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4th August 1789: The only good day of the French Revolution

Well the 4th of August came and went again, without comment from anyone else – so I will belatedly comment upon it myself.

This day is more than the 47th birthday of the Windy City Marxist (sorry “liberal”) – spiritual grandchild of Saul Alinsky, it is also the date of the only good day in the French Revolution.

I refer not so much to the “Declaration of the Rights of Man”, a document whose wording makes it rather less useful in defending people (as opposed to ‘the people’) against the power of the state than the American Bill of Rights. I refer to the practical things that were done on the Fourth of August 1789… The abolition of so many taxes, monopolies and restrictions…and the ending of serfdom.

Certainly ‘only’ half a million French people (out of a population of some 30 million) were serfs and the courts had not been in the habit of enforcing serfdom, but the legal status still existed – till the 4th of August 1789.

And certainly the ending of the so many taxes on the 4th of August was followed, only a few months later, by new taxes and by the theft of vast amounts of land from the Roman Catholic Church and others, supposedly to “back” the newly issued fiat money “Assignats” that collapsed into hyperinflation anyway – in spite of all the stealing and all the murders that the Revolutionaries committed.

However, the 4th of August was still a good day, the one good day of the French Revolution, and it should not be forgotten.

54 comments to 4th August 1789: The only good day of the French Revolution

  • spectre765

    I pay 47% of my income to the government. Serfs paid only 33% of theirs to their masters. I wish I was a serf, or at least was treated like one.

  • Sunfish

    Spectre, when the IRS decides to sell your neighborhood to the National Marine Fisheries Service and you get beaten or worse for trying to move out, or when the National Archives and Records Administration claims droit de seigneur with respect to a female relative, that comparison might work better.

    Hyperbole is best in small doses. Otherwise, it becomes overblown. Kind of like a Michael Moore flick.

  • Vinegar Joe

    Sunfish, the IRS already claims droit de seigneur over us……..both male and female.

  • “Hyperbole is best in small doses.”

    That’s pretty easy for you to say. Listen: you have every right to sneer-off everything they steal from you if you want to, but you’ve got nothing to say about the outrage that others experience when the manifestations of their lives are summarily taken for granted by commissars.

    Shut the fuck up.

  • Salem_Poor

    Hmm.

    Sunfish made two points.

    First, he said that he IRS is not yet as bad as the French aristocracy.

    Second, he gave his opinion on the effectiveness of Spectre’s point.

    I don’t think he really overstepped the bounds of decency here.

  • Salem_Poor

    Hmm.

    Sunfish made two points.

    First, he said that he IRS is not yet as bad as the French aristocracy.

    Secondly, he gave his opinion on the effectiveness of Spectre’s point.

    I don’t think he really overstepped the bounds of decency here.

  • “First, he said that he IRS is not yet as bad as the French aristocracy.”

    …to whom? Why can’t you understand the arbitrary ethical presumption of telling someone else what sort of politics they should peaceably put up with?

    “It’s not so bad…”

    I repeat: shut the fucking fuck up.

  • Billy Beck,
    Oh, do fuck off. Of course our tyranny is bad but to equate it with the French Terror or Stalinism (or whatever) is bizarre. Sunfish made a reasonable point so you just tell him to STFU. Which is precisely why Libertarians will get nowhere. Because Billy, you alienate your natural allies.

  • vivictius

    While I dont have any particular desire to end up a serf its too bad we cant see little shits like billy end up that way.

  • “Because Billy, you alienate your natural allies.”

    Don’t presume yourself, Nick.

  • Laird

    BB, I don’t know what has you so upset today, but that rant was totally uncalled for. Sunfish deserves better treatment than that. (I suspect the root problem is that you don’t know what “hyperbole” means.)

    And watch your language; there are ladies present.

  • I’m a libertarian and you alienated me, Billy.

    However, I won’t be so presumptuous as to tell you to shut the fuck up.

  • “BB, I don’t know what has you so upset today,…”

    I know.

    “… but that rant was totally uncalled for.”

    Sez you. And I don’t care whether you people don’t like it. I’m not concerned with your feelings and I’m in this to make friends. What I care about is who can think their way through the issue at hand. That person did not qualify, and a lot of you aren’t, either.

  • “I’m not in this to make friends.”

    (The bloody telephone interrupted that edit.)

  • Calm down or go away please.

  • Come on now Billy, you’re not a troll and I know you’re not so stop acting like one. Its all very well drawing a line and sticking to it but you could at least be civil about it.

  • RAB

    Well no wonder the taxes went up again.

    I mean cutting edge technology like the Guillotine and invading the rest of europe,
    costs money, doesn’t it?

