The return of the venal office and tax-farmer

The French Revolution was in part a revolt against a degraded court, whose profligacy in prestige goods was in stark contrast to its bankruptcy in pursuing national prestige in war, and in part the collapse of authority of a political order, so disabling its most essential task, taxation. The crucial preliminary chapters of any good history of the Revolution are not the tart farces of Louis and Marie-Antoinette, but the complicated technicalities of Turgot and Necker, their conflicting approaches to tax administration, and the consequences for social disorder of the exemptions from taxation of the aristocrat and bourgeois venal office holder and the private acquisition of public wealth of the tax farmer.

It may seem odd in these modern times, when our technology, our digitally ubiquitous searching and our excitement about our own excitement of the future seems to make reflection on past events, not in the last century but in the one before the one before that, something of a futile indulgence, to point to lessons learned from the failures of the ancien regime. These characters, to most modern minds, are from the cryogenic caricatures of a prehistoric past. What could they have to say to us? And I respond, two characters of the ancien regime have returned as spectres of political decay in modern dress: the venal office holder and the tax-farmer.

To be continued

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