Thomas Piketty is not the first person to turn down membership in France's Légion d'honneur. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre did it, as have numerous artists and scientists, usually because they wanted no part of so mainstream an honour. But Mr. Piketty, the economist and author, declined over something many would consider mundane: tax policy.
Mr. Piketty is the author of the international bestseller Capital in the 21st Century. He is one of France's leading intellectuals and one of the best known and most read economists in the world.
He was also a vocal supporter of the socialist government of President François Hollande. As President, Mr. Hollande nominated Mr. Piketty for membership in the Légion d'honneur. The economist's snub is thus a sharp slap in the face, whose sting will be felt beyond France's borders.
In turning down the nomination, Mr. Piketty said he doesn't think it's the role of government "to decide who is honourable," and that the President would do better to focus himself on restoring the beleaguered economies of France and Europe.
The first half of that statement is a bit much. Governments everywhere, including in Canada, routinely bestow honours on people who make important contributions to society. If you don't want it, don't take it. Voilà.
Mr. Piketty's legitimate beef with France's left-wing government is that it broke election promises to make the country's tax system more progressive, and to tax the richest citizens at the startling rate of 75 per cent. Mr. Piketty's book argues that capitalism's chief flaw is that, in a low-growth economy, it concentrates too much wealth in the hands of too few people. He thinks governments have the tools to correct this inequality and should summon the political nerve to use them.
Agree with his thesis or not, you have to admit that Mr. Piketty has the courage of his convictions. His message to Mr. Hollande is that he won't be used to lend credibility to a government that lacks the same critical quality. There's another message, too: Tax policy might seem obscure, but it can and should be used to make society more equitable. Mr. Piketty has made an important statement just by saying "Non, merci."