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Is Thomas Piketty Misreading Balzac?

+ Alain Bertaud

As a non-economist, I cannot comment with any credibility on the macroeconomic content in Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. However, I want to share my views on the book’s frequent references to Jane Austen and Balzac novels — an endearing and original feature for a book on macroeconomics.

Piketty uses the characters and plots of the novels to illustrate and reinforce his arguments about the unequal distribution of income and patrimony in 19th century England and France. He makes the book's tables and graphs come alive by reminding us of Elizabeth Bennet’s trials in acquiring a rich husband, her only choice to avoid poverty or a servile situation as a governess. 

The world of Jane Austen represents a limited cross-section of British society at the beginning of the 19th century but it is a world that does indeed illustrate perfectly the complete lack of social mobility for those without access to inherited wealth. For women deprived of inherited wealth, marrying into landed gentry was the only path to a decent life. For men, marrying into wealth was even harder, as an heiress was unlikely to be allowed to choose a poor husband without losing her inheritance. For poor men, eloping and presenting the rich but unhappy parents with the fait accompli was the only possibility to access wealth.

The permanence of inherited wealth and the lack of meritocracy are the main points of Piketty’s book concerning 19th century inequality. One could argue that the spirit of enterprise and determination shown by Jane Austen’s heroines put them into a meritocratic class of their own, quite apart from their lazy but rich spouses. This would somewhat weaken Piketty’s argument, but I will concede that Jane Austen’s world illustrates perfectly his point about social inequality.

However, Piketty makes no differences between the worlds of Jane Austen and Balzac. Balzac’s world is primarily urban rather than rural and it is much more diverse than Austen’s. Contrary to Austen’s landed gentry with its inherited wealth, the novels of Balzac are full of successful entrepreneurs, journalists, attorneys, medical doctors, and artists who lead pleasant and interesting lives. While not as rich as the banker Nucingen — a self-made man, but not always the most scrupulous — they lead comfortable lives due primarily to their hard work and talent. 

It is true, however, that Balzac’s successful professional characters are all males. The women who manage to change classes in Balzac's world tend to come in two varieties: those who marry successful entrepreneurs and those free-spirited courtesans who invest their money carefully — at times benefit from insider trading — and accumulate a significant patrimony that guarantees an elegant life in old age. Balzac’s courtesans also play a redistributive role that Piketty might have praised. They zero in on the richest one percent, ruthlessly obtain a large part of their fortune, and redistribute it lavishly among a large crowd of witty but otherwise poor friends (Rastignac among them) and artisans of all sorts — milliners, seamstresses, cooks, coachmen, and decorators.

In spite of the contrast between the stagnant rural world of Jane Austen and the world of mobile nouveau riche found in Balzac, Piketty seems to perceive no differences between the two. He summarizes the inequality and lack of mobility in Balzac’s literary world in chapter 11 of Capital, in a section called “the Rastignac’s dilemma”. Rastignac, a student of law,  has only two choices in life: marry a rich but dull heiress and lead an elegant life, or pursue a professional career that will likely lead to poverty and mediocrity. Though Vautrin, the escaped convict in Balzac's novels, does indeed present this dilemma to Rastignac, it is unfair to pretend that it is representative of the diverse world described by Balzac. This interpretation is so skewed that it seems that Piketty has been reading Balzac through inequality glasses. 

The bias is confirmed when he writes that old Goriot (in the section “Vautrin’s speech” chapter 7) is a victim of capitalism because he died in poverty with only two persons attending his funeral. In Balzac's novel, Goriot is clearly an example of the successful entrepreneur. He started as an ordinary worker and made a fortune in the vermicelli business. His paternal ambition to marry his now rich daughters into the nobility pushes him to provide them with extravagant dowries — the main cause of his self-imposed destitution in old age. After all, while Goriot dies in poverty, his two daughters have made it into the top one percent in terms of wealth and social prestige even though their father started as an ordinary worker. While not quite the Horatio Alger story, this is still a vertiginous bout of social mobility. Granted, Goriot’s two daughters are not much happier for that, but Piketty’s book is not about the pursuit of happiness so much as the lack of social mobility.

Balzac's La Comédie humaine, one of the most comprehensive social and economic descriptions of French society in the 1830s, is precisely about social mobility. This mobility was based on merit, hard work, and luck as in the cases of Goriot and Birotteau, and on intellect in the case of medical doctors like Desplein and Bianchon. Mobility was based on cunning and a lack of scruples in the cases of the baron Nucingen or the journalist Finot, and on personal charm in the case of Rastignac.  

Though I'm convinced that Piketty has misread Balzac's characters, a lot will be forgiven if he has managed to create a new genre in economic writing. Thanks to his breakthrough work, we may soon see references to Henry James, Thomas Hardy, and Marcel Proust mingling with differential equations in major economic writing.

Tile image courtesy of John Kroll.

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