Edward L. Glaeser

France and US: Vive la différence

An 1856 engraving of King Louis XVI being threatened by a mob on June 20, 1792. An 1856 engraving of King Louis XVI being threatened by a mob on June 20, 1792. (Istockphoto)
By Edward L. Glaeser
July 14, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

IN FRANCE, unlike in the United States, prevailing in the capital city has been enough to remake the whole country, and not just in terms of political power.

Two hundred twenty-two years ago today, Parisians stormed the Bastille - the citadel and prison in the heart of their city. While the American Revolution required years of fighting from the fields of Concord to the woods of the Carolinas, an upheaval in Paris alone ensured major shifts in power in France in 1789 - and again in 1830, 1848, and 1871.

The stark contrast between the French and American revolutions back then sheds light on differences in how the two nations have governed themselves ever since. It also holds a lesson for President Obama and others who have called for improvements in America’s human and physical infrastructure: The smart investments we need will require not just winning in Washington, but also a long, arduous ground war across America’s far-flung state legislatures.

Before Louis XVI’s dismissal of his finance minister conjured a mob in Paris in 1789, France had been centralizing for hundreds of years. Political institutions reflect the trade-off between dictatorship and disorder; the greater the disorder in a country, the greater the appeal of a strong man on horseback. In all of the last 10 centuries, major wars have bloodied French soil, and the French have sought protection from powerful centralizers from Philip Augustus to Henry IV to Napoleon. As late as 1958, France produced a new constitution, with an empowered chief executive, Charles de Gaulle, to safeguard against a dangerous military coup.

America’s geographic isolation has meant that we never needed a Napoleon to organize us against the angry armies of a hostile continent. Down to the Tea Partying present, many Americans understandably see far more harm than good in a strong central government. Yet while America’s relative safety allowed us the luxury of a national political system well-designed to protect our freedoms, that system is poorly structured to greatly improve public services.

Washington has been less able than Paris to push through more beneficial nationwide reforms. In the late 19th century, France, humiliated by the Prussian Army in the 1870s, sought a stronger, better educated nation. Concurrently, a vast public works program, led by the technocratic public-works minister Charles de Freycinet, invested in the ports, roads, and railroads that connected France.

For Americans who crave radically better schools and public infrastructure, it’s tempting to wish for our own Freycinet - a forceful, superbly trained engineer who could be trusted to invest federal dollars wisely in America’s needs. But those Gallic-inspired dreams ignore the nature and strengths of our country.

Americans can take pride in the fact that our political system has survived, more or less, benign and intact, since 1789, while France experienced Robespierre’s terror, two Napoleonic Empires, and a Bourbon return. During the post-war world, our decentralized, constrained government has avoided major policy mistakes like large-scale industrial nationalization and over-regulating labor markets.

As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, we had widespread public schooling far earlier than France, not because of any Washington bureaucrat, but because of the independent actions of towns and states. The greatest piece of 19th century American infrastructure - the Erie Canal - was the handiwork of New York Governor DeWitt Clinton.

Our federalist structure remains; our states oversee education and infrastructure. National attempts to invest in roads and rail must follow congressional formulas designed to spread spending rather than enhance efficiency. When presidents want to improve schooling, they must work around the edges by creating incentives for better measurement and reform.

Bastille Day inevitably reminds us of democratic ideals that resonate across national borders, but it should also remind us of how different we are from France. The French - today as in 1789 - can turn to Paris to remake their nation. But Washington lacks the tools to make America stronger with targeted, wise investments in schooling and infrastructure. For better or worse, we must look locally and ask more from our states.

Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University, is director of the Rappaport Institute of Greater Boston. His column appears regularly in the Globe.