Interview with Henri Lepage

He's a French journalist who was puzzled by the riots in France in '68 and went on to author an international bestseller on free-market economic thought. He tells REASON why and how he sought an alternative to socialism.


France is a country where well-read people become Marxists almost automatically, a country where the Communist Party has been one of the most powerful political parties, a country which experienced the traumatic "events" of May 1968, and the country where Francois Mitterrand swept to power last year, with a pro-Western foreign policy but a domestic policy hardly less statist than the Communists'.

Amid this apparent headlong rush to the Gulag, something astounding occurred in 1978. A book appeared by a Frenchman, arguing loud and clear for a free market and a libertarian society. Bizarre? Futile? Senseless? The book became an overnight bestseller. Suddenly the press was full of reports on the book, interviews with its author, and discussions of the issues it raised. It made free-market liberalism—"neoliberalism" in France—a force to be reckoned with in the country's politics.

The book was translated into six European languages, became a bestseller in Sweden, and had respectable sales everywhere. The book was Demain le capitalisme (Tomorrow, Capitalism); its author, Henri Lepage, an economic journalist (and one of REASON's foreign correspondents).

The key to the book's success was that it presented recent developments in American economics as a unified whole that could be fascinating and exciting to ordinary noneconomists if described simply, clearly, and accurately. Now it has had to be translated into English to provide us with the only readable summary of these developments. As with Alexis de Tocqueville, it has required a Frenchman to interpret what is going on in America and make it understandable to Americans.

While touring the United States to promote Tomorrow, Capitalism (Open Court), Lepage was interviewed for REASON by Leonard Liggio and David Ramsay Steele.

REASON: You have done more than anyone else to popularize free-market ideas on the European continent. How did you discover these ideas?

LEPAGE: It started with the "May events" of 1968. I remember that I had filled up the tank of my car the day before the general strike began, so I was one of the few people in Paris still to have a car running three weeks later. I was a journalist, and we found we could not get the paper out, so we produced a single-page newsletter to circulate among friends. We did most of it by phone, calling people to try to find out what was going on. I got talking to a guy who asked me if I would like to come to a meeting, almost a secret meeting. I went there, almost slinking along the walls, like in the Resistance, and we were in fact meeting to discuss resistance. There I met a guy who said something which gave me the first inkling that economic theory could be a formidable way of arguing, a tremendously efficient tool, and a weapon for fighting the Marxist machine.

REASON: So you were opposed to the May events from the start?

LEPAGE: I did not know what to make of them. I was stunned. I felt helpless, completely helpless. I disliked some of the revolutionaries' ideas and sympathized with others. I was raised in a very Gaullist family. My father was a member of the Gaullist party. I was antisocialist and anticommunist, but the free market meant nothing to me. My ideas were formed during the high tide of French planning, and I identified capitalism with a mixed economy, an administered economy. You see, the whole problem which I discovered in '68 was the terrific efficiency of Marxist ideas. I was a well-informed journalist. I had studied economics. And here were these guys, these leftists, who were able to speak out, and I had nothing to oppose them. I was unable to answer them. Since that time, the main thing, deep in my mind, was to find something, some kind of counter-dialectics. I was dreaming of being at least able to argue with them, to fight them at their own level.

REASON: What happened after the May events?

LEPAGE: I worked for a pro-business newspaper. We were supposed to be defending free enterprise—I am not saying the free market; I am saying free enterprise. There again I was always disappointed in the kind of argument that we used, because I found it useless when we were dealing with people on the left. I had many discussions with people on the left, and I knew that the sort of arguments we were using were quite hopeless against them. And then—it's very strange—I learned about Chicago economics from one of these guys.

REASON: You mean from one of the leftists?

LEPAGE: Yes, through a guy whose name is Serge-Christophe Kolm. He was responsible for my writing Tomorrow, Capitalism. He was and still is a very far left guy, but very bright, and he had studied at Stanford. He had the idea of economics—not the way economics is taught in France, which is simply not a scientific discipline. He introduced me to Chicago economics and to monetarism, though he is not a monetarist. You see, I was still looking for something like the leftists had: you know, when a guy has something in his mind, something strong, an efficient theory, a background. When you have that staunch kind of reasoning, you can argue. You have a line.

