Piketty, Government And The Legion D’Honneur

First a disclosure, two members of my family, an uncle and a first cousin, received the Legion D’Honneur, the highest decoration the French can bestow, in this case for being war heroes. So I was all ears when the NYT, the BBC and other news sources reported recently that Thomas Piketty, the now world famous author of “Capital in the Twenty First Century” has refused the citation on the basis that he didn’t think it was the role of government to honor people. The articles didn’t explain whether Mr. Piketty’s objection was about governments in general or the government of President Francois Hollande in particular. M. Piketty, who had spurred colleagues to write a letter of support in favor of Mr. Hollande when the later was running for President, has now publicly withdrawn his support. Still the refusal opens the question, who can legitimately recognize the service of citizens? The Queen as she does every year has a list of honorees. This past year, for example, both actresses Kristin Scott-Thomas and Joan Collins were made Dames. If not a government, then who? The Nobel Committee? We often disagree with their choice for Peace Prize, perhaps were we to have the technical knowledge to better evaluate their other choices, we might disagree with them too. I suspect that for every one who receives a Nobel there must be at least 10 who could and don’t. Ought there to be a difference between democratically elected governments and others? Would those elected not act on behalf of the people who placed them there, if not all the time, at least often enough? In the same way that we elect people to make decisions do we not directly or indirectly also give them the right to reward those they deem deserving? I can’t say I know why M. Piketty chose to refuse the Legion D’Honneur , and while I recognize and support his right to say no, I cannot endorse his reason—or at least the reason that was publicly given.

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