The author and philosopher answers the Big Question “Does the free market corrode moral character?”
Question: What is your personal economic philosophy?
Bernard-Henri Levy: I’m not an economist, so I’m sure I have not a very original [IB] very specific named position. My position is not so original that it deserve a specific label. No. I think I am a social democrat, as we say in Europe. I believe in free market and I believe in regulations. I believe like Alexis de Tocqueville or like Benjamin Constant or like all the real theoreticians of the Liberalism that Liberalism means freedom, free market and so on, but not the freedom of the jungle, of the savage forest that it means. It needs and it means too some rules, which America knew. Remember how, at the beginning of your modern history, how accurate, how obsessive America was in forbidding trusts, abuses of dominant position, how you were in America so [IB] in hunting any excess or abuses of power everywhere? Really, there is a soul, a spirit in a way, of capitalism, which could be, which should be not the worst thing in the world. It is the best compared to communism, compared to all that. Capitalism is really the best, but it has to have a soul, and this soul, this spirit, was properly lost in the last 50 years.
Question: What did Alexander Solzhenitsyn mean when he said, “Unbridled free markets corrode our souls?”
Bernard Henri-Levy: He meant what is happening today in America. This collapse, this edge of abyss in which you are, this incredible greed which had led the country to this chaos [in where it is today]. So, even when you are [IB] of free market, even when you believe in free market because there is no alternative system, you cannot just believe in it without any rules, without any regulation, without any ethics. The nobility of America, what America had [created] in the past ages, you might call it Puritanism or ethics or Protestanism, whatever, but America had [created] was to combinate with free markets, so moral rules. You lost that. We lost that, maybe, but you are leading, or you were, the leading economy in the world these last decades. You lost the sense of this combination: free market + ethical rules.
Question: What is the cause of the recession in France?
Bernard-Henri Levy: France is something else. It is a mix between this absurd, crazy, indecent, obscene greed, like in America, and also an excess of regulation. We are [IB] in France. We have the loss of… the lack of regulations on the more sophisticated markets, but these incredibly clever and sophisticated inventions which were made by the market men and which are made for the worst. It happens in human history that sophisticated… the most sophisticated intelligence works for the worst. So, we have that also in France. And we had the reverse, which was an excess of regulation, the 35 hours, the overwhelming strength of the state, the excessive, the excess of burden which the very weight of the state put on the shoulders of every citizen, so we have in France the 2 problems, which are competing to do this recession.
Question: Why is collectivism dangerous?
Bernard-Henri Levy: Yes. I really believe that what was called communism, which is probably dead, but you have sometimes some living deads. You have some dead who go out of the grave. You can see that in the next times. But communism was not at all a school of solidarity. It was not at all a way of building brotherhood. It was the contrary. People, all those who knew the former Soviet Union knew how strong were the hatred between the human beings, how the social link with its apparent peace which was imposed by the police, the secret police and so on, was in reality built on hatred. The DNA, the material of the cells, of the social link and of communism, [wild] hatred of each one towards each one. This was the reality. On the contrary, I do believe you have some magnificent text of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas on that, that money, as itself, money, the abstraction of money. Abstraction. The abstract of money. The capacity which money has to separate things from themselves and to make them circulate between different people is a way of building some civilization. It’s a way of making every single man looking out of his little corner of his roots or his field and so on, money opens the world, opens the mind, opens the society and so on.
Question: What is the legacy of Communism in Europe?
Bernard-Henri Levy: They really created some different way of thinking, some reflexes which could be terrible. For example, the lack of individual initiative, the quasi-impossibility of taking a decision. I remember one day, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a lady in East Berlin, brilliant, sharp, smart, democrat, having fought during years and years against communism, and I remember so precisely, you know, a situation which is a private situation. I would not maybe give the details here. She had to take a decision, a decision as a woman, as a mother of a family, as a woman – a human decision. Yes or no? This or that? And suddenly she burst into tears in her apartment, in front of me, burst into tears. She told me, I’m just a neighbor, so I said, Okay. Everybody can be a neighbor. We have all over the world some [oblique] people, some people who cannot decide and so on, and she explained to me this day, and that was a great lesson, that maybe it was part of her psychology, but she explained to me why it was much more than that. The result in her mind, the precipitation in her soul of the habits created by the regime which was just, which has just been destroyed. When you have a state which decides everything, when you have a police who is always awake. When you have a big brother who never sleep when you are a country of the everlasting light, watching everything and everybody reflects those change. People, human beings are human, but they can… they are human first. Then there is, you can have some quasi animal reflexes, which come back in some, under some circumstances. You see that in the situations of [genocides], human beings don’t look like themselves any longer overnight. Overnight, they change. 60 years of communism [was] more than overnight and it made the people change a little and it changed in the sense of a real mental and moral disease. The communism, the [belong] of communism, the… the whole disaster of communism is known materially. We know the material disease. We have still to make, to write the history, to write the history of the moral disease.