You may have missed this: French economist Thomas Piketty, darling of the income inequality crowd, was offered the Legion of Honor in January. But he turned it down.

Turns out Piketty refused the honor on grounds that likely would have a small government libertarian like John Stossel nodding in agreement:

“I do not think it is the government’s role to decide who is honorable,” Piketty said.

Ironically, Picketty believes government can–and should–do just about everything else.

Still, as economics writer Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute notes, Picketty expressed a harsh view of government ineptitude when he rejected the Legion of Honor (which, by the way, almost nobody ever does):

Almost everyone accepts government honors when they’re offered; Piketty’s refusal puts him in the company of Jean-Paul Sartre. You’d think Piketty would have been proud to stand in the company of this year’s 690 other honorees, including two British World War II veterans, an American painter, and a French nurse who survived Ebola. Apparently, Piketty thinks that his government isn’t smart enough to do two things at once. “They’d be better off concentrating on boosting growth in France and Europe,” he said.  

Gelinas savors an irony here: Picketty recognizes that government is inept but is nevertheless committed to an even larger role for government:

But if government can’t give out awards and nurture the economy at the same time, how can Piketty be confident that the government can competently carry out his complex policy prescriptions? In an update to his book, Piketty stands by his proposed fixes for the economy: “a progressive tax on labor income and a progressive tax on inherited wealth.” Of course, Western countries already have progressive taxes on wages. Piketty’s vision of a tax on inherited wealth is enormously complicated.

What he calls a “simple rule of thumb” would involve “adapt[ing] the tax rates to the observed speed at which the different wealth groups are rising over time.” If the people on the Forbes list are getting richer, faster, the government should tax them at a higher rate—“as large as 5% per year, and possibly higher,” he suggests—to “stabilize the level of wealth concentration.”

Piketty notes that figuring out how rich people really are would require “more financial transparency,” “better information about income and wealth dynamics,” and “better international fiscal coordination.”

That’s daunting enough, and it doesn’t come close to accounting for all the complexities that would arise.

Gelinas sums up what looks like schizophrenia this way:

Thomas Piketty is in favor of small government, after all—but only when it doesn’t matter.

Gelinas puts forward an alternate theory as to why Piketty rejected the honor. He did not wish to be associated with President Francois Hollande’s bad economy. Ironic since Hollande came to power advocating “Piketty-like” policies, including a 75 percent income tax on the rich. Hollande is now embracing less statist solutions.

But the irony remains:

Whatever Piketty’s reasons [for turning down the Legion of Honor], though, it’s striking that he can’t accept his government’s highest compliment—while he urges that same government to dig into people’s pockets more obtrusively than ever before.