  • Are you crazy? Never. Look: if you people were in your right minds, you would never stand for someone else to come toddling along to tell you what’s good for you in a context like this. That’s because most of you — to some degree or other — understand the source and purpose of values. Well, get this good: the principle — the principle, you fools — of ethical discrimination that makes you men instead of animals goes both ways. Not one of you are authorized in any way to go around telling another man what he has to live with at the hands of manifest cutthroats as if you’re patting a child on the head.

    And to hell with you if you do not understand this.

    “Tyranny” is not a matter of numbers. No one is morally obligated wait around for you to get up off your hind-legs before he can righteously point out that it’s really about wrecking individuals, whether it’s gotten around to you yet.

    Shut the fuck up or throw me out of here, goddammit. I’m right, so was “spectre765″, and that’s the only thing that counts.

  • Soupmonkey

    First time I have ever been to a “Beck-off”.

  • sigh

    I’m in a phone call right now, or I’d take the time to address my tone.

    If I’m still permitted to do it when I hang up, I will.

  • Laird

    spectre765 was making a legitimate point about the unconscionablly high level of taxes today. Sunfish was making a legitmate response by pointing out that there was a bit more downside to being a serf than simply the taxes.

    BB is making no point; he’s just being an arrogant jerk (a not unusual event). We know (because he told us, as if there were ever any doubt) that he’s not out to make any friends. It’s also clear that he’s not out to convince anyone by the logic of his arguments or the rigor of his thought (because neither is in evidence). He’s just howling at the moon.

    Sez me.

  • (Wow. That was my friend Howie Lindeman, giving me the Israel-Guatamala odyssey of his heart stem-cell procedure. One week after a two-day ICU post-op, he was driving all the audio for the Pope at Yankee Stadium.)

    Anyway.

    “Civil”, it’s put to me.

    I don’t know what that means when it comes to the elementary work of thinking about an issue like the one risen after spectre765′s lead. Is it really more “civil” to patronize that person’s point the way Sunfish did? Not to me.

    I cannot and do not respect the ethics in that. I find it irresponsibly slothful, tragically and unnecessarily common, and pernicious to and corrosive of any project aimed at clear thinking brought to bear on public politics. I have all this integrated according to principles before I ever encounter any given case, and I will not apologize for my conclusions and expressions of contempt. If I could do that to make any of you feel better, I would, but that’s not a principal value to me.

    Go read the “are you crazy?” comment again: whether you like it or not, there is real meat in it for the thoughtful.

    You people all take your own tones, too. They are never what matters to me. I don’t have problems with style. Mine comes from a mind/body integration that I was just born with. I’m way past even thinking about being something else for anyone. You can run for cover every time the blood & guts scares your dainty sensibilities, but don’t mistake that it was thinking about it that made you do it.

  • Paul Marks

    The point about being a serf is that you are not legally allowed to leave.

    Certainly this sort of thing can be done as a tax measure, as was the case when the Roman Emperor Diocletion did it, the guy the history textbooks claim reunited the Roman Empire, although that was actually done by Aurelian ten years before, and who introduced prostation as the normal thing for a subject to do in the presense of an Emperor – as if Rome was Persia.

    However, serfdom need not be a tax thing. And it remains evil – even if the French courts of the 18th century were not in the habit of pushing it.

    On tax and spend:

    Sadly the French Revolutionaries were into that before the wars started.

    On Madam G.

    Most people the Revolutionaries killed (and they killed hundreds of thousands of ordinary French) were not killed in this manner – there are a lot of ways to die.

  • Ivan

    Sunfish:

    Spectre, when the IRS decides to sell your neighborhood to the National Marine Fisheries Service and you get beaten or worse for trying to move out, or when the National Archives and Records Administration claims droit de seigneur with respect to a female relative, that comparison might work better.

    Actually, like so many popular memes about the Middle Ages, droit de seigneur is a complete myth. See e.g. here for some details(Link). Similarly, the idea that feudal lords could ever exercise such arbitrary and ruthless absolute power over their serfs in other regards doesn’t have much resemblance to reality. It’s basically the same sort of historical fabrication as when leftists paint ridiculous over-the-top-evil caricatures of 19th century capitalists.

    Realistically speaking, the IRS and other government agencies do hold more power over a typical common person in modern countries than the French kings and nobility in the 17th and 18th century could ever even dream of. Even Louis “L’État, c’est moi” XIV — this supposed saying, of course, is another fabrication invented at a later date — would consider you insane if you told him that one day governments would be so powerful that everyone would have to file yearly reports detailing every penny of their earnings and any other transactions, that it would be able to forcibly draft random people to fight in wars, or that it would imprison peaceful people for their choice of what to drink or smoke.

  • spectre765

    I thought Sunfish’s response to be reasonable. My post was a little over-the-top. It was meant, after all, to get a coversation started.

    I also want to clarify that I have no connection to this Billy Beck person..

  • Paul Marks

    Actually in 18th century Europe people were conscripted to fight in wars.