REASON: So you had found what you were looking for?

LEPAGE: Well, Kolm introduced me to monetarism and Milton Friedman. Then came the final step in the whole evolution in my thinking. You see, it was very gradual; it took 10 years. The final step was when I entered the Institut de l'Entreprise in '76, two years before the election of '78. Everyone thought the Socialists might win in '78. No one thought they would win in '81. We were given the task of fighting the proposed nationalizations. A big dossier was compiled for arguing against nationalization. I was not part of it—other people did it, and I was afraid of what they did. It was all the same type of mild ideas, you know, traditional values. There was nothing new, only the same words that had been used for 40 years without effect. I asked myself what economics had to say about nationalization. At that time the arguments for nationalization in France were closely connected with the self-management ideology.

REASON: You mean labor-management, or industrial democracy.

LEPAGE: Yes. That was the high time of the self-management idea in France. In my reading on the economics of self-management, I came across the first traces of the property rights thing, the new economic analysis of property rights by people like Evsey Domar and Harold Demsetz. I was excited, because here was something really effective against the self-management ideology, something logical, something scientific. I followed up footnotes, going to all the referred articles. I had a collection of the American Economic Review and the Journal of Political Economy going back 10 years, and I had never opened them. I never suspected the revolution in economics. Now I went to the JPE. I discovered James Buchanan; I discovered Gordon Tullock—all the work on public choice theory being done at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute. I pulled the string, and everything came. So then I went to the United States to find out more.

REASON: Why come to the States?

LEPAGE: I knew the names of these guys. I wanted to see them. But I already had the idea of tying everything together, because when I read all these articles I got the impression of unity. All these people wrote on different branches of economics, and they were all scattered in different universities, but when I looked through their curriculum vitae I discovered they were all connected to Chicago. So I came to verify this intuition that there was a unity. And it was at this time that I discovered libertarianism. A friend of mine, Armand Braun, was at the time the only person in France who had a subscription to REASON. When I read REASON, I found it was very closely connected to these writers. Everything came together at the same time. I really found an articulated scheme of mind, strong enough to sustain a discussion with the left and even to be stronger than them. I found what I was looking for—something stronger, more efficient than Marxism.

REASON: When you met all these American free-market writers, did anything special strike you about them as people? Not their ideas, their personalities…

LEPAGE: Only meeting with Murray Rothbard. That was something unique, unforgettable. I met Rothbard right at the beginning of my trip, and it was in Rothbard's apartment that I first heard the name of Bastiat.


LEPAGE: The first time I ever heard the name Frédéric Bastiat was in Rothbard's apartment in New York. Bastiat has been completely unknown in France for many years. Not one of his writings has been in print. We are now trying to revive interest in Bastiat, Molinari, and other French economists in the classical tradition.

REASON: So we have to thank the May events for Tomorrow, Capitalism. These events were spectacular at the time. What has been their long-term impact?

LEPAGE: Their long-term impact has been far more important than their short-term impact: '68 explains '81.

REASON: You mean the election of Mitterrand?

LEPAGE: Yes. After '68, France started building universities everywhere. Between '68 and '75 the number of students almost doubled. This was a very rapid rate of expansion, the highest in Europe. Who could they hire as professors? The people hired as professors had been on the barricades. The universities turn out more professors; they turn out high school teachers. In 10 years you have a complete Marxist takeover of the whole university system and even of secondary schooling.

REASON: But the people who led the May events, people like Daniel Cohn-Bendit, declared themselves to be anti-Marxist. In many ways it was an attempted revolution in defiance of Marxism.

LEPAGE: Well, it was against the Communist Party but not really anti-Marxist. They could not avoid thinking in Marxist terms even when they thought they were anti-Marxist. Even the Nouveaux Philosophes ("new philosophers"), for example, who are very anticommunist and believe that they are anti-Marxist, were brought up Marxist. These guys don't know anything about economics, but they cannot help looking at society through Marxist spectacles. What has overwhelmed French society is that people are thinking in sociological terms, and sociology is saturated with Marxism. There is a difference between Marxist dogma and vulgar Marxism. The dominant culture of France today is vulgar Marxism. For example: Galbraith. Galbraith would not be recognized by the Marxists as one of them, but he shares the vulgar Marxist way of thinking.

