'Let them eat cake' economics distorts free market

Posted: Feb 27, 2004 12:00 AM

The Democrats have been pounding on the Bush administration for months about its alleged "insensitivity" to the outsourcing of jobs. Kerry and Edwards have been screeching about the White House's "policy" to outsource jobs, close factories and - no doubt coming soon - to switch honest American Girl Scout cookies for stale Chinese fortune cookies made by children shackled to conveyer belts.

Before that - and before Bush backed a half-trillion-dollar Medicare expansion - the Democrats pounded the table about Bush's "insensitivity" about the lack of healthcare and the outrageous costs of prescription drugs. Before that it was the tax cuts. I forget what came before that. But there's a unifying theme to all of these policies and criticisms, at least in the minds of liberals.

Jonathan Alter of Newsweek calls it "let-them-eat-cake economics," a phrase that does seem to capture in one neat liberal cliche the belief that Republicans don't understand the average guy's plight.

In fact, last summer the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued a news release titled, "DeLay: Qu'ils mangent de la brioche," when Tom Delay came out against some "pro-child" tax-credit. That gibberish in the preceding sentence is the actual line that Marie Antoinette was supposed to have uttered when she heard the peasants were starving because there was no bread.

There's only one problem with this line of attack. Everything - and I mean everything - about it is wrong.

Let's start from the top. First, "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche" doesn't mean, "Let them eat cake." It means, "Let them eat some fancy egg-based bread" - i.e. a brioche. Second, Marie Antoinette never said it. The story comes from Rousseau's "Confessions" and, according to historians, he couldn't have been talking about Marie Antoinette, because she was only 10 years old when the book was written and still living in Austria. Some believe that perhaps Marie Therese, another queen, had said, "Let them eat brioche," 100 years before the French Revolution. Other historians think Rousseau just made it all up. Whatever.

What's far more bogus is the moral behind the story. You see, back then France had a law on the books that required bakeries to sell expensive breads - including brioche - at the same price as cheap bread if the baker ran out of cheap bread. So, saying, "Let them eat brioche" is actually pretty rational. It's like saying, "Let them enforce minimum wage laws" or "the government should do something about those profiteering bakers who aren't selling their fancy bread at an affordable price!"

And here is where we get to the heart of things. The rule about selling expensive bread at a loss if necessary to feed the poor was just one of a whole tangle of crazy regulations established by bleeding-heart French nobles to do "right" by the lower classes. From medieval times until the 1980s, the price of a baguette had been fixed to a specific formula. And, even today, bread prices, baking techniques and bread sizes are regulated in minute detail in France.

The intention behind these laws was largely goody-goody, nice-nice. In fact, Marie Antoinette was something of a limousine liberal (gilded carriage liberal?) who offended her fellow nobles by disdaining royal excess.

The problem was that since French bakers were denied the ability to make cheap bread at a profit, and forced to sell expensive bread at a loss, they did the only rational thing possible: They made very little bread at all. That's how we got bread riots and maybe even the French Revolution.

Today, the loudest voices in the Democratic Party want to regulate the economy based upon what's nice, not on what works. Yes, it would be nice if economic realities didn't make it necessary for some jobs to be sent overseas, and, sure, it'd be sweetness and light if life-saving drugs could cost a penny.

But simply saying you're going to "stop" companies from outsourcing a fraction of their labor or that you're going to "make" drugs supercheap doesn't cut it. There's no way to do those things without inviting other, usually worse, problems.

The moment you make a drug company sell its products at a loss is the moment that company stops making that product at all. If you tell a firm it can't hire a few people in India and lay off a few here to stay competitive you're saying you want that company to lose money.

That's fine if you want the government to subsidize industry and force prices to go up for consumers or something else along those lines. But history tell us that it's not good for the poor or anybody else in the long run.

The slander behind the whole doctrine of "let-them-eat-cake economics" is that, aside from distorting history, it distorts the motives of those who support the free market, which just happens to be the greatest boon to poor people in the history of the planet. Meanwhile it's the liberals who practice "let-them-eat-cake economics." They just don't know enough of the facts to realize it.