    Some German states even sold their citizens to fight for other nations. Not in a figure of speech way – I mean exactly what I have typed, people were rounded up and sold off.

    As for Louis XIV – in the armies that he used in his efforts to control Europe there were many men who did not want to be there.

    And minister Colbert demanded that every trader and manufaturer pass special government exams – and obey endless rules and regulations (he would fit well into the modern world).

    And, of course, if you had the wrong religion under Louis XIV you had to flee for your life.

    As for tax – the tax farmers (apart from in Brittany and few other places in France where taxation was organized by local Estates) could act as they wish – and yes demand every detail of someone’s life.

    True Louis XIV died in 1715 and Louis XIV in 1789 was a totally different man (weak and well meaning – rather than strong and power seeking) with totally different policies.

    Louis XVI had actually ended “putting the question” (torture) before 1789 – and had granted religious toleration.

    But let us not pretend that tyranny is a modern invention.

    After all the despots of even the Classical World (and before) would have had nothing to learn from modern despotism.

  • Soupmonkey

    Thank someone’s god this managed to get back to reasonable dialogues. I concur with Paul Marks about the past extravaganzas of various reigns. Anyone read the book “Dr. Syn”? For fellow Americans it was a movie “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh”, with my hero Patrick McGoohan. But the movie did not put forth the the reality of the press-gangs that operated in the UK of the day.

  • Ivan

    Paul Marks:

    Actually in 18th century Europe people were conscripted to fight in wars.

    Some German states even sold their citizens to fight for other nations. Not in a figure of speech way – I mean exactly what I have typed, people were rounded up and sold off.

    Nationwide mass conscription requiring the enlistment of all able-bodied men is an invention of the French Revolution. Sure, even before that there were occasional local lords powerful enough to mistreat their underlings by forcing them to fight against their will, but the idea of a large nation involuntarily mobilizing hundreds of thousands of men was without precedent. Other European states followed the French model simply because they found themselves overwhelmed by the French armies.

    It’s not just about the mass conscription. In the 18th century, wars were generally considered as affairs that mattered only to sovereigns who lead them, soldiers (mostly professional) who fought them, and people who were unlucky enough to find themselves in the line of fire. For other people, war was no more than a distant affair that didn’t matter much. The idea of mobilizing the entire resources of the country for a total war, and expecting nationalistic enthusiasm for the war and active contribution to the war effort from everyone, is possibly the single most vile legacy of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. In the 1790s, many people in Europe were shocked to find out that unlike in the past, it was no longer possible to travel to a country just because yours was in a state of war with it.

    As for Louis XIV – in the armies that he used in his efforts to control Europe there were many men who did not want to be there.

    What exact men do you have in mind? Certainly, no French king ever had the power to send his men around the kingdom to forcibly enlist hundreds of thousands of men into his army.

    And minister Colbert demanded that every trader and manufaturer pass special government exams – and obey endless rules and regulations (he would fit well into the modern world).

    And, of course, if you had the wrong religion under Louis XIV you had to flee for your life.

    This is true, although arguably, many more people had to flee for their lives from the Revolution, and many also weren’t even given the option to flee. In comparison, Protestants lived quite comfortably in the last decades of the Ancien Regime. To take only one example, the Protestant faith of Jacques Necker didn’t prevent him from having a stellar political career in the 1770s and 1780s.

    Also, while the Ancien Regime was certainly not very tolerant religiously, it displayed a far higher tolerance for linguistic and ethnic diversity than any subsequent government of France. Just observe how languages other than French have been suppressed in the meantime, despite the fact that 200 years ago French was overall a minority language in the Kingdom of France.

    As for tax – the tax farmers (apart from in Brittany and few other places in France where taxation was organized by local Estates) could act as they wish – and yes demand every detail of someone’s life.

    And yet, the king was completely powerless to raise taxes even as he was going bankrupt. When he finally ran out of money, he was forced to summon the Estates General to get permission to do anything about it, which thereupon felt free to spit in his face and dethrone him. And people yet call this system “absolutism” with a straight face!

    But let us not pretend that tyranny is a modern invention.

    Oh, I’m not claiming that pre-Revolutionary kings were any paragons of virtue; on the contrary. However, I do think that mainstream history is guilty of throwing far too much dirt on them, while at the same time minimizing and whitewashing the crimes of the Revolution and ignoring the fact that the most murderous ideologies of the 20th century have directly built on its legacy, both practical and theoretical.

  • Soupmonkey

    Ivan
    Okay, Roman empire. Tell me what you actually think. This is not a joke, I am sincerely interested.

  • nick g.

    Has anyone else noticed that ever since they killed all those aristocrats, the French nation has had trouble winning wars? Whilst they had some successes under Napoleon, have there been any great military victories since then? Or was that a turning point in terms of glory?

