I happened to be in France when Gerard Depardieu, the most famous French actor in the world, announced that he was expatriating himself to Belgium for fiscal reasons, and furthermore was renouncing his French citizenship. He was fed up with paying ever-higher taxes, and with being the object of envy and hatred because of his wealth. He has put his Parisian house up for sale – for €50 million.
It is rather difficult for most of us to take the suffering of such a man very seriously. His well-publicised drunken conduct – urinating in the aisle of a passenger plane, for example – has undermined in advance what little sympathy we might otherwise have had for him.
His decision was the subject of conversation round the table at lunch. Most of the comment was unfavourable, as might be expected, but one remark caught my attention. It was that Depardieu had nothing to complain of because he was rich only because the state allowed him to be rich.
I do not think that the person who said this meant that the foundation of Depardieu’s fortune was his appearance in state-subsidised films, and that therefore what the state gave the state could rightfully take back. And certainly there seems something unsavoury about state-derived artistic fortunes, if only because the state as a patron tends to be less discriminating aesthetically than a genuine aristocracy.
No; what my interlocutor at lunch meant was that it was up to the state how much money we should each be allowed, a proposition that to me is deeply sinister. It means that, far from the state being the creature of the people, the people are the creatures of the state: not government of the people, for the people, by the people, but people of the government, by the government and for the government.
This was France, after all, land of Colbert, not Britain, land of Adam Smith: but are we so very different in Britain, whose people, supposedly, never, never will be slaves? Having joyfully handed over responsibility for almost everything to the government, we now are alarmed to discover that the government demands that we account for ourselves to it for almost all that we do. Wholesale expropriation of our wealth, either directly or by stealth, in the name of meeting its obligations towards us, is now to be expected. But we need not fear: we shall always be allowed some pocket-money for essentials such as pornography and Sky Sports.
First published in The Salisbury Review.