September 15, 2003 -- The final figures are in. According to Isabelle Dubois-Costes of General Funeral Services in France, the death toll in the country's summer heat wave was some 15,000—higher than the recent estimate of 11,400 and much higher than the government's original estimate of 3,000. Most of the victims were elderly. It sometimes took days before overworked emergency workers could remove bodies from overheated dwellings. Those remains often laid for weeks in makeshift morgues as funeral homes failed to keep up with the demand for burials.
But this tragedy should not simply be blamed on the hot weather. Rather, much of the responsibility lies with France's ethical and public policy failings.
Many French citizens, with six weeks of government-mandated vacation, take the month of August off, and many leave elderly parents and relatives to fend for themselves in un-air-conditioned apartments and retirement homes. Thus, the wave of deaths seems in part to have resulted from a failure of individuals to care for their own family members. To absolve the government of responsibility for the crisis, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin denounced "the indifference of fellow human beings, of relatives, of neighbors, to curtains that are drawn." Yet Pascal Champvert, the president of an organization of homes for the elderly, disagreed with those who presented "the problem as if the solution were a private one." He maintained that the response should have been "collective, by means of taxes and contributions." So there it is, the ultimate consequence of the Hillary Clinton’s "it takes a village" philosophy of personal irresponsibility. Our families are not our responsibility; they're society's.
But this lack of personal responsibility does not free the French government from blame. France has one of the most far-reaching welfare states in Europe. It is based on the premise that adults should be treated like children who can't keep jobs or earn enough money to support their families, pay for their own health care, or save for their retirement without state help. Worse, France's government and prevailing morality teach that individuals have little moral responsibility to take charge of their own lives. Responsibility is collective. Thus, the paternalistic government must care for the infantile population. Unless we assume that most French men and women feel no concern for the welfare of their parents—an unlikely possibility—we must conclude that the welfare state that purports to love humanity creates moral midgets who feel absolved of the responsibility to care for their loved ones.
Of course, French sons and daughters could help ensure their parents' survival in heat waves by buying them air-conditioners or insisting that senior citizens' homes install them in their parents' rooms. In the United States, you can get a small window unit for under $200. Some might argue that it usually doesn't get as hot for as long in Paris and other French cities as it does in the United States. Still, $200 is not much to spend to ensure the very survival, to say nothing of comfort, of one's parents. But if individuals are accustomed to receiving health, unemployment, and retirement insurance from the government, then their level of personal responsibility no doubt will erode, causing them to neglect their parents, for example.
Then again, France is not as materially well off as America. Per capita income in America is $35,200, compared with only $26,400 in France. One cause of this disparity might be the huge size of its government. Direct government expenditures in France equal at least 52 percent of GDP, compared with at least 30 percent in the United States. Another cause might be government regulations that stifle economic output. For example, it is illegal for a French person to work for more than 35 hours a week. Idle hands make few goods and services. No wonder France has chronic double-digit unemployment! Still another cause might be the high tax burden, which for the average French worker is 42 percent, compared with only 28 percent—still too high—for the average American. Or perhaps another cause is European Union trade barriers that raise the price of cheap, imported air-conditioners.
Some might argue that if everyone in France bought air-conditioners, the country would need to generate more energy to run them. Exactly right! That's what differentiates we humans from the poor wildebeests that die in the scorching African sun during the summer. We humans cut down trees, drill for oil, mine uranium, and the like to produce energy to keep us cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Many individuals in France are coming to understand the failures of their country's collectivist policies and ethos that have produced a culture of negligence. Unfortunately, many of America's laws and much of its culture have been following the failures of France. But we as Americans must remember that it does not "take a village"; it takes mature individuals who take responsibility for themselves and their families.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.