  • Ivan

    Soupmonkey:

    Okay, Roman empire. Tell me what you actually think. This is not a joke, I am sincerely interested.

    Well, this is almost totally off-topic, but since you’re interested, and I’ll try to be brief, I hope the blog owners won’t mind… :-)

    Frankly, I’d say that we lack sufficient information for a fair judgment of the Roman political and economic system. The problem is that we have plenty of information about various extraordinary and spectacular events in Roman history, but we actually know very little about what the life of the common people was like in various places and times. Generally, it is still a matter of controversy how high the living standards of common people actually rose during the height of Roman power and how much they subsequently fell during the breakdown of the Empire (for some interesting discussion, see e.g. “The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization” by B. Ward-Perkins). Also, it’s pretty unclear how well the Roman government actually worked in practice when it came to the protection of the life and property of a common person.

    Certainly, there are well-documented gross abuses of power by Roman officials throughout Roman history, and the inhuman cruelty of Romans towards slaves, rebellious subjects, and defeated enemies is also indisputable. But how well the Roman state actually worked on average from the perspective of a common person of the time, and how it compares in that regard with various more recent governments about which we know much more – I’m afraid that question is hard to answer given the information we have nowadays.

    I guess the most powerful argument against the Roman civilization is the fact that despite a long period of relative peace, prosperity, and free trade throughout the Empire, it still failed to give birth to the scientific and industrial revolution. But of course, we can only speculate about why things went that way…

  • Soupmonkey

    Ivan
    Thank you. I thought I would get actual intelligent thought out of this .
    By the way: what is off topic for a free man?

  • Roman empire. Tell me what you actually think.

    Which Roman Empire? The republican one of Marius, Sula and Caesar? The Empire of the Principate, from Augustus up to Diocletion? The Imperial and servile empire which followed? The Pagan Empire or the Christian Empire? The Empire of tradition and common law or the one following Justinian?

    The united empire, the split empire or the sundered empire? The Italian Roman Empire or the Greek Roman Empire?

    It is impossible to comment, there was just too much history for the question to be given a straight answer.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I repeat: shut the fucking fuck up.

    Billy Beck, I’d prefer it if you left such decisions to the editors of this blog. Sunfish was not being gratuitously rude or sneering at anyone, from what I can tell.

  • Sunfish

    Paul Marks:

    And minister Colbert demanded that every trader and manufaturer pass special government exams – and obey endless rules and regulations (he would fit well into the modern world).

    Indeed. I think he developed the licensing regime for barbers in the modern US. And I meet his spiritual grandchildren every time I go to the Dep’t of Motor Vehicles.

    Ivan:

    I guess the most powerful argument against the Roman civilization is the fact that despite a long period of relative peace, prosperity, and free trade throughout the Empire, it still failed to give birth to the scientific and industrial revolution. But of course, we can only speculate about why things went that way…

    I seem to remember that someone in ancient Greece actually managed to invent a sort of steam engine. However, nobody could see a reason for it. They already had slaves to do the work and there was really no point to inventing a machine to replace them, or so they thought.

    Could be the same in this case: in the minds of slaveowners, why bother inventing something to replace the slaves?

    FWIW, I have a vague memory[1] of Rome producing at least a few advances in medicine, although your point can be taken to be equivalent to “Why did it take until Leewenhouk (sp?) to put lenses together and Pasteur to look through them to figure this out?”

    As for Rome’s scientific understanding: they had a geocentric idea of the universe, correct?

    Billy, how much of your headache with me would still be there if I were an electrician instead? (Editors, nuke this part if I was out of line for asking)

    [1] Be nice, I’m a product of a major suburban US public school system and most of what I know about Rome is from The Life of Brian and a stack of Asterix comics.

  • Gabriel

    If the sort of Rationalists who were in the vanguard on August 4th take over a state, then freedom and civilized life will suffer in proportion to the competence and ruthlessness of the Rationalists in question. It doesn’t matter whether they bang on and on about Liberty till the cows come home; it doesn’t matter whether they have convinced themselves that that’s what they believe in; it doesn’t matter whether it genuinely forms the centrepiece of their thoughts. If you want to reform society in accordance with conclusions derived “logically” from axiomatic principles, you will destroy freedom given the chance and a lot of human lives with it.

    Hence, I can’t really agree with the post. It’s like commemorating a particularly intense drug experience before the inevitable comedown. Not only inevitable in the sense of separate events that follow one another unavoidably, but rather as when the events in question are really only arbitrarily demarcated parts of the same process. What followed August 4th may have betrayed some of its more explicit pronouncements, but it was in absolute conformity to its spirit. All progressive ideologies likewise inevitably subvert whatever was once superficially noble and attractive about them.

