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Those who take prosperity for granted — and all of us do whether we admit it or not — would do well to make their way to the film Les Misérables, which features Russell Crowe playing the role of the relentless French cop Javert (not to mention an astonishingly effective presentation of “I Dreamed the Dream” by Anne Hathaway).
This film brilliantly pictures a level of poverty that none of us has ever known. We do well to reflect on it and the reasons that we do not experience such poverty now (hint: it’s not because of Congress).
And such images are an effective rebuke to the new primitivists of the left and right who tell us that we should go back to simpler times, to restrict, to stop the growth, to curb our use of everything from gas to water to food. Let this movie stand as a monument to what poverty really means. The results are not romantic much less healthy. They are gritty, gross, painful, and inhumane.
Not surprisingly, this poverty is accompanied by a ruthless government suppression of individual freedom, showing just how much poverty and statism are actually directly related in this world.
Poverty on this level is something we have a very difficult time understanding. But the novel’s author Victor Hugo saw it all around him where he lived in Paris. He wrote the novel in 1832 during very difficult economic times in France. The currency was depreciating. The crops were failing. Food was in short supply. A cholera epidemic had hit Paris, which itself was overrun by immigrants from many nations in Europe who had been tossed out from their home countries.
It was particularly grim in cities like Paris. The political solutions of the time favored either the reactionary solution of repudiating republican principles in favor of the monarchy or the revolutionary tendency toward yet another expropriation of the aristocracy. A third alternative in the time was later represented by the greater thinker Frederic Bastiat, who pushed the idea of laissez faire — that is, removing government completely from the picture and letting prosperity rise by the strength of private initiative.
The film opens In the midst of this mess, in the twentieth year of convict Jean Valjean’s grueling punishment for having stolen a single loaf of bread. He is released from slave labor but put on parole for life. Javert swears that he will enforce this parole come what may, and he does so until the end. The law is his devotion. To his mind, the state that made and enforces the law, and for which he works because doing so gives his life meaning, is the arbiter of all justice and that justice must be blind regardless of circumstances.
The irony strikes us immediately. Twenty years of hard labor and a lifetime of reporting to a parole officer solely for a petty act of theft? Surely this is disproportionate. Indeed, it is cruel and pointless.
And what is the law that it can claim the moral high ground here? The law is the thing that taxes, that steals the purchasing power of money, that kills in wars, that brings misery on the population so that its connected elites can live well at the population’s expense. The state steals far more than scraps of bread. It steals property from the people as the very source of its own sustenance, and also and therefore lives, hope, and the future itself.
As Bastiat would later write, the original purpose of law is to protect property and life, but the state turns law on its head, making it into an instrument of plunder. In so doing, the law gives up the moral high ground, enforcing edicts among the general population that the state itself routinely violates in the course of the normal work of government. All the agents of the state produce no wealth on their own but enjoy their privileged position entirely at the expense of everyone else.
Javert himself is a good example of this. He has plenty amidst poverty. He dresses well among people living in rags. He enjoys security in a sea of people who live hand to mouth and have no sense of what tomorrow might bring. He is a living and walking hypocrite, but he never really sees it because all his faith and all his morality is tied to an institution called the state. He imagines himself as an instrument of justice but he is actually a source of injustice.
Still, Javert will not relent. He chases Jean Valjean from place to place, outing him as a criminal, persecuting him wherever he finds him, determined to see him strung up not only for his act of petty theft but, most importantly, for his outrageous defiance of the state in failing to show up for parole. Javert himself believes in his heart that his quest it is not personal. It is a matter of following through with his job which is the enforcement of the law. To his way of thinking, the law is either valid — regardless of what our moral intuition might say — or his life and the state to which it is committed is a complete lie, and that is a prospect that he cannot abide.
I could not watch this brilliant film without thinking of all the ways in which the state and its agents today do the same thing as Javert — thanks to a completely unthinking devotion to the idea that whatever the law says is right. Marijuana smoking might be harmless and practiced safely and routinely by tens of millions of people, but because the law says that its production, distribution, and consumption is illegal, people are arrested, looted, and thrown in jail every day solely because the law says that it must be so.
This is just the most high profile case of the law’s absurdity. The criminal law prosecutes so-called piracy in the form of downloads that hurt no one. Every business, every sector of society, is subjected to a plethora of mandates and restrictions that make Napoleon’s regime seem like a paragon of freedom by contrast. You need only to set out to take on some enterprising task to discover the endless thicket of regulations and taxes, restrictions and mandates that govern every aspect of life today.
The state takes up to 40% of our income and what it can’t steal it borrows from the future. And yet this very state is the one that dares claim to enforce justice and peace among the general population, prohibiting us from stealing from each other, harassing or intimidating each other, and from using the threat of violence to get our way. The state is the least compliant with the law of any institution in society. And yet the jails fill and fill to make a separate slave nation within a nation. Even so, the state’s goal of universal compliance is ever more elusive.
Under such conditions, we all do what Jean Valjean did: seeing that compliance with the law means giving up all hope for happiness, we choose life over obedience. By doing so, we are aware that we are committing a revolutionary act in our own small way. We are aware that if we are found out, we will pay the price. But we take the risk in any case, because we are sure of our rights, because we believe innately that we should be free, and because there is so much to be gained by saying no to those who presume ownership over our lives.
Most of us do not face the decision of whether to evade parole. But we do other things every day that we know our masters would not like and would punish if they knew. We try to keep as much of our own income and liberty as we can. More and more, it is obvious to us, as it has been obvious to any population living under despotism, that total obedience is for suckers.
In 19th century France, and in 18th century America, the belief that there was a line that the government must never cross gave rise to what was known as the liberal movement of which both Victor Hugo and Frederic Bastiat were members. Hugo had the poetry and the drama. But it was Bastiat who saw the answers in the form of economic freedom.
Before Hugo wrote Les Misérables (1862), Bastiat wrote The Law (1849) — a brilliant tract that explained that the answer to social and economic problems was not a different form of government — republican legislatures, democratic mobs, or autocratic monarchs can all be oppressive — but to devolve all power away from government to people in their capacity as owners and self-managers.
Two paths for reform are shown in the novel, play, and film. The first is that of armed revolution. It fails — not only in fiction but in real life in the Paris Revolt of 1832. The second path is more subtle. Jean Valjean shows a simple act of mercy to Javert. Javert is moved but realizes that if this mercy is true and right, his life and occupation are wrong and therefore must end. This moral revolution — which takes place one person at a time — is the more effective path.
The film Les Misérables is worth seeing because — whether intentionally or not — it draws attention to the great struggle between freedom and prosperity, on the one hand, and oppression and poverty on the other. It should be seen alongside a solid re-read of Bastiat’s monograph The Law, which adds the legal and economic precision to Hugo’s sweeping vision of the human plight. Both serve as reminders that the struggle never ends.
Happy New Year,