France is the only West-European state, which has directed its economy by means of five-years plans. The state has introduced this method immediately after the Second Worldwar, and then has maintained it for several decades. The book La planification française by Emile Quinet gives an excellent description of the approach of the planning agency, and of the successes, that have been scored with the successive plans. The book is published by PUF, in the series Que sais-je?. This is an encyclopedia-like series, similar to the Dutch Actuele onderwerpen series of the Foundation IVIO. The editions are meant to be introductions, and typically have a size of roughly hundred pages. Thus the reader remains informed. Incidentally, the contents of this book is so ambitious, that understanding the explanation often requires some economic knowledge.
The idea of state planning originates from the start of the twentieth century. People began to understand, that the economic system is quite instable, and does not automatically return to an equilibrium. Perhaps there were some doubts about the necessity of state interventions, but these are eliminated by the disastrous Great Depression, which broke out in 1929. During the subseqent period economics has developed many macro-economic models for studying the conjuncture. Notably, methodes have been developed for calculating the national accounts and the gross domestic product. And everywhere the states began to collect economic data on a large scale. Thanks to these new instruments, the central planning by the state becomes possible.
It is not surprising, that immediately after the end of the Second Worldwar the western states maintained the state control, which had been established in the preceding decades. For, after all those destructions the economy had to be largely reconstructed. In France this has lead to the establishment of the General Commissioner-ship of the Plan, in 19461. First, Quinet explains why the successive governments valued the planning and the Commissioner-ship2. Then he discusses all ten plans, which until that moment (1990) had been realized. And he gives a detailed account of some returning hallmarks of the plans. Next he evaluates the degree, in which the plans have truly reached their targets. He also sketches the future of the planning proces. And finally, he compares the French planning to the approach in the neigbouring European states.
Thus Quinet indeed discusses all aspects, which are relevant for understanding the French planning. In a total of 128 pages he must naturally limit the text, but yet he succeeds in giving a good impression of the matter. The economy, politics, and the institutions are all addressed. This makes La planification française the most complete work, that your reviewer has read until now about this subject. And although the arguments of Quinet remain objective, this does not stop him from drawing firm conclusions, especially with regard to the future of French planning.
Perhaps the originality of the book is best illustrated by summarizing some of Quinet's statements. As is well known, France has a market economy, and therefore the state has chosen in favour of a plan, which is merely indicative. There is no dictate imposed on the market parties. The five-years plan is democratically legitimate, because it is discussed in parliament, and next is passed as a law. According to Quinet the scientific justification of the plan is the transfer of information to the markets with regard to the future. Therefore the market parties can make better decisions, and cooperate within the framework, that is given by the plan. This is called concertation. The preparation of the plan is perhaps its most important merit, because all concerned market parties can probe each others intentions.
The concertation in particular institutionalizes the deliberations between the social partners. In many European states these have natural ties. However, the French labour relations are hostile to such an extent, that apparently the state must mediate. The price, which must be paid for that intervention, is a huge bureaucratic planning system. In 1981 a left party-coalition wins the elections, led by Mitterrand. He nationalizes large parts of the industry, and also extends the planning. But the regions also become more autonomous, which undermines the central planning. It is the death-struggle of the traditional left politics, which already fails after just a year3. After 1986 the Commissioner-ship has lost its authority. The initial planning idea has been abolished. The consequence is that the media and the people are hardly interested any more in the plan. Only the trade union movement remains an advocate of the Commissioner-ship and especially of concertation.
It is fascinating to search for causes. In the last quarter of the twentieth century the western (and thus also the French) economy becomes more complicated. Individualism is on the rise. The importance of the basis-industries and of the mass production diminishes, a process that has also been identified on this portal. The product supply becomes more diverse, so that a branch policy becomes impossible. Besides, due to the globalization the national economy becomes more and more susceptible to international fluctuations. National planning can barely curb that. The competition becomes more severe, so that the enterprises continuously have to adapt. In such a dynamic system the traditional planning bureaucracy is no longer effective. It turns indeed out, that since 1970 the planning data are no longer very realistic. Besides, the policy is increasingly formulated by the European Commission.
Quinet concludes that there is merely a future for planning, when the coercive ambition is completely abandoned. Studies of the future obviously remain essential for the development of new policies. There is also a demand for strategic studies, which analyze various economic scenario's at the macro-economic level. They mainly show the qualitative trends, and do not formulate quantitative goals. Moreover, both the prognoses and the strategic studies have an educative function for the social partners. But nowadays a rigid central plan and policy programs are no longer appropriate. Since at present in France the concertation has also become common in many institutions, the Commissioner-ship has actually become superfluous. Its tasks can be taken over by the various ministries, and by many thinktanks and braintrusts.
Since the publication of La planification française another quarter of a century has passed. In retrospect Quinet has made a sound evaluation of the situation. Policy, more than ever, requires studies of the future. At the same time, planning rarely contains target numbers. State planning is replaced by complex networks of expert groups. Incidentally, just like Quinet concludes at the end, no other western state, except France, has established an institutional multiple-years plan. In retrospect the planning-bureaucracy has not given an economic or administrative lead to France, in comparison with its neighbouring states. It is instructive, that Quinet has written clearly about this experience, and has made it available to interested persons. Those who want to know what planning can do, must definitely consult this book.