
Such an increase in wealth should be a cause for congratulation. But the attitude revealed in some comments about the report has been different and worrying. It was something like what you have experienced in France. One columnist wrote that the difference in the increase in wealth between the poorest and wealthiest amounted to the wealthiest stealing from the poorest. Even a business magazine echoed this attitude when it wrote that the wealthiest made out like bandits.
How could the difference in income be the result of theft? The only way this makes sense is if we think that somehow originally, we all had the same wealth and that wealth does not increase. Thus, if I end up with more, it must be that I stole yours. This would be one way to understand the equality that Frenchmen and Americans value, but it has not been the way we Americans have traditionally thought about equality.
If Americans have thought that we all started equally, it was in equal poverty and with an equal chance to escape it. Thus, we have not resented but admired a Benjamin Franklin arriving in Philadelphia from Boston almost penniless and building a prosperous life for himself and his family, giving work to others in the businesses he created, benefiting the citizens of Philadelphia with his many public projects and his public service—made possible by his wealth—and benefiting all of mankind with his example and his inventions. Above all, we have admired and honored Lincoln, hard-working and self-taught, struggling to rise from the poverty into which he was born, becoming a successful lawyer and then our greatest president, benefiting his fellow Americans beyond all others.
I hope that Americans don’t lose this understanding of equality and that they continue to admire those that strive. I hope Frenchmen come to share this view and that they and Americans vote to create the circumstances in which you and people like you can prosper. And I hope you persevere, my friend, and that you become as great a benefactor to your citizens and all mankind as those I have mentioned.