History

Grand Mal

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Those upset that the era of big government is over in America can always look to France. In October, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin dusted off this central-planning chestnut: He announced a plan to shorten the French workweek to 35 hours from its current 39, with workers receiving the same weekly pay. The plan is designed to take effect by 2000 and is intended to create jobs and lessen France's longstanding unemployment problems, which are among the worst in Western Europe.

Spread-the-work schemes have a long history (in Elizabethan England, laborers could be jailed for doing too much work) and remain an article of faith with union bosses and left-of-center intellectuals. Their enduring popularity, however, is at almost perfect variance with their success. Forcing firms to pay workers more than what they're worth may help some workers in the short run, notes Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University. "But France's share-the-work law will make the prospects for long-term employment growth even more dismal than they already are. This law will be yet another reason why so few companies want to be employers in France."