La gauche, la droite et le marché, David SPECTOR

David Spector

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In this post-electoral period where certain traditional cleavages in the French political landscape seem to be called into question, reading David Spector’s book can provide some keys to assess whether such a perspective can be part of a certain realism, even relative, or whether it is wishful thinking. Among these keys is the idea of the market, which the author immediately describes as "controversial" and whose ambition is to present its history from the 19th century to the present day. And as far as France is concerned, this history can be summed up by "an almost continuous mistrust (...) of competition, both internally - which refers to the way in which relations between producers within the national space, industrial concentration and cartels - and externally - which refers to debates on trade policy" (page 21).

To support this observation, David Spector begins the first part of the book by putting the debate in a comparative perspective, looking at the links between market, inequality and political economy in the English-speaking world. We (re)discover that if the early British socialists were both against the market and the economists (hear the Smith, Ricardo and other Stuart Mill singers of competition), The left will eventually reorient itself at the turn of the 20th century to convert to free trade under the guise of reconciling competition and equality (in particular by favouring a strong fiscal redistribution), while also seeking to renew economic discipline (one of the founders of the London School of Economics in 1895 was none other than the socialist activist George Bernard Shaw). This reorientation, which was accompanied by a new theory of value (known as marginalist) and a new analysis of competition (known as neoclassical) in the name of welfare economics, would lead to the lasting establishment of left-wing liberalism across the Channel, which was a priori more favourable to consumers than to producers.

What about France? The second part of the book identifies two elements of the answer to this question. Firstly, David Spector insists on "the ambiguity of the left in the face of free trade" (page 91): after having been free traders, the socialists became protectionists in the 1840s, thus joining, not without irony, the conservative employers (it is the time when Proudhon did not hesitate to denounce "the system of competition that kills us"). Secondly, more fundamentally, the author is convinced that "Homo oeconomicus is not French" (page 121). There are several reasons for this: on the one hand, "in their struggle against workers’ demands, the French liberal economists of the second half of the nineteenth century did not engage in any scientific activity" (page 127; we learn, moreover, that it was not until 1877 that a compulsory course in political economy was instituted in law faculties); on the other hand, the law of supply and demand will be systematically criticized in the name of an alleged opposition between solidarity and competition, which leads to a devaluation of the economic discipline, to which law, morals and philosophy will be preferred. Now, David Spector underlines the extent to which "reasoning in terms of supply and demand, or on the contrary disqualifying this mode of reasoning, has (...) major consequences on the way in which public policies are apprehended" (page 155; as illustrated by the debates on housing policy in France described in chapter 6); and we would be tempted to add, including on the way in which our commitment in the European Union is apprehended.

This European prism is also at the heart of the third and last part of the book, the aim of which is to answer the question of whether competition is ultimately left-wing or right-wing. After a synthesis of one hundred and fifty years of debates on competition which leads the author to retrace the rise and evolution of antitrust policy in the United States (see the article on the right), the author has decided to focus on the question of whether competition is ultimately left-wing or right-wing. Chapter 7), a parallelism is established with the evolution in France of legislative tools that seek sometimes to repress and sometimes to favour cartels (including international cartels), thus highlighting another approach to competition, the one that would be "civilized" and at the same time more favourable to companies (i.e. to "capitalists") whereas the British approach would be more favourable to the market (i.e. to "capitalism") (page 220). In addition to these two national approaches, one must add that of Germany, whose economic ideology, characterised by "ordoliberalism", will strongly inspire European law from its very origins. According to David Spector, two elements are structuring elements of "German-style competition" (pages 228-229): on the one hand, its attachment to legal formalism more than to economic analysis; on the other hand, the enhancement of economic pluralism. It is perhaps easier to understand why EU competition law (and particularly merger law) has only relatively recently joined the American approach, which favours a more economic analysis.

Sailing, as it were, between the shores of the English Channel and those of the Rhine, could and can France still impose its vision of the market within the European area? After having expressed a "fear" of the common market, the French sought to defend the freedom of action of the State, notably by defending a Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) with interventionist overtones or by claiming the specificities of public service during the movement to liberalize network industries in the wake of the Single Act of 1986. Nevertheless, for the author, the "culture of competition" is now widely disseminated in France, even if reticence persists, particularly on the left, on the dual grounds of an inequality inherent to market mechanisms and the need for public action to correct market failures. Can we then still define France as "an anti-liberal power in the European Union" (p. 235)? We understand that, according to David Spector, the State’s new ambitions in terms of industrial policy could partly justify this definition. One will not be far from thinking that such ambitions could indeed echo the leitmotiv of a "Europe that protects" advocated by the new French leaders... But at a time of announced "upheavals", the next question to (re)formulate could be not whether the idea of the market is of the right or the left, but whether or not it is indispensable to the renewal of the European Union.

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  • University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne


Stéphane Rodrigues, La gauche, la droite et le marché, David SPECTOR, September 2017, Concurrences N° 3-2017, Art. N° 84687, p. 206

Publisher Éditions Odile Jacob, collection économie

Date 22 March 2017

Number of pages 295

ISBN 978-2-7381-3867-5

Visites 202

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