    When are people going to look at the basic facts of modern history, put 2 and 2 together and realise that Bills of Rights, Separation of Church and State etc. are bad ideas? Really, really, catastrophically bad ideas. The U.S.A is the exception, not the rule. (Of course, the Constitution does not mandate separation of Church and State, but only separation of church and Federal government in order to protect the different church-state stuctures of various states. But that’s a different post for a different day). People trying to defend the French Revolution and specifically its simillarity to the American one, often bring up Jefferson and Paine. Were they wrong? Obviously they were wrong, but there’s more. Jefferson and Paine were profoundly wrongheaded and dangerous men who, had they not been restrained by other, more conservative, men, would have committed acts of enormous wickedness in America. I do not mean “restrained” in the literal sense, but rather that they were restrained by the weight of opinion and attitude in American society (both high political society and more widely). Thus they ended up basically good men rhather than wicked. There but for the grace of G-d.

    Last time I tried this here I was accused of being a jihadist, but I’ve typed now so I’ll post anyway.

    Otherwise, Paul is surely right about pre-revolutionary Europe. There are very few ways to be decent and a million ways to be absolutely awful.

  • RAB

    Well it depends what you call science I suppose, but can I mention that the Romans had concrete and glass.
    and some pretty fine siege engines.
    Concrete certainly was lost to civilisation for centuries after the fall of Rome.

  • tdh

    US citizens aren’t allowed to leave permanently, at least for economic reasons; the IRS insists on taxing Americans abroad even if they give up US citizenship.

    The formerly-reliable fascist majority of the US Supreme Court ruled that corporations are allowed to bribe cities to steal neighborhoods for what are manifestly private purposes, in Kelo.

    The Roman economic system was fascist to an extent increasing, over centuries, ultimately to the point of economic ruin, but it, too, did at least have its better days. For example, the production of high-quality pottery (sigillata) was restricted to favored producers. Medical advances were part (primarily?) Hellenistic and part Roman; Lucretius came close, without microscopes (odd; glass was discovered centuries BC), to a useful explanation of the spread of disease, and there were advances in anatomy and physiology (including some experimentation on live subjects). Medically, the Romans’ main advantage was sanitation; Romans were good at borrowing, symptomatic of a trading culture.

  • Ivan

    Gabriel,

    I actually agree with your basic points, and I think what you wrote about the American War of Independence is especially true. I can also see why many libertarians are apt to misinterpret your points because they naively view the French Enlightenment as the key precursor to classical liberalism.

    However:

    Otherwise, Paul is surely right about pre-revolutionary Europe. There are very few ways to be decent and a million ways to be absolutely awful.

    Well, yes, and being awful is often in one’s best interest when one is in a position of power and able to get away with it. That goes without saying.

    However, the key issue is not about whether the rulers had the inclination to be awful (even though I have no doubt that even the vilest Bourbon kings would compare favorably with the rabble-rousers who led the Revolution). Rather, the issue is how much awfulness the ruler can get away with. And here we get to the point where the modern popular perception is hopelessly skewed: popular history describes the Ancien Regime as “absolutist”, which makes people imagine the king as a ruthless Stalin-like absolute ruler and the nobility and Church as the Party officials and commissars bent on viciously enforcing the party line in every aspect of life; not to even mention the fact that people often believe that various practices that were in fact already gone by the early 18th century, or even earlier, had continued all until 1789. Even the Bastille has been fabricated into a symbol of this supposed royal absolutist terror, even though when the mob stormed it and slaughtered its guards and paraded their heads on pikes (by the way, these guards’ jobs were sinecures run as a welfare service for disabled army veterans), they actually found out that the only prisoners were six or seven common criminals and lunatics.

    Starting with such a skewed perspective, it’s impossible not to view the French Revolution as a great step forward for liberty, despite all its flaws. But at the end of the day, this is a mistake totally analogous to what leftists do when they try to argue the virtuousness of the Bolshevik Revolution. In both cases, the preceding royal/imperial regime is presented as a ridiculous evil caricature, which conveniently serves to minimize the crimes of the revolutionaries and the collateral damage of the revolution, and also to ridiculously overblow the supposed positive accomplishments of the revolutionaries (which, in both cases, had already started to happen, and also in a much better way, already under the old regime).

  • Ivan

    Gabriel,

    I actually agree with your basic points, and I think what you wrote about the American War of Independence is especially true. I can also see why many libertarians are apt to misinterpret your points because they naively view the French Enlightenment as the key precursor to classical liberalism.

    However:

    Otherwise, Paul is surely right about pre-revolutionary Europe. There are very few ways to be decent and a million ways to be absolutely awful.

    Well, yes, and being awful is often in one’s best interest when one is in a position of power and able to get away with it. That goes without saying.