REASON: Like his TV series, you mean, where he showed the mansions of the rich, saying it took 18 chefs.…

LEPAGE: That's right. It is nonanalytical, impressionistic. A few images, a few prejudices. But this is the interesting thing. People think they are just looking at facts, picking up impressions. They think that they don't hold with any dogma. But anyhow, they have a dogma in their mind. People do not know the doctrines that guide their thinking. They are slaves of some kind of theory that they are not aware of. What I am trying to do in France, on the side of neoliberalism [that is, classical liberal, or individualist, in contrast to the American "neoliberalism" of such people as economist Lester Thurow and Sen. Gary Hart], is to try to make people who think they are liberal know exactly what it means to be liberal. Many people think they are liberals, but they are slaves in their thinking to the mixed-economy syndrome, which leads to the opposite of liberalism.

REASON: You mentioned the Nouveaux Philosophes. What do you think their impact has been?

LEPAGE: Andre Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Levy published books in '77. For the first time we have two guys who had been Maoists, revolutionaries, who said bluntly that there was a basic flaw in Marxism, that Marxism led necessarily to the Gulag. The media, right and left, gave them plenty of publicity. The interest in them was amplified by the election of '78. So, it was a fashion supported by the political situation at the time. Now you will find many people saying it was just …

REASON: A flash in the pan?

LEPAGE: A flash in the pan, yes. But I think it's more serious than that. In the '50s there was the existentialism of Sartre and Camus—the ego was in the center of philosophy. In the '60s there was a complete reversal. The '60s was the age of structuralism, which means that the ego was completely taken out of philosophy. Structuralism is allied with Marxism: you are slaves of your own language; the individual doesn't exist; whatever you do is predetermined by the structures of your language. Structuralism was a huge success in philosophy, anthropology, politics—everywhere. The New Philosophers are a revolt against structuralism but also a necessary outcome of structuralism. Once you start to think that language dominates everything, you start questioning your own masters. So these guys pushed the logic of structuralism to its conclusion: everything is language; there is no truth; so what is it worth, the truth that my masters are teaching? It is interesting that here we find, as with Marcuse and all the Frankfurt School, a denial of knowledge. Usually revolution is done on behalf of a supreme knowledge, but here you have revolutionaries separating revolution from philosophy of knowledge. That is interesting.

The second interesting point is that by saying there is no such thing as knowledge, they refute all philosophies of progress. They begin to put socialism and liberalism on the same footing, saying that socialism and liberalism are the fruit of the same type of rationalistic society. You see, they start out by being anticapitalist and antitruth; then they start to extend their skepticism about truth to socialism.

So this is the trend everywhere in France. Socialism, liberalism—they are all ideologies. We reject all ideologies. What remains? Nothing? God has been dead for a long time. So how do we escape? Well, by getting involved in the fight for human rights. It is human rights which is taking the place of any other kind of ideology. But what is this idea of human rights? It is the rediscovery of the idea that a society exists for the well-being of individuals, which is a very bourgeois type of thing. Okay? So, this is my own interpretation: the Nouveaux Philosophes are rediscovering the basic principles of liberalism.

REASON: Are they aware of this?

LEPAGE: No, they are not. But you can see it quite clearly in Levy's latest book, Le Testament de Dieu. He is defending Jewish monotheism, but his defense is really the rediscovery that there can be no such thing as a human being or human society without a transcendent moral framework. Levy writes that when you look at history you find that bourgeois society and bourgeois law are the only ones in history able to defend individual freedom. And now when they interview Glucksmann, he has very harsh words against the present Socialist regime. In his recent writings he is campaigning against the guilt complex of the West, the idea that Westerners are guilty of everything.

REASON: Could they become neoliberals, or libertarians?

LEPAGE: It's too bad that they don't know a word of economics. They don't know F.A. Hayek. They don't know us. They don't care about knowing us. I'm sure that if we had the possibility of arguing together we could come onto common ground, but there is not much chance of that. They are very…proud of themselves.

