Governments have an insatiable appetite for the wealth of their subjects. When governments find it impossible to continue raising taxes or borrowing funds, they have invariably turned to printing paper money to finance their growing expenditures. The resulting inflations have often undermined the social fabric, ruined the economy, and sometimes brought revolution and tyranny in their wake. The political economy of the French Revolution is a tragic example of this.
Before the revolution of 1789, royal France was a textbook example of mercantilism, the eighteenth century system of government control and planning. Nothing was produced or sold, imported or exported, without government approval and regulation.
Everywhere the Controlling Hand of Government Regulation
How extensive and pervasive were these regulations of economic activity? The famous French social philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, described it in detail in his book, “The French Revolution and the Old Regime” (1856):
“The government had a hand in the management of all the cities in the kingdom, great and small. It was consulted on all subjects, and gave decided opinions on all; it even regulated festivals. It was the government that gave orders for public rejoicing, fireworks, and illuminations . . .
“You have neither Parliament, nor estates, nor governors; nothing but thirty masters of requests [i.e., the heads of the bureaucratic planning agencies in Paris], on whom, so far as the provinces are concerned, welfare, misery, plenty or want entirely depend . . .
“Under the old regime, as in our own day, neither city, nor borough, nor village, nor hamlet, however small, nor hospital, nor church, nor convent, nor college could exercise a free will in its private affairs, or administer its property, as it thought best. Then, as now, the administration was the guardian of the whole French people . . .
“A very extensive machinery was requisite before the government could know everything and manage everything in Paris. The amounts of documents filed were enormous, and the slowness with which public business was transacted was such that I have been unable to discover any case in which a village obtained permission to raise its church steeple or repair its presbytery in less than a year. Generally speaking, two or three years lapsed before such petitions were granted . . .
“Ministers are overloaded with business details. Everything is done by them or through them, and if their information be not coextensive with their power, they are forced to let their clerks act as they please, and become the real masters of the country [i.e., authority was delegated to a permanent bureaucracy] . . .
“A marked characteristic of the French government, even in those days, was the hatred it bore to everyone, whether noble or not, who presumed to meddle with public affairs without its knowledge. It took fright at the organization of the least public body that ventured to exist without permission. It was disturbed by the formation of free society. It could brook no association but such as it had arbitrarily formed, and over which it presided. In a word, it objected to people looking over their own concerns, and preferred general inertia to rivalry . . .
“Government having assumed the place of Providence, people naturally invoked its aid for their private wants. Heaps of petitions were received from persons who wanted their petty private ends served, always for the public good . . .
“Nobody expected to succeed in any enterprise unless the state helped them. Farmers, who, as a class, are generally stubborn and indocile, were led to believe that the backwardness of agriculture was due to the lack of advice and aid from government . . .
“Sad reading, this: Farmers begging to be reimbursed the value of lost cattle or horses; men in easy circumstances begging for a loan to enable them to work their land to more advantage; manufacturers begging for monopolies to crush out competition; businessmen confiding their pecuniary embarrassments to the intendant [the local bureaucrat], and begging for assistance or a loan. It would appear that the public funds were liable to be used in this way . . .
“France is nothing but Paris and a few distant provinces that Paris has not yet had time to swallow up.”
The Costly Extravagance of the King
While the French king’s government regulated economic affairs, the royal court consumed the national wealth. Louis XVI’s personal military guard numbered 9,050 soldiers; his civilian household numbered around 4,000—30 servants were required to serve the king his dinner, four of whom had the task of filling his glass with water or wine. He also had at his service 128 musicians, 75 religious officials, 48 doctors, and 198 persons to care for his body.
The nobility and the clergy were mostly exempt from paying taxes, so the tax burden fell on the “lower classes.” When Louis XVI assumed the throne in 1774, government expenditures were 399.2 million livres, with tax receipts only about 372 million livres, leaving a deficit of 27.2 million livres, or about 7 percent of spending. Loans and monetary expansion that year and in future years made up the difference. The accumulated debt of the royal French government was 2.5 billion livres.
In an attempt to put the government’s finances in order, in July 1774 the king appointed a brilliant economist, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, to serve as finance minister. Turgot did all in his power to curb government spending and regulation. But every proposed reform increased the opposition from the privileged and the favored – politically connected business groups, power-lusting bureaucrats, the tax-exempt Church organization – and the king finally dismissed him in May 1776.
It was the chaos of the king’s finances that finally resulted in the calling into session of the Estates-General’s in early 1789, followed by the beginning of the French Revolution with the fall of the Bastille in Paris in July 1789. But the new revolutionary authorities were as extravagant in their spending as the king. Vast amounts were spent on public works to create jobs, and 17 million livres were given to the people of Paris in food subsidies.
French Revolutionary Paper Money Brings Disaster
On March 17, 1790, the revolutionary National Assembly voted to issue a new paper currency called the “assignat,” and in April, 400 million were put into circulation. Short of funds, the government issued another 800 million at the end of the summer. By late 1791, 1.5 billion assignats were circulating and its purchasing power had decreased 14 percent. In August 1793 the number of assignats had increased to almost 4.1 billion, with its value having depreciated 60 percent. In November 1795 the assignats numbered 19.7 billion, and by then its purchasing power had decreased 99 percent since first issued. In five years the money of revolutionary France had become worth less than the paper it was printed on.
The effects of this monetary collapse were fantastic. A huge debtor class was created with a vested interest in the inflation because depreciating assignats meant debtors repaid in increasingly worthless money. Others had speculated in land, often former Church properties the government had seized and sold off, and their fortunes were now tied to inflationary rises in land values. With money more worthless each day, pleasures of the moment took precedence over long-term planning and investment.
Heinrich von Sybel explained the social and psychological atmosphere of the time in his, “History of the French Revolution” (1882):
“None felt any confidence in the future in any respect; few dared to make business investment for any length of time, and it was accounted a folly to curtail the pleasures of the moment, to acquire or save for an uncertain future . . .
“Whoever possessed a handful of Assignats or silver coins, hastened to spend them in keen enjoyment, and the eager desire to catch at every passing pleasure filled each heart with pulsations, and were frequented with untiring zeal . . .
“The cabarets and cafes were no less filled that the theaters. Evening after evening every quarter of the city [Paris] resounded with music and dancing . . .
“The enjoyments, too, received a peculiar coloring – glaring lights and gloomy shadows – from the recollections and feelings of the Revolution . . .
“In other circles no one was received who had not lost a relative by the guillotine; the fashionable ball-dress imitated the cropped hair and the turned-back collar of those who were led to execution; gentlemen challenged their partners to the dance with a peculiar nod, intended to remind them of the fall of the severed head.”
Goods were hoarded—and thus became scarcer—because sellers expected higher prices tomorrow. Soap became so scarce that Parisian washerwomen demanded that any sellers who refused to sell their product for assignats should be put to death. In February 1793 mobs in Paris attacked more than 200 stores, looting everything from bread and coffee to sugar and clothing.
The first ill