I well remember being almost persuaded by Francis Fukuyama’s wonderfully argued The End of History and the Last Man. The book suggested that the West and perhaps the world had reached an endpoint where democracies constrained by the rule of law and powered by market economies would dominate. If so, the future looked happy. The synthesis of the principles of democracy and economic liberty would lead to a peaceful prosperity where the chief excitement might come from the relentless doubling of computer power.
At least so far, however, The End of History has collided with history. Much of the Islamic world has not gotten the message. To be sure, the fall of the Soviet Union has led to many ex-communist states with an admirable commitment to law and the kind of economics that gains long-term prosperity. But there remains Russia, where democracy seems incapable of sustaining a loyal opposition, the state looms as leviathan, and the economy has large elements of a kleptocracy. Readers of Russian history should not be surprised. Richard Pipes has long argued that since the 15th century, Russian culture has been marked by disdain for rights of property and an enthusiasm for a patrimonial regime with little separation between state and economic and civic society.
But nothing better represents the failure of Fukuyama’s thesis than plight of Euro and the Greek crisis. The Euro was the monetary representation of history’s end in the birthplace of the West.
To live in two countries is to make comparisons, instructive or not as the case may be. And since I spend an unusually large proportion of my time in bookshops, it is unsurprising that I compare the book trade in the two countries in which I live, Britain and France.
In Britain, booksellers are allowed to discount books as much as they like; France, by contrast, maintains a fixed price for books, as did Britain until the 1980s. The effects of this difference are interesting: what appears to be a restraint on trade actually improves its quality.
About twice as many books are published in Britain annually as in France, although this difference may be as much the consequence of the much larger Anglophone market as of the difference in pricing policy. In France, few books are published initially as hardbacks, and newly-published paperbacks there tend to be about the same price as their hardback equivalents in Britain. The mass-market paperbacks, by contrast, tend to be cheaper.