Was Piketty right to turn down the Légion d'honneur?

The leading economist says 'bof' to the French government, which he believes should be focusing on growth not awards.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 19 Jan 2015

Thomas Piketty, the French economist who wrote 2014's influential tome Capital in the 21st Century, has snubbed the French government by rejecting the Légion d'honneur, which would have given him the supercool rank of chevalier, or knight.

'I refuse this nomination because I do not think it is the government's role to decide who is honourable,' the darling of the European left told the AFP news agency. 'They would do better to concentrate on reviving growth in France and Europe.' Aie aie aie.

Piketty's central thesis is that there's a fundamental tendency for inequality to increase, because r (the rate of return on capital) is greater than g (economic growth). This, he has argued, must be counteracted by state intervention, which explains why les socialistes are so keen on him.

Piketty, though, is no longer so keen on them, or at least the way François Hollande's administration has managed the atrophied French economy. The economist has been critical in the past of Hollande's failure to reform the tax code, and it looks as though the recent death of the 75% supertax has left him particularly unimpressed.

His criticism here was not about tax and equality, however, but growth, which in the case of France usually implies criticism of the country's over-regulated and uncompetitive labour market. Air Liquide boss Benoit Potier, for instance, recently told the FT that flexibility in the labour market was one of the biggest issues his firm faces.  

'The problem of France is to find the way to be more dynamic,' Potier said. 'Everything that can lead to the development of entrepreneurship in France should be a greater priority'.

Whether Piketty has suddenly started advocating Anglo-Saxon style market liberalisation or something less extreme, the entrenched resistance to market reform in France means his refusal to pick up an award is unlikely to make much difference. On the other hand, it does put him in exalted company, joining the ranks of French honours refusniks and intellectual powerhouses Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Satre, which will probably leave Piketty feeling pretty good about himself.

Read MT's review of Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century here.

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