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Piketty misunderstands Balzac

Vautrin’s Lecture

Rastignac and Vautrin having their discussion about how to succeed in life. Illustration from an 1897 translation of Balzac’s novel.

Mario Puzo and Thomas Piketty both quote Balzac, but they misrepresent him...

French economist Thomas Piketty has replaced American philosopher John Rawls as the chief guru of the Left, as I have pointed out in two articles in The Conservative. The difference between them is that Rawls was concerned about the poor. He considered a society just where the worst off would be as well off as they could be, even if this required some inequality in wealth or income. Piketty on the other hand is preoccupied with the rich. They are, he says, steadily acquiring a larger proportion of total wealth, thus threatening democracy. He therefore wants to expropriate most of their income and wealth by confiscatory global taxes, 80 per cent on high income and 5 per cent on wealth. Otherwise we would return to the society of extreme inequality described in Balzac’s famous novel Père Goriot to which Piketty refers time and again. I have however argued that Piketty is wrong when he enlists Balzac as a supporter. Père Goriot is about the fragility of wealth and the frailty of human beings. The chief protagonists are all short of money, even if they are not all poor. Piketty asserts that the novel reveals ‘the cynicism of a society entirely corrupted by money’. But it is not money that corrupts the chief protagonists. What corrupts them is rather their single-minded pursuit of passions or pleasures leading them to disregard moral principles. It is also wrong that under modern capitalism wealth somehow clings to families for generations. Piketty asserts that ‘inherited wealth comes close to being as decisive at the beginning of the twenty-first century as it was in the age of Balzac’s Père Goriot’. On the contrary, most of the billionaires on the lists regularly published by magazines and newspapers are nowadays self-made men.

Madame de Beauséant’s Advice

Père Goriot takes place in Paris during a few months in 1819–1820, shortly after the restoration of the Bourbon kings to the French throne. In his Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Piketty devotes a whole chapter to a discussion between two protagonists in the novel, Eugène de Rastignac and Vautrin who both live in the same modest boarding house. Rastignac is an ambitious young law student from a noble but penniless family in the South of France. He dreams of breaking into Parisian society and having a glittering career. He has already visited a prominent relative, Madame de Beauséant, who offers to introduce him into society. She warns him however that the world is wicked. ‘The more coldly calculating you are, the further you will go. Strike without pity and people will fear you. Accept men and women as mere post horses to be left worn out at every stage and you will reach the summit of your ambitions,’ she tells her cousin. ‘In Paris success is everything, it is the key to power,’ she adds.

Vautrin’s Advice

Vautrin repeats and reinforces Madame de Beauséant’s advice. He is a mysterious character, coming and going without any apparent purpose, but seemingly not badly off. He is friendly, but ironical and even cynical. As Piketty puts it, ‘Vautrin explains to Rastignac that it is illusory to think that social success can be achieved through study, talent, and effort’. In his lecture to Rastignac, Vautrin observes that in France there are fifty thousand young men as the same position as Rastignac trying to get rich quickly. ‘Do you know the way to get on here: Through brilliant intelligence or skilful corruption. Either plough through the mass of mankind like a cannon-ball, or infiltrate them like a plague. It’s no good being honest.’ Vautrin continues: ‘Corruption thrives, talent is rare, so corruption is the weapon of the mediocre majority, and you will feel it pricking you wherever you go.’ He says that he does not condemn it. ‘It has alway been like that. Moralizing will never change it. Man is imperfect. At times he is more or less of a hypocrite, and then fools say he is moral or immoral. I am not accusing the rich in favour of the masses. Man is the same at the top, at the bottom, in the middle.’

In order to advance in life, Rastignac has to be an opportunist, Vautrin tells him. ‘If I have one more piece of advice for you, my pet, it is not to stick to your opinion any more firmly than to your words. When you are asked for them, sell them. A man who boasts that he never changes his opinions is a man committed always to follow a straight line, an idiot who believes in infallibility. There are no such things as principles, only events; no laws, only circumstances. Your exceptional man adjusts to events and circumstances in order to control them.’ At the end of his lecture Vautrin says: ‘The secret of great wealth with no obvious source is some forgotten crime, forgotten because it was done neatly.’ This sentence has become famous as the epigraph attributed to Balzac in Mario Puzo’s Godfather, published in 1969: ‘Behind every great fortune there is a crime.’ But Puzo misquotes Balzac. The French novelist spoke about ‘great wealth with no obvious source’, not about every great fortune. Of course, people can become rich without committing any crime.