    However, the key issue is not about whether the rulers had the inclination to be awful (even though I have no doubt that even the vilest Bourbon kings would compare favorably with the rabble-rousers who led the Revolution). Rather, the issue is how much awfulness the ruler can get away with. And here we get to the point where the modern popular perception is hopelessly skewed: popular history describes the Ancien Regime as “absolutist”, which makes people imagine the king as a ruthless Stalin-like absolute ruler and the nobility and Church as the Party officials and commissars bent on viciously enforcing the party line in every aspect of life; not to even mention the fact that people often believe that various practices that were in fact already gone by the early 18th century, or even earlier, had continued all until 1789. Even the Bastille has been fabricated into a symbol of this supposed royal absolutist terror, even though when the mob stormed it and slaughtered its guards and paraded their heads on pikes (by the way, these guards’ jobs were sinecures run as a welfare service for disabled army veterans), they actually found out that the only prisoners were six or seven common criminals and lunatics.

    Starting with such a skewed perspective, it’s impossible not to view the French Revolution as a great step forward for liberty, despite all its flaws. But at the end of the day, this is a mistake totally analogous to what leftists do when they try to argue the virtuousness of the Bolshevik Revolution. In both cases, the preceding royal/imperial regime is presented as a ridiculous evil caricature, which conveniently serves to minimize the crimes of the revolutionaries and the collateral damage of the revolution, and also to ridiculously overblow the supposed positive accomplishments of the revolutionaries (which, in both cases, had already started to happen, and also in a much better way, already under the old regime).

  • Ivan

    Sunfish:

    I seem to remember that someone in ancient Greece actually managed to invent a sort of steam engine.

    You are correct – this fellow(Link) invented an impressive collection of stuff in the first century AD, including the first documented steam engine.

    However, nobody could see a reason for it. They already had slaves to do the work and there was really no point to inventing a machine to replace them, or so they thought.

    Who knows? The problem is that one can easily speculate and produce plausible theories like this one, but unfortunately, all such theories are untestable. It is certainly true that some very smart inventors, like Archimedes and Hero of Alexandria, lived in Hellenistic and Roman times, but for some reason, their inventions were never taken seriously by people who had enough money to push further R&D and make useful products out of them.

    In my opinion — and here I’m just speculating — slavery by itself can’t explain this lack of interest in technology by the rich folks. Even if you have a bunch of slaves, these slaves will still produce more wealth if equipped with machines. Slave owners still bothered to equip their slaves with shovels to increase efficiency, rather than forcing them to dig with their bare hands, so why stop there? And I find it hard to believe that just about every rich Roman was too stupid to figure this out, or that every clever inventor was too indifferent to try to commercialize his inventions. After all, Romans were quite capable of serious feats of civil and military engineering whenever the need arose.

    FWIW, I have a vague memory[1] of Rome producing at least a few advances in medicine, although your point can be taken to be equivalent to “Why did it take until Leewenhouk (sp?) to put lenses together and Pasteur to look through them to figure this out?”

    Again, these advances were sporadic, and the really worthwhile stuff was buried in the sea of quackery (often produced alongside real advances by the same persons). But of all modern sciences, medicine is possibly the one in which it’s the most difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Even long after the scientific revolution had already made physics and mathematics perfectly exact and rigorous by modern standards, practical medicine had still been mostly quackery until relatively recently. Even when their trade had already become scientifically rigorous, physicians were mostly powerless to do anything but simple surgery and prognostication all until the development of vaccines and antibiotics.

  • The Romans, and greeks, egyptians, persians etc, all had advances in technology, but this tended to be pragmatin, very little based on theory; none of them had science as such. Not as a formalised procedure based on a philosophy of enquiry.

    In fact, Aristotle, with his philosophy of assertion and authority, although advanced for his time, was a positive impediment to the development of a philosophy of science for sixteen hundred years.

    Although, don’t forget. Not only didn’t the Romans invent science, but neither did the Greeks, Indians, Arabs or Chinese. The surprise is not that the Romans didn’t invent it, but that the Europeans did.

  • nick g.

    I think the Druids had something like science, but they didn’t leave any written records, so we’ll never know.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Gabriel comes up with more nonsense. Oh well, it is Friday so let’s fisk away, like we did last summer:

    “When are people going to look at the basic facts of modern history, put 2 and 2 together and realise that Bills of Rights, Separation of Church and State etc. are bad ideas? Really, really, catastrophically bad ideas.”

    You overlook that notions of bills of rights, of documents expressing important relations between the individual and the state, have been around for a long time. What of course counts is that there is a culture that is suitable and nuturing towards liberty and tolerance, and certain institutional/other factors in place, such as:

    respect for notions of individual liberty; clearly defined property rights; freedom of movement; respect for openness, debate and enquiry; the lack of a big state and crushing bureaucracy, and so on.

    And your point about separation of church and state is priceless. Are you saying that people of certain religions should get preferential treatment if they are say, Anglicans, as was the case in the UK for a long time? Until the late 19th centuries, an atheist could not stand for parliament; Jews, non-comformists and Catholicis were barred from voting and holding certain jobs and vocations, although these restrictions were gradually removed.