REASON: As you describe these intellectual developments in France, I can't help visualizing scenes from French movies like Claire's Knee or My Night at Maude's, where the discussion of Pascal goes on at great length. What you say was the American view of French intellectuals, intensely discussing these issues at great length…

LEPAGE: I don't like French philosophy. It's a literary exercise, not a rational exercise. You see, I can read Robert Nozick [Anarchy, State, and Utopia] because Nozick is an exercise in rationality. But if you read the Nouveaux Philosophes you must know everything about Hegel, everything about Aristotle. The vocabulary is so specialized. I am discovering philosophy, and when I write, I write more and more about philosophy, but I have gotten into it through American libertarianism. At school I never could grasp what philosophy was about. This is one of the things that impresses me about libertarian writing.

REASON: Its readability.

LEPAGE: Yes, for me. It's an exercise in rationality, and it's written clearly.

REASON: Let me ask you about the current political situation in France. I was visiting France in 1955, and I met Pierre Poujade, the antitax militant. In the new government at that time, Mitterrand was justice minister. He immediately violated the law and expelled about half the Poujadist deputies by invalidating their election. The next thing I remember about Mitterrand is that in the early '60s he went to China several times and came back to say how much the West had to learn from Maoism. Now, as you said, in '78 everyone thought the Socialists might win, but we did not expect it in 1981. Why was Mitterrand victorious in 1981?

LEPAGE: First, Mitterrand's victory was due to a shift of 0.4 percent of the electorate. Then, there was the rift between Giscard and Chirac, leader of the Gaullist party. Gaullists would not vote for Giscard. Then, there was the economic situation. What happened was against the public choice theory: we had a prime minister, Barre, who refused to engineer an upturn by reflating before the election. So unemployment was at its height during the election. It was the bottom of the business cycle; things could only go up afterwards. Then there was the intellectual takeover by the Marxists. This complete takeover took only 10 years. Giscard's government kept on managing the economy and did not know what was going on intellectually. They tried to look after the market, but they forgot the market for ideas. But the Marxists knew the importance of the market for ideas. They had read Gramsci.

REASON: Could you explain that?

LEPAGE: Well, I am no expert on Gramsci. He was an Italian Marxist who had a theory of the role played by intellectuals in society. In practical terms, it means that if you want political power you have to convert the intellectuals, because they exercise what Gramsci called a "hegemony" over the society.

REASON: Rather like F.A. Hayek's view of intellectuals.

LEPAGE: In practical terms, yes.

REASON: And how did this operate in France?

LEPAGE: The Marxists who were hired as professors during the rapid expansion of the universities were all under 40. They will be in control for another 40 years. If you control education, you have a great influence on the media. If you are a journalist, you must be able to write rapidly on any kind of topic. How can you do it? Only by having a pile of documents, reports, and that kind of thing. You pull some documents off the pile, and what do you find? You have 10 documents, and 7 or 8 of them are Marxist in style, maybe 2 of them by neoclassical researchers. So the media are borne along on the intellectual wave. I only give this as one illustration. The intellectuals exert a continuous pressure on the thinking of the mass of people.

REASON: So what can be done about this now?

LEPAGE: We have to take the offensive in the market for ideas. And we are able to do it in France because we have efficient tools. Our tools are more efficient than Marxism. In fact, they are more Marxist than Marxism.

REASON: What do you mean by that?

LEPAGE: If you are speaking to people who were brought up Marxist but are dissatisfied with Marxism, like most thinking people in France, and you bring them the public-choice economics, Hayek, and the economics of property rights, they have no difficulty in understanding it. You don't set out to convert them, merely to get them into the intellectual game of understanding social institutions. They take to it immediately. It's easier to deal with these guys than with the traditional liberals, for whom liberalism is a system of values, a kind of religion which they adhere to without understanding why. I would even say that Marxism was a scientific advance compared to classical and Marshallian economics, because it dealt with issues which they increasingly ignored.

REASON: What kind of issues?

LEPAGE: Social institutions—Marxism tried to explain social institutions.

REASON: But Marx was following liberal predecessors.

LEPAGE: Yes, but then mainstream economics was refined into something very technical. Marshallian economics was a regression in the history of ideas. We left the Marxists with the monopoly of explaining social institutions.

REASON: By default.