Who Is Vautrin?

Piketty also misrepresents Balzac. First, who is Vautrin? He is no kind, white-haired sage, speaking words of wisdom handed down through the centuries. It turns out that Vautrin’s real name is Jacques Collin. He worked as bank clerk but he was not of the marrying kind, as it was delicately put in the past. He took a fancy to a goodlooking Italian soldier and when the soldier committed a forgery, Collin took the responsibility and was sentenced to five years in prison. Vautrin, in other words, was governed (or misled) by a burning passion, not by the realism he pretends to represent. After some attempted escapes Vautrin’s sentence was increased to twenty years. When he meets Rastignac in Paris he is directing a clandestine network of present and former prisoners, and acting as their banker. He has yet again escaped from prison, but the police is on his track. Vautrin likes the dashingly handsome Rastignac, and in their discussion, he offers to help Rastignac get rich quickly. Another lodger in the boarding house is Victorine Taillefer, the sweet and gentle daughter of a wealthy banker who has however disowned her and wants to leave everything to his son. Vautrin tells Rastignac that he should court her and persuade her to marry him. Vautrin would see to it that her brother would be killed in a duel, and subsequently the girl would inherit all her father’s wealth. Horrified, Rastignac rejects the plan.

In the second place, crime rarely pays. Criminals get caught, as Vautrin actually does shortly after his lecture to Rastignac. Perhaps Vautrin is the last person who should give courses to others on how to advance in life, having sacrificed everything for an attractive young man and then embarking on a criminal career, with the police in hot pursuit. Vautrin is a prey, not a hunter. He is an outcast, not a reliable guide to a successful life. But leaving aside criminal activities, are Madame de Beauséant and Vautrin right that people should single mindedly pursue their narrow self interests without any regard to moral principles? One answer is that such behaviour may be self-defeating for the simple reason that you usually need to be trusted if you are to advance, and you can only build up trust in the long term by being reasonably consistent and honest. Opportunism does not always pay. Recall the recognised master of realism, Niccolò Machiavelli. In Florence, he had worked for the republic which in 1494 replaced the rule of the Medici family. But when the Medicis returned in 1512, he tried to ingratiate himself with them. After initial difficulties, he managed to do so. But in 1527 the republicans again drove out the Medicis, and now they regarded Machiavelli as a renegade, and he died shortly thereafter, a disappointed man without any allies. The principles of traditional morality are indispensable guidelines in a world of uncertainty and individual ignorance, even if they are not always heeded.

Yes, Man is Indeed Imperfect

Vautrin is wrong when he explains to Rastignac ‘that it is illusory to think that social success can be achieved through study, talent, and effort’. Even Piketty admits that he would not himself advise a young law student to abandon his studies and to risk instead everything on some desperate gamble. Indeed, Balzac comments on an exclamation by Rastignac that he is going to succeed: ‘The words of the gambler, the great soldier, fatal words which ruin more men than they redeem.’ In the casino, the bank always wins in the end. In real life, study, talent and effort are crucial. But I cannot resist adding two more points about Vautrin’s lecture. He is certainly right that man is imperfect and often hypocritical. (This is indeed the theme in many of Balzac’s novels.) But the logical conclusion from this is that we should try to restrict the opportunities of men to do evil, and this can best be achieved by limited government, a system of checks and balances, not by increasing the powers of the state, as Piketty proposes. I would not like to be ruled by some of the frivolous, impulsive, obsessive and even half-mad protagonists in Père Goriot. Secondly, Piketty comments that in nineteenth century France it must have been tempting for those who inherited wealth not to work at all. He may be right about that. But it is also tempting today for those who can obtain welfare benefits by virtue of being born in an affluent country and without any contribution of their own not to work at all. Why should inherited welfare benefits, which Piketty supports, be any better than inherited wealth, which he opposes?     

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