Monday, March 20, 2006

Student riots in Paris remind us elite academic education is not enough to teach either higher morals or basic economics. Not on their side of the Atlantic or ours.

Why are students at the Sorbonne and other distinguished institutions out trashing the streets and attacking the police? Because they want privileges in the name of rights, and are too ignorant of economics to realize those privileges cost them jobs.

Like some other European Union countries, France has laws making it hard to fire anybody. The political left has long believed such laws help reduce unemployment.

More important, they have long remained oblivious that countries with such laws, such as France and Germany, usually have higher unemployment rates than countries without such laws, such as the United States.

Belatedly, some French officials have begun to see job security laws make it riskier and costlier for an employer to hire inexperienced workers with no track record, whom they would have a hard time getting rid of if they don’t work out. The unemployment rate in France is 23 percent for workers 25 years old and younger.

To try to deal with this high unemployment among young workers, the job security laws have recently been modified to make it easier for employers to fire workers on their first job.

That is what has French students outraged and rampaging through the streets of Paris. They don’t want employers to be able to fire them after they graduate and go to work.

Students and political supporters, including labor unions, depict them as victims. Among slogans chanted by rioters is “We’re not young flesh for the boss.” The fact many bosses don’t seem to want to hire their young flesh seems lost on them.

A leftist deputy has declared: “To create discrimination based on age transgresses fundamental rights.”

In other words, people have a right for other people to have to continue employing them, whether those other people want to or not. The “fundamental right” to a job overrides the rights of other people when they are called “bosses.”

The fact many students can think only in terms of “rights,” but not in terms of consequences, shows a major deficiency in their education. The right to a job is obviously not the same thing as a job. Otherwise there would not be a 23 percent unemployment rate among young French workers.

The law can create equal rights for inexperienced young workers and for older workers with a proven track record. But the law cannot make them equally productive on the job or equally risky to hire. Nor is rioting likely to make employers any more likely to want young workers working for them.

Estimates of damage done by the rioters — called “protesters” or “demonstrators” in the mealy-mouthed media — range from hundreds of thousands to more than a million dollars, thus far. They also shut down dozens of universities, including the Sorbonne, denying other students an education.

The heady notion of “rights” — especially that your rights override other people’s, when those others belong to some suspect class called “bosses” — is an all-too-familiar feature of modern welfare-state notions.

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who supports the new labor law, has seen his approval rating drop to 36 percent. That happens when you try talking sense to people who prefer to believe nonsense.

It is elementary economics that adding to the costs, including risks, of hiring workers tends to reduce the number of hires. It should not be news to anyone, whether or not they have gone to a university, that raising costs usually reduces transactions.

The fact such profound ignorance of basic economics and such self-indulgent emotionalism should be prevalent at elite institutions of higher education is one of the many deep-seated failures of universities on both sides of the Atlantic.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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