10th Grade: Image and Reality in Louis XIV France

Greetings to all,

We continued with Louis by looking at France’s tax structure, and to understand it, a few things need to be kept in mind:

Louis was in a sense, attempting to cook the nobles like frogs in a pot of water slowly heated up.  He wanted to make them politically impotent, as we saw last week, and this involved using Versailles to cast a ‘spell’ of sorts. The key to a magic spell working, however, is that you don’t know that a spell is indeed being performed upon you.

The problem centered around Louis wanting to change things without anyone noticing that things had changed.  In the heyday of the feudal era, the nobility had tax exempt status, for a variety of reasons:

  • One was probably coldly political, i.e., the king needs the support of the nobles, and gets it through tax exemptions.
  • But the king also needed an army from time to time, and the nobles were largely in charge both of fighting his wars and paying and equipping the troops under their command.  This required a lot of financial flexibility on short notice — hence, the tax exemptions.
  • Their service in the wars went unpaid, so their “tax” could be “paid” in the form of their free military service.

We talked last week about Louis’ neutering of the nobility, but he also used this opportunity to create an army that was more professional, and more accountable directly to him.  He did not bypass the nobility entirely, but did do so partially.

Thus, Louis did not need the nobility in the same way his predecessors did, and logic dictates that therefore, he should tax at least a portion of the nobility.  But to do so risked exposing the fiction he created with Versailles.  He could not “awaken” the nobles to the reality of their own decline, therefore, he could not take the risk of taxing them.

Towards the end of  C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair the Queen of Underland attempts to put a spell on the her visitors to make them forget Narnia.  Lewis writes

[Jill] was very angry because she could feel the enchantment getting hold of her every moment.  But of course the very fact that she could still feel it, showed that it had not yet fully worked.

Louis attempted to have his cake and eat it too, and this can never work for long.  He began to create a more modern governmental infrastructure, while at the same time only reinforcing some of the older ways of doing things.  The French Revolution will have many causes, but this disconnect between practice and reality will be one of them.  In the short term, it may have contributed to the financial crisis France faced at the time of Louis’ death.

Louis’s legacy will be a debatable one.  He made France matter in world affairs, and made France the cultural leader for western civilization.  After Louis, all ‘gentlemen’ had to know French as a matter of course.  WIth men like Descartes, Pascal, and Moliere they dominated the intellectual landscape.  We discussed how cultural leadership can be a kind of power that can translate on the world stage.

Part of France’s power came from Louis cutting the red tape between executive decisions and the nobility.  The efficiency and centralization of his government gave him a certain advantage over other European countries. Red tape isn’t always a bad thing.  There are certain things we don’t want the government to be efficient at.  We might suggest that we do not want the government to be efficient at spending money.  We wouldn’t want them to be able efficiently enslave all brunettes.  Having said that, red tape often hinders normal and reasonable social functions.  We may recall the congressional debates and inaction surrounding the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011, and recently now.  In 2011 we made the decision the credit agencies wanted us to make, but Standard and Poor’s was so appalled by the bickering, infighting, and stalling that they lowered our rating anyway.  Here is a quote,

“More broadly, the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policy making and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011,” the statement continues.

Of course there are those that disagree with Standard and Poor’s, but some may have felt that it would have been better for someone to just ‘make a decision.’  Louis’ system of government allowed for many “decisions” to get made quickly, but he also lost two major wars and brought France close to financial ruin.  In politics as in other areas of life, sometimes one must “pick their poison.”