  • Paul Marks

    Gabriel.

    Whilst Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine both supported the French Revolution (and I agree that they were “wrong headed” to do so) they had rather different political opinions.

    Certainly the ending of domestic taxation and the reduction of government spending (the policy followed by Jefferson after he became President in 1801) would not have Paine’s line of policy.

    Tom Paine (contrary to a lot of libertarian myths) believed in a strong centralized government handing out a lot of benefits (and Jefferson did not).

    Ivan:

    I certainly oppose the mass conscription of Carnot – but to say that the French Revolution “invented” this is false.

    For example, every Classical state had the mass conscription of most able bodied men at times of crises – for example Rome in the Second Punic War. Although women fighting was rare in the Classical World (although not unknown – for example women helped fight off a Spartan attack on the walls of Argos – the women were led in the fighting by a noted poetess).

    In 18th century Europe Frederick the Great killed off a bigger percentage of his male population than the French Revolution was to do a few decades later.

    “The King could not put up taxes even when he was going bankrupt”.

    Now you are playing games Ivan.

    Louis XVI “could not put up taxes” because he was a hopeless weakling who always carried the stamp of the last person to sit on him.

    Louis XIV would have raised them in a heartbeat – and with no need to call the Estates General either.

    Of course it was government SPENDING that was the problem anyway.

    The government had got into terrible debt by helping the Americans (against Louis XVI judgement – but see above).

    Of course even Louis XV (quite a nice man compared to Louis XIV) would have dealt with the problem by cutting interest payments (and letting the creditors suffer – the French Revolutionaries defaulted on the debt anyway).

    But poor Louis XVI was too weak to do anything – so he allowed the Estates General to be called. Thus signing his own death warrent.

    You might as well say “the President is unable to control the C.I.A. – look at all the ways they have undermined his policies”.

    Not not “the President” – just Bush the weakling.

  • Paul Marks

    Small historical point.

    The Bastille was not “stormed” – Governor De Lamy (spellign alert) surrendered when the outer part of the fortress was taken over by the armed mob.

    He could have held the fortress proper (at least made a proper fight of it), but he did not want large numbers of people killed.

    Although the Governor had been given a promise of safe conduct he was then abused and murdered.

    It is vile that the French celebrate this every 14th of July.

    Religious toleration.

    There is a difference between religious persecution (as under Louis XIV) and an established Church (as under Louis XVI).

    The Revolutionaries liked to pretend there was no difference (although their “Civil Constitution of the Clergy” of 1790 actually created more a state church than ever) but it is a vast difference.

    For example Britain has an established church today – is there religious persecution?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Thomas Jefferson’s defect as a person and as a political thinker was not his contempt for religion or his love of reason, rather, it was his naivety about the French Revolution, his appalling notion that it is good to have violence to “refresh the tree of liberty”, and his hypocrisy over the slavery issue.

    Christopher Hitchens’ recent short study of Jefferson is well worth reading.

  • Ivan

    Paul Marks:

    I certainly oppose the mass conscription of Carnot – but to say that the French Revolution “invented” this is false.

    I would also point out that the problem is not only in the violation of individuals’ rights by mass conscription (although of course that would be bad enough by itself), but also in the fact that the French Revolutionary Wars first introduced the modern concept of nationalistically-minded total war (of which mass conscription is only one aspect). This not only led to brutality and slaughter unseen in Europe since the Thirty Years’ War, but also set the blueprint for the cataclysmic world wars of the 20th century. Of course, it’s not like 18th century wars were nice and gentle affairs, but it’s undeniable that there existed rules of fair play between sovereigns that prevented their escalation into full-blown, scorched-earth continent-wide slaughters.

    For example, every Classical state had the mass conscription of most able bodied men at times of crises – for example Rome in the Second Punic War. Although women fighting was rare in the Classical World (although not unknown – for example women helped fight off a Spartan attack on the walls of Argos – the women were led in the fighting by a noted poetess).

    Fair enough – I agree that one can find an earlier precedent for just about any abomination in modern history if one goes far enough into the past. However, my point is that in order to judge the French Revolution fairly, one should compare its outcome with the political, social, and economic system in the decades that directly preceded it, not ancient past. (Just like one should judge the Russian Revolution by comparing Lenin’s and Stalin’s reign to 19th and 20th century czars, not to Ivan the Terrible.) Mass conscription and total wars were indisputably an innovation compared to the century that preceded the Revolution.

    In 18th century Europe Frederick the Great killed off a bigger percentage of his male population than the French Revolution was to do a few decades later.

    It’s not like I have any great liking for Prussian militarist monarchs, but are you really sure about this? As far as I know, between Thirty Years’ War and the French Revolution, no European conflict ever came close to the death tolls and the scale of devastation in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, even by an order of magnitude.

