Why do people—or at least some people—not learn from experience? Because experience rarely teaches its lessons directly but instead requires interpretation through the filter of preconceived theories, prejudices, and desires. Where these are invincible, facts are weak things. Consider the French daily newspaper Libération, founded by Jean-Paul Sartre.
Libération has published several recent articles about hundreds of thousands of young Frenchmen decamping to Britain to seek employment. Britain’s relatively flexible labor market (a symptom of the economic liberalism that Libération abhors and that the British government is doing its best to destroy) makes it easier for them to find work in the U.K. than in their native country.
The latest article suggests that racial discrimination in employment in Britain is weaker than it is in France. It tells the stories of well-qualified young French people of African or North African origin who could not find work in France for several years, but on crossing the Channel immediately were able to find responsible positions in accord with their abilities and even to start businesses a little later. They all said that discrimination is less evident in Britain than in France. And, making the point from a slightly different perspective, research in France shows that it is twice as hard for a Frenchman with a Muslim name to find work as for an equivalently qualified Frenchman with a French name.
But are the British paragons of tolerance? I doubt it.
What, then, is the difference? According to Libération, it is that Britain boasts anti-discrimination laws and a bureaucratic apparatus to enforce them: in other words, minorities have it better in Britain than in France because the state—in this respect—is more active. Thus, a bigger state (and more taxes to pay for its expansion) is the answer to France’s problem.
This explanation is exactly wrong. It overlooks entirely the role (admittedly relative and on the decline) of economic freedom in Britain. Where employers must compete for labor, they dare not disregard ability and willingness to work, whatever private prejudices they might harbor. In dirigiste France, by contrast, the young need “piston”—connections with powerful people—to find work: and prejudice can find practical expression where grace and favor allocate employment opportunities.
Where an economy is open, prejudice is no bar to advancement. Where the regulation of a powerful central government grows excessive, the possibilities for social mobility shrink. But this lesson runs against the prejudices of Libération, and of the French intelligentsia generally. On the back page of the same edition of the newspaper, one found a eulogistic article consecrated to a radical young trade unionist who wants to defend the protections that the state extends to those already in work. The piece gave no hint that these protections might be other than beneficial to the country as a whole.