Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Tax Reform in the Reign of Louis XIV by Saint-Simon


Vauban, surnamed Le Prestre, was a gentleman , of Burgundy, no more, but perhaps the most honorable and upright man of his day. What is more, although he had a reputation for being more skilled and learned in the art of siege-warfare than any other engineer, he was the simplest, truest, and most modest of men. He was medium tall, somewhat stocky in build, very soldierly in his bearing, but with a loutish, not to say coarse and brutal appearance that totally belied his character, for there never was a man better natured, gentler, nor more obliging.  He was courteous without servility, almost  miserly with the lives of his soldiers, and possessed the kind of valor that beats every burden and lets others enjoy the credit. When, in 1703, the King informed him of his intention to make him Marechal of France, Vauban begged him first to reflect that that honor was never intended for men of his condition who could not command the King's army. [1] It might be embarrassing, he said, if the marshal in command at a siege were found to be his junior in rank. This generous objection, supported with such manifestly unselfish arguments, only increased the King's desire to advance him.  At that time Vauban had already laid fifty-three sieges, twenty of them in the King's presence, and thus King Louis could feel that after a fashion he was making a marshal of himself and gilding his own laurels. Vauban received the rank with a modesty equal to his previous unselfishness, and one and all acclaimed a most signal honor to which no other man of his condition was ever raised before or since. Such was he when he was elevated to be a Marechal de France. You shall see now how he was brought broken-hearted to his grave for the very qualities that had earned him his laurels, and that, in any country but France, would won for him honors of every other kind.

A patriot in the true  sense, [2] he had always been moved by the suffering of the peasants under the disproportionate burden of taxation.[3] His professional experience had taught him the need for government spending and the little likelihood that the King would consent to retrench in his pleasures or his pomps. He therefore despaired of their being any alleviation of their ever-increasing afflictions. With such considerations in mind he never made a journey (and he continually crossed and re-crossed the country from end to end) without making precise records of the values and yield of the lands, the trades and industries in the various provinces and towns, the nature of the taxes and the methods of collections. Not only that, he sent secret agents travelling throughout the entire kingdom so as to compare their assessments with his own. He devoted at least twenty years to that research and spent on it large sums from his own purse.  In the process he gradually became convinced that the only sure source of wealth was the land, and accordingly began to evolve an entirely new system of taxation. When his work was already far advanced  there appeared several booklets under the authorship of Boisguibert, the military governor of Rouen, who had been working on the same idea for some years. Vauban read these with interest and resolved to support the author by revising and correcting his work for him and adding some final touches of his own.  The two men were in complete agreement in principle, but not in every detail; for example, Boisguibert was chiefly anxious to remove the most onerous taxes and above all the huge charges levied by the collectors which sums did not enter the King's coffers but impoverished the peasants solely for the enrichment of the tax-farmers and their agents, who made vast fortunes in that way, even as they do today.

Vauban, on the other hand, attacked the system itself. He proposed abolishing levies of every kind and substituting in their place a single tax, divided into two parts, the first part to be on the ownership of land rated at one-tenth of its yield; the second, at a somewhat lower rate, on commerce and industry, which he thought should be encouraged, and certainly not hindered. This single tax he wished to call the King's tithe. At the same time he suggested certain just and simple rules for its collection, based on the value of each parcel of land and the number of the local population ( so far as that could be estimated with any accuracy). Vauban's book when it finally appeared  was everywhere acclaimed, and those best able to understand his calculations expressed admiration for its soundness and clarity. But the plan had one incurable defect. It produced more wealth for the King than he had received by the older methods; it relieved the peasants from ruin and oppression, and left them richer by all that did not go to him; but at the same time it destroyed the army of financiers, agents, and petty officials of many different kinds, obliging them to live by their own labors and not at public expense, and sapping the very foundation of those vast fortunes which we have seen amassed with such incredible rapidity.

That in itself was enough to condemn the book; but Vauban's real offense was that his plan attacked the authority of the controller-general himself, his influence, wealth, and immense power, together with an army of intendants, secretaries, agents, and underlings, leaving them incapable of favoring or harming anyone. It is scarcely to be wondered at that with the interests of so many powerful individuals involved there should have arisen a conspiracy to defeat a new system, however beneficial to the State, the King, and the people.  Moreover the whole legal profession rose up in revolt, for it is the magistrates who administer taxes by means of their agents in every department of government.** No doubt it was family loyalty that roused the Dukes of Chevreuse and Beauvilliers to protest, for they were the sons-in-law of M. Colbert, whose motives and methods were far removed from those advocated by Vauban. They were further misled by Desmaretz's clever, specious arguments, and Chamillart, so kind-hearted, so anxious for the public good, also fell beneath his spell. As for the Chancellor, remembering a time when he, too, had controlled the finances, he flew into a rage. In short, only those who were without influence or private interests supported Vauban, and by those I mean the Church and the nobility, for the people themselves, who stood to gain so much, never realized how close they had come to deliverance which only good citizens lamented.

Thus it came as no surprise when the King, sheltered and prejudiced as he was, gave the marachel a frigid reception on accepting his book; you may well imagine that the ministers were no better pleased when they received their copies.  From that moment onwards Vauban's past services, his military genius, his virtues, and the King's regard counted as nothing, and thenceforward he was viewed as being no better than a lunatic lover of the peasantry, a scoundrel bent on undermining the power of the ministers and consequently the authority of the King himself. King Louis said as much to his face, and he did not mince his words Those words were echoed by all that part of the nation who had thought themselves attacked and wished to be revenged, and the unhappy Vauban, who was loved by all right-thinking Frenchmen, did not long survive the loss of his master's favor. He died in solitude a few months later, wasted by grief and in distress of mind to which King Louis appeared solely insensible, even to the point of seeming unmoved by the death of one by the death of one who had been a distinguished and most useful servant. Vauban's fame,  however, had spread throughout Europe, even the enemy revered his name, and in France itself he was sincerely mourned by all those who were neither tax-farmers nor their agents.

To do Chamillart justice, despite his disapproval of Vauban, he was willing to give his system a trial, but most unfortunately he chose for that purpose a district near Chartres in the intendancy of Orleans, where Bouville, who married Desmaretz's daughter, was in charge. She had friends who owned estates in that neighborhood and procured tax-relief for their farmers, which was enough to wreck the whole experiment, depending as it did on fair and accurate assessments. Thus all Chamillart's good intentions turned sour and gave fresh ammunition to the enemies of the new system.

Vauban's entire work was accordingly condemned; but the proposal for a King's tithe was not forgotten, and some years later it was levied, not as a new and comprehensive tax, according to Vauban's plan, but on all kinds of possessions, over and above the existing taxes. It has been renewed whenever there has been a war, and even in peace-time the King always retains it on all appointments, salaries, and pensions. That is why in France one must beware of even the wisest and most salutary intentions, and why all the nation's sources of wealth are running dry. Yet who could have warned the Marechal de Vauban that his great efforts to relieve all the inhabitants of France would serve only to add to their burden a new and supplementary tax, more permanent, harsher, and more costly than all the rest put together?  Such a terrible lesson is enough to discourage the wisest proposals in the field of taxation and finance.

[1] He was not of noble rank, but apart from that, he had no experience of commanding troops in battle.

[2] Saint-Simon is supposed to have invented the word patriot.

[3] The peasants and the very poor paid the full amount of the taxes. Nobles, landowners, clergy, and the officials of all the kinds had dispensations and reliefs on various pretexts.

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