LEPAGE: By default, yes. The liberals handcuffed themselves. They forgot that the results of the invisible hand can come through only in a certain setting of property rights. The institutional setting was taken as a datum. And Marxism kept alive the tradition of political economics. But now we have something, a superior paradigm, to analyze social institutions, and we can start to fight the Marxists on their own ground.

REASON: And what success are you having now?

LEPAGE: We have reached the stage where they have to acknowledge the existence of our ideas. A few years ago they would not acknowledge the existence of free-market liberalism or even neoclassical economics. That was just…scrap. Now they know there is something there. They respect its strength. They know they have to deal with it. And that's very important. It's the first stage. I can also report that some of the Marxists are using our tools. The Marxists are of course very concerned with problems of bureaucracy. So now we have some very far left guys doing research projects on bureaucracy using the approach of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and public choice theory. I don't care. I welcome it. And I believe that there is more of a market for our ideas on the left than on the right.

REASON: But although you say that the market lies on the left, you seem to identify yourself with Giscard's party.

LEPAGE: By opposing Giscard fully, we would have been, in effect, voting for Mitterrand. Between two bads, I still prefer Giscard d'Estaing to Mitterrand. Giscard is not a true liberal, more of a social democrat. Barre was better.

REASON: So you work mainly within the Giscardian party?

LEPAGE: The French electoral system is more or less closed to any new small party. There is a small group of young politicians within the Giscard party who have taken up a number of neoliberal ideas. Now that they are in opposition they are saying things they could not say when they were in the majority.

REASON: What sort of things?

LEPAGE: They have attacked the state monopoly of broadcasting, for example, and demanded free radio. We tried to push this before the election, but the people around Giscard were not happy with it.

REASON: But Giscard's party has the most people who sympathize with the free market to some extent?

LEPAGE: Yes. There are a few people in the Gaullist party, but that is more a traditional right. They accept state economic planning, that sort of thing.

REASON: After the election of 1978 the Giscardian party seemed to decide that they needed some sort of ideology.

LEPAGE: Yes, but you don't devise an ideology overnight. Politicians have to rely on what exists. So there is a danger that the Giscard party will be influenced by the French New Right. Some time ago, the New Right started imitating the Gramscian strategy of the left. They have taken over the leftist strategy of organizing a number of study groups, intellectual circles, which are all independent, fitted for certain segments of the population. For example, the Club de l'Horloge attracts the public service. And you find all the threads from these circles coming back to one controlling centre. If you look at their ideas, they are defending capitalism, defending private corporations, defending entrepreneurs as the aristocratic elite of modern times. But when you read on, they are saying that the market is all right as long as there is strong state planning. They defend autarky, national self-sufficiency, and write about liberalism as the decadence of the Western world. They advocate the idea of society as an organic scheme. You have the heart, the brain, that kind of thing. It's a holistic view of society. Now if you translate all this into Italian or Spanish, and say to an Italian or a Spaniard, "What is it, an organic society?" they will know at once exactly what it means.

REASON: Fascism.

LEPAGE: That is it. The big problem for us is that these guys are presenting themselves as defending capitalism, and we are all fighting the same enemy, socialism. So everybody flocks to them.

REASON: But why are they so successful?

LEPAGE: They formed their organizations as early as 1969. Now they have an instrument. They have the organization. They have access to the media. They have their own publications. And it's very dangerous, because people don't spot what they are. They try to amalgamate all the antisocialist forces, with them as the vanguard. They are trying to trap us. And they are getting influence. One of the main advisors of Chirac is one of them. Chirac doesn't know it, but there is already a considerable influence of the New Right on the Gaullist party.

REASON: Finally, what are the prospects for the French Communist Party? The impression we get from outside France is that its decline is inevitable.

LEPAGE: That is very optimistic. The Communists now hold four major ministerial positions in the government, including transportation. They are in a position to immobilize the country. As people become disenchanted with Mitterrand, the Communists will be tempted to leave the government. Because of the possibility that they might leave, Mitterrand will make more and more concessions to them. Mitterrand believes he can neutralize the Communists, but he may become their hostage. Many people think the evolution of French politics must now be toward the center, but I foresee a radicalization and a polarization.