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French Student Riots

Student riots in Paris remind us that education at elite academic institutions is not enough to teach either higher morals or basic economics. Not on their side of the Atlantic or on ours.

Why are students at the Sorbonne and other distinguished institutions out trashing the streets and attacking the police? Because they want privileges in the name of rights, and are too ignorant of economics to realize that those privileges cost them jobs.

Like some other European Union countries, France has laws making it hard to fire anybody. The political left has long believed that such laws are a way of reducing unemployment.

More important, they have long remained oblivious to the fact that countries with such laws, such as France and Germany, usually have higher unemployment rates than countries without such laws, such as the United States.

Belatedly, some French officials have begun to see that job security laws make it more risky and costly for an employer to hire inexperienced workers with no track record, whom they would have a hard time getting rid of if they don’t work out. The unemployment rate in France is 23 percent for workers who are 25 years old and younger.

To try to deal with this high unemployment rate among young workers, the job security laws have recently been modified to make it easier for employers to fire those workers who are on their first job.

That is what has French students outraged and rampaging through the streets of Paris. They don’t want employers to be able to fire them after they graduate and go to work.

Students and their political supporters, including labor unions, depict them as victims. Among the slogans chanted by the rioters is "We’re not young flesh for the boss." The fact that many bosses don’t seem to want to hire their young flesh seems to be lost on them.

A leftist deputy has declared: "To create discrimination based on age transgresses fundamental rights!"

In other words, people have a right for other people to have to continue employing them, whether those other people want to or not. The "fundamental right" to a job over-rides the rights of other people when they are called "bosses."

The fact that many students can think only in terms of "rights," but not in terms of consequences, shows a major deficiency in their education. The right to a job is obviously not the same thing as a job. Otherwise there would not be a 23 percent unemployment rate among young French workers.

The law can create equal rights for inexperienced young workers and for older workers with a proven track record but the law cannot make them equally productive on the job or equally risky to hire. Nor is rioting likely to make employers any more likely to want young workers working for them.

Estimates of the damage done by the rioters — called "protesters" or "demonstrators" in the mealy-mouthed media — range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to over a million dollars, thus far. They have also shut down dozens of universities, including the Sorbonne, denying an education to other students.

The heady notion of "rights" — and especially the notion that your rights over-ride other people’s rights, when those other people belong to some suspect class called "bosses" — is an all too familiar feature of modern welfare state notions.

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who supports the new labor law, has seen his approval rating drop to 36 percent. That is what happens when you try to talk sense to people who prefer to believe nonsense.

It is elementary economics that adding to the costs, including risks, of hiring workers tends to reduce the number of workers hired. It should not be news to anyone, whether or not they have gone to a university, that raising costs usually results in fewer transactions.

The fact that such profound ignorance of basic economics and such self-indulgent emotionalism should be prevalent at elite institutions of higher education is one of the many deep-seated failures of universities on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Written By

Dr. Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of "Applied Economics" and "Black Rednecks and White Liberals."

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