Thursday, September 16, 2010

History Repeating: America In 2010 As France In 1789

In a recent post, Robert Wenzel decried the non-coincidence that, as the poverty rate rises in the United States, so does the government's stranglehold on economic activity:
That intrusiveness creates an entire class that expects things to be handed to them. Then comes another tier that would like to better their situation but it is made extremely difficult to impossible for them to do so because of the regulations that prevent them from advancing on their own. Regulations, certificates and the like are required to cut hair, cater food etc. And woe to the person who just wants to go out and earn a living without a government stamp of approval. [emphasis added]
It immediately reminded me of a passage I had just read in the introduction to Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France" about France during the Revolution of 1789:
The system of taxation was oppressive and unequal. The nobles and clergy were practically exempted from all direct taxes. Oppressive as taxation was owing to its weight alone and to its unjust distribution between classes it was rendered yet more so by want of administrative unity by the nature of some of the taxes and the method of their assessment and collection. Internal custom houses and tolls impeded trade gave rise to smuggling and raised the price of all articles of food and clothing It took three and a half months to carry goods from Provence to Normandy which but for delays caused by the imposition of duties might have travelled in three weeks Customs duties were levied with such strictness that artizans who crossed the Rh6ne on their way to their work had to pay on the victuals which they carried in their pockets Excise duties were laid on articles of commonest use and consumption such as candles fuel wine and even on grain and flour Some provinces and towns were privileged in relation to certain taxes and as a rule it was the poorest provinces on which the heaviest burdens lay

One of the most iniquitous of the taxes was the gabelle or tax on salt Of this tax which was farmed two thirds of the whole were levied on a third of the kingdom The price varied so much that the same measure which cost a few shillings in one province cost two or three pounds in another The farmers of the tax had behind them a small army of officials for the suppression of smuggling as well as special courts for the punishment of those who disobeyed fiscal regulations These regulations were minute and vexatious in the extreme Throughout the north and centre of France the gabelle was in reality a poll tax the sale of salt was a monopoly in the hands of the farmers no one might use other salt than that sold by them and it was obligatory on every person aged above seven years to purchase seven pounds yearly This salt however of which the purchase was obligatory might only be used for purely cooking purposes If the farmer wished to salt his pig or the fisherman his fish they must buy additional salt and obtain a certificate that such purchase had been made Thousands of persons either for inability to pay the tax or for attempting to evade the laws of the farm were yearly fined imprisoned sent to the galleys or hanged The chief of the property taxes the taille inflicted as much suffering as the gabelle and was also ruinous to agriculture Over two thirds of France the taille was a tax on land houses and industry reassessed every year not according to any fixed rate but according to the presumed capacity of the province the parish and the individual tax payers The consequence was that on the smallest indication of prosperity the amount of the tax was raised and then parish after parish and farmer after farmer were reduced to the same dead level of indigence

To this must be added that there was no effectual method of administering relief in times of distress On the one hand the policy of government rendered constant famine inevitable yet on the other hand any attempt to give relief by fixing the price of provisions necessarily discouraged production and diminished the supply Nor must it be forgotten that government helped to anger to degrade and to brutalize the people by the barbarous nature of the punishments inflicted under its penal code

The towns which from the twelfth century onwards sprang up with the growth of arts and commerce had been largely instrumental in overthrowing feudalism As so many centres of strength they became rivals to the power of the feudal nobles and gradually established themselves in practical independence But in France the later kings had been driven to raise money by selling offices or by making whole towns buy the right to elect their own municipal officers Thus by degrees all public interest in municipal affairs died out as municipal authority became centred in little local oligarchies of the higher and richer order of citizens and as the people ceased to interest themselves in local affairs government became more and more able to interfere in them until at last in all matters of local taxation finance and administration municipalities simply did what the government officials ordered them to do

Thus there was everywhere a dead uniformity of subjection to a central power even when the forms of freedom survived In the country the subjection was naturally more complete Scattered cultivators cannot combine as the inhabitants of a town can All therefore who could do so flocked to the towns and rural independence became a mere name Whenever questions as to an act of the administration arose they were referred not to the ordinary tribunals but to government officials Being the sole judges of their own acts they could always invent a pretext for exempting from the jurisdiction of the courts cases affecting themselves or their favourites Thus by imperceptible degrees government got all power into its own hands and as it felt itself growing stronger its supervision became more and more thorough and its interference more and more minute Absolutely nothing could be started in the country without a previous reference to government The usual consequences followed multiplication of statistics of reports and official correspondence and a consequent paralysis of all real work and progress The interference of non officials became more and more intolerable to government the growth of independent associations was regarded with ever increasing jealousy criticism of government officials was practically prohibited and as far as possible a censorship was exercised over the press The consequence so far as the people was concerned was the utter destruction of independence and self helpfulness a tendency to look to government for the initiative in everything and to throw the blame on government whenever anything went wrong Paris was the one centre of activity and of intelligence in the kingdom Arthur Young an English farmer who was travelling in France between 1787 and 1789 remarks upon the absolute ignorance of the inhabitants of the villages and country towns There were no newspapers People simply waited to see what Paris would say and do. [emphasis added]
I pulled that from a Google Books link and it did the transcription so apologies for the missing periods and text formatting.

Politically speaking, there is nothing new under the sun. Regardless, if you have it in your mind that there is a political solution to this mess in the form of the "right" politicians being voted in, say, a Ron Paul-type, I've got to ask you:

How many people are likely to vote for a Ron Paul if they are living, in one way or another, off the dole?


  1. But since then, France has been stable, right? Five republics, two empires, a monarchy (plus Vichy). Maybe we're different--exceptional, even. So what's the non-political solution--robotocracy?

  2. BobE,

    The solution is to transcend politics-- ANARCHY!

    About as likely as a benevolent fascist dictatorship, right? Maybe man's lot in life is to suffer under the weight of his own lack of perspicacity. But, at least anarchy is logically consistent and, uh... natural.

  3. Someday the techno-libertarians in CA are going to start traveling a lot more in space. Maybe they'll establish a Rothbardian system on Mars--just like those underground people in Total Recall did.

  4. I’m hoping to check out the same high-grade blog posts by you later on as well.

  5. Hello, I'm happy to see some great articles on your site.