Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared at Forbes.com.
“I am leaving because you consider that success, creation, talent, anything different, must be punished.”
This quotation from French actor Gérard Depardieu comes from the letter he sent on December 16 to French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, explaining why he left France’s welfareship and settled in Belgium.
The actor was heavily criticized. The prime minister called him a “pathetic” character; the minister of labor, Michel Sapin, accused Depardieu of “personal degeneration;” the minister of culture, Aurélie Filippetti, was “totally scandalized;” the minister of relations with parliament, Alain Vitalies, was “shocked;” and the head of the Socialist Party, Harlem Désir, was “saddened.”
The words used by France’s socialists were carefully chosen. They were aimed at discrediting the actor’s fiscal choice.
In truth, however, it is the welfare government’s choices that are on display. Indeed, Depardieu’s case reveals the temptations of the welfare government to violate property rights, entrepreneurship, and freedom of movement. Consider each of these three temptations:
First, the temptation to violate property rights: “I paid $190 million in income taxes over 45 years,” stated Depardieu, pointing out that he is “leaving after paying, in 2012, an 85 percent tax-rate on my income tax.” This is the result of “redistribution,” i.e., the economic system financing French welfare aids and benefits.
The late French economist Frédéric Bastiat warned of such a system: “the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong.” France’s socialists today are assaulting the very notion of property. According to Bastiat, property is “the right that the worker has to the value that he has created by his labor,” therefore the income earned by work.
Depardieu was allowed to retain only 15 percent of his property.
Second, the temptation to violate entrepreneurship: Besides being an actor, Depardieu is an entrepreneur. He created and invested in restaurants, wine bars, vineyards. As he says, “80 people are working thanks to me, in companies that were created for them and are managed by them.” Depardieu invested money and created jobs. But when property is plundered, entrepreneurship is discouraged. Indeed, why take so many risks, work so long, and invest so much for the few peanuts that France’s welfare government deigns to leave in the entrepreneur’s bank account?
Furthermore, entrepreneurship and the free market are not understood by members of the French government: In addition to being socialists, all of them are civil servants or members of government-subsidized organizations. Subsidies and appointments have nothing in common with earning a living and being hired. That is another reason why the welfare government “elite” cannot understand businessmen.
Third, the temptation to violate freedom of movement: “I do not have to justify my choice,” states Depardieu. He is right. He settled in Belgium, and so what? He is still in the European Union. Since the treaty of Amsterdam was enforced in 1997, all citizens of the EU’s 27 member-states—the French, the Belgians, the Germans, the Italians, the Irish, etc.—are European citizens. They are so declared on all European passports. Furthermore, the union has been established to create a free-trade zone and allow citizens of any member-state to move freely and settle in other European countries as they wish. Up to now, France’s socialists seemed to heartily agree with this freedom, claiming that they were opposed to nationalism and promoting cosmopolitanism.
Yet, now the welfare government is suddenly condemning this freedom of movement—in Depardieu’s case. Why? Because this freedom could jeopardize the welfare government.
Indeed, what if more French taxpayers decided to leave and settle in Belgium, Ireland, in the United Kingdom, or simply leave Europe? It could be a financial blow to the welfare system. The minister of culture, Aurélie Filippetti, admitted as much when (speaking of Depardieu’s behavior) she declared that “French citizenship is an honor.” And she explained why: because it allows citizens “to pay taxes!”
Mired in welfareship, France’s government is hostile to individual sovereignty. The notion of an open society is accepted as long as it is not too open. That is why when Depardieu declared to the French prime minister, “I give you back my passport and my social security that I never used,” it was like treason. The welfare government could not accept this because, as Bastiat reminded us, “in fact, the state has no resources of its own. It has nothing, it possesses nothing that it does not take from the workers.” And in order to pay its six million civil servants (22 percent of the French workforce), to finance its public spending, to cover its public debt, France’s welfareship needs taxpayers to remain still and obedient.