Earlier this morning, while I was doing my cardio at the gym, I glanced up at one of the TV monitors around the room. It was tuned to Fox News where the presenters were discussing the recent riots that have torn apart the streets of Paris. As I read the closed captioning text the guest on the morning show Fox and Friends noted that the riots were sparked by an arbitrary increase in the fuel tax and that the French were tired of high taxes. He implied that if the Democrats try to impose higher taxes, Americans will have a reaction similar to the French.
I don’t usually watch much TV while I am doing my cardio. I get some of my best ideas while I am in my cardio zone. But I was doing my interval training today and it is difficult to maintain my pace if I am thinking deeply so I looked up at the TV. I could not watch the entire interview but think I got the gist of it (I could not find a video clip to confirm my impression).
But the problems in France go beyond taxes. Even though France is the most highly taxed country in Europe (and likely the world) most French citizens seem content with the services they receive from government in exchange for taxes. The problem lies in the back country villages where most of the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protesters come from.
The Wall Street Journal did a more in-depth study (Paris Riots Reveal Disillusion and Despair in the French Hinterlands, December 9, 2018) including several interviews of protesters from the village of Montluçon about 175 miles south of Paris. One was a small shop owner who had to rely on welfare payments because payroll taxes and other expenses left no money to pay herself a salary. Another was a pizza shop owner who lost his business to chain pizza companies like Dominos and frozen pizza from the supermarket.
Montluçon is a working-class town of around 38 thousand people but the population has been declining for decades from a high of 58 thousand in 1968. Employment at local factories has declined as businesses have cut their workforce to remain competitive or closed down altogether.
The story of Montluçon and its people sounds very similar to the stories of many towns in rural America that we call “flyover country”. And the anger of the gilets jaunes is very similar to the anger driving the Trump base who lament the end of the American culture of the mid-twentieth century and fear the rise of a new culture they don’t understand and cannot adapt to.
The problem of the French hinterlands and rural America is that democratically elected politicians do not lead a change in a nation's culture they react to a change of that culture. They are powerless in the face of changing demographics and new technologies. They react, as elitist French President Emmanuel Macron did, by creating government provided welfare benefits aimed to dull the senses of the protesters without ameliorating the underlying problem.
Most people break down the population into lower, middle and upper classes based on income. I prefer to classify the population based on their mindset into dependent, managerial and leadership classes. A relentlessly growing proportion of our modern populations in Europe and America belong to the dependent class. They are dependent on others not only for their livelihoods but also for meaning in their lives. The managerial class has greater control over their fate and the leadership class or elite control their own destiny and that of many others.
The modern welfare state as we know it was created by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck as a sop to a German population disturbed by rising industrialization and to assure that there would be contented workers for German factories and able soldiers for German armies. Factories and armies in the nineteenth century needed workers and soldiers to do the work and the fighting – a need that continued into the twentieth century. But as Yuval Noah Harari noted in his latest book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, highly automated factories need fewer workers and cyber warfare and drone technology means we need less soldiers.
The masses in the dependent class are becoming, not only more dependent, they are becoming irrelevant. The big employer in the French village of Montluçon was the tire factory that employed thousands of the people in the village. But now the factory only employs 750 people and the multinational that owns the factory recently announced that the workforce would be reduced by another 88 people in order to remain competitive with their highly automated competitors. Some experts proclaim that artificial intelligence and robotics will displace about half of human workers by 2025.
Welfare payments allow the dependent class to survive but do not give their lives any meaning. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave a commencement speech at Harvard where he recommended a universal basic income so that everyone would be given “the freedom to pursue purpose”. More likely they would be given the freedom to pursue opiates. Meaning in life does not come from universal basic income. One of the wealthiest people on the planet, Zuckerberg works a self-imposed 60-hour work week that would violate most labor laws if done by other workers. And Bill Gates works as hard in retirement giving away all of his money as he did earning it. Their lives have meaning.
Progressives, civil rights leaders, leftist activists and community organizers of all stripes are dedicated to convincing poor people, generally, and minorities, specifically, that they must demand more and more benefits paid for by the unjustifiably wealthy elites. All that hard work gives meaning to the lives of the progressives, civil rights leaders, leftist activists and community organizers but it gives little meaning to the supposed beneficiaries. Progressives believe that they are the ones reshaping American culture but what they are actually doing is enfeebling our ability to adapt to the truly transformational changes that will soon beset us.
The future that we humans face is uncertain, but it looks especially grim for the dependent class. Automation and robotics have the potential to eliminate much of the physical labor once done by humans that was the mainstay of blue-collar workers in twentieth century while artificial intelligence will endanger even workers with higher degrees. Dependent people stuck in a pre-cybernetic mindset are doomed to irrelevance.
The only hope for the dependent class is to change their current condition and learn the new skills that will be relevant in the twenty-first century. Progress does not stop and right now it is accelerating. After the discovery voyages of Chinese Admiral Zheng He in the early 1400s China turned its back on new discoveries and progress only to be surpassed by modernizing European countries and occupied by their armies.
No, we cannot stuff progress back into Pandora’s box. But even though the home-based piece workers were replaced by mechanized textile mills at the beginning of the industrial revolution, the lives of the people generally, even those being replaced by mechanization, were better. With every advancement old jobs are destroyed and the workers unemployed, but new jobs appear to meet the demands of progress. The gilets jaunes are the Luddites of the twenty-first century.
The transformational changes in the twenty-first century will eliminate many jobs that are based on outdated technology and there is nothing President Macron or President Trump can do about that. The skills needed to survive in the twenty-first century and to take advantage of emerging technologies will not be easy to acquire. People in the dependent class needs to shake off their dependency and reassert their independence.
People need to shake off their dependence on welfare benefits and the maladies it breeds - children out of wedlock, single parent families and substandard education - that only guarantee their continued dependence on welfare benefits. We need to teach our children the skills needed to survive in the twenty-first without resorting to welfare. We need to retrain adults in the dependent class to learn those skills as well. And government needs to develop a plan to dismantle this welfare monstrosity and to wean dependent Americans off the welfare benefits that they need to live but that have destroyed their lives. The primary goal of welfare benefits should be to get people off welfare benefits.
And while we’re at it:
It wasn’t meant to be this way. When America was created the role of the government was purposefully limited. Not only was it impossible for the new government in Washington to rule directly over the vast North American continent, the Constitution limits governmental power so that the people can have the greatest extent of liberty possible. The people were intended to be in charge of their own lives (of course we have to ignore the blot of slavery on this vision, if only temporarily). The vast majority of the free population were farmers with their own plot of land cut from the wilderness. Many of the people in the small towns dotting the nation were artisans or merchants running their own business. There were no large corporations. Some people would become apprentices to artisans or craftsmen (as Benjamin Franklin did) before moving on to create their own businesses.
Government services were minimal and each person had to look out for himself and his family. Small communities would come together to create schools and orphanages as needed. Sometimes charitable organizations or local churches would build a hospital or clinic. The concept of accepting charity was alien and shameful to hard-working Americans.
The frontiersmen that ventured out of the Atlantic bound colonies and into the wilds of Tennessee and Kentucky didn’t have a safety net. The trappers that ventured across the Mississippi and into the Rockies didn’t have safety net. The farming families that built little houses on the prairies of the West didn’t have safety nets. These are the kind of people that made America great.
We will face great challenges in the twenty-first century. But in our oath to America we pledge to support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Only independent people have the strength to make that pledge.