    “The King could not put up taxes even when he was going bankrupt”.
    Now you are playing games Ivan.
    Louis XVI “could not put up taxes” because he was a hopeless weakling who always carried the stamp of the last person to sit on him.
    Louis XIV would have raised them in a heartbeat – and with no need to call the Estates General either.

    Well, I guess we’re both playing games a bit then. :-) You are also taking an extreme data point for your example, since the reign of Louis XIV was the very pinnacle of royal power in France. However, I would argue that the French Revolution increased the power of the central government far beyond even that of Louis XIV, let alone Louis XV and XVI (whose reigns spanned 74 years preceding the revolution, so we’re not talking about some exceptional short-term period). As for Louis XIV, his power to increase taxes was certainly much weaker than that of modern governments. His ability to tax the rich was severely constrained, and it’s not like he had an easy time squeezing extra money out of the poor either. Compare that with the modern situation where the government can set arbitrary tax rates without encountering any serious resistance save for the occasional skilled tax evaders.

    I mean, it’s not like I consider the government of the Ancien Regime as good by any absolute standards, but I believe that even among libertarians and classical liberals, it’s a very widespread misconception that the French Revolution was a step ahead for liberty at least relative to the regime that preceded it. In my opinion, no only was its direct effect far on the negative side, but its ideological fallout has also been poisonous and creating great damage worldwide ever since.

  • Carol Kalescky

    Could you post the title of the Christopher Hitchens’ piece, or what journal/magazine it was in?

  • Paul Marks

    Yes the French Revolutionaries themselves (or a lot of them anyway) thought in terms of bringing back elements of the Classical World.

    Sadly it was normally the worst elements – mass conscription, total war (with endless plunder and murder), government unlimted by tradition or by landed familes, or by local estates (such as the Parliament of Brittany) and so on.

    Even in 19th century liberalism we can see traces of all this.

    After all Italian unification (let alone German) brought higher taxes, conscription to places that had no had it before (such as Sicily) and persecution of local languages and traditions – in order to create a “the people”.

    And, of course, attacks on the Roman Catholic Church -not on theological grounds (as with the 30 years war) but because it was an institution outside the state.

    It is true that 19th century European liberals were not socialists (as modern American “liberals” are), but they were not libertarians either.

    The Revolutionary regime worse than even Louis XIV – agreed, but he laid the foundations of it (as had some other Kings) by undermining all the institutions outside the state.

    The Church in France was under partial state control even before the Revolution – hence athiest Bishops, and the nonenforcement of the Council of Trent provisions.

    The great familes of France had been reduced to toys at court – not people with strong local power bases (as in England).

    The state was already (in theory at least) all in all. The Revolutionaries put theory into practice.

    Fred “the Great”.

    Yes Prussia had a small population and he took on everyone – what do you think happened (Prussians died in huge numbers, relative to the population, to make his dreams of power come true).

    I wish the Empress Elizabeth of Russia had lived just a little longer.

    Imperial Russian troops were on the outskirts of Berlin – had the Empress lived Fred would have been just Fred no “the Great” and the Prussian problem would have been ended for ever.

    Royal France would also have been a winner – so perhaps no Revolution.

    And the Hapsburgs of Austria would have been the main force in the German lands.

    Of course Britain backed Fred – but we would not have lost by his downfall.

    Although the Kingdom of Hannover might have been destroyed a century before it was.

    But I doubt even that – after the Empress Elizabeth had no designs on German lands (not even on Poland I seem to remember). And the Hapsburgs had (I think) no designs on Hannover either.

    The Queen of Hungary and ruler of Austria had been attacked by Frederick – it was a war of aggression (Silesia and anything else he could get).

    And (by his lust for power) Frederick had managed to make enemies of the Empress of Russia and the mistress of Louis XV as well.

    Perhaps modern “historians” would blame the alliance of France, Russia and Austria against him on the homophobia of women.

  • henry

    august 4th is good for the frecnch revolution, I have all this integrated according to principles before I ever encounter any given case, and I will not apologize for my conclusions and expressions of contempt. If I could do that to make any of you feel better, I would, but that’s not a principal value to me.
    ======================================
    jack

    http://www.treatmentcenters.org/wyoming

  • Subotai Bahadur

    If I may intrude, at the risk of being told to shut the fuck up *smile*, the inability of ancient civilizations to exploit scientific discoveries seems to be a constant. In the case of China, I have considered for some time the paradox that while China was in the early 1400′s far beyond Europe in scientific discoveries, it was soon surpassed and dominated by Europeans.

    The difference, I have concluded, was one key invention that Europe came up with and China did not. That invention was the limited liability corporation. In the absence of the ability to invest your savings, and still protect the rest of your financial holdings that you need to survive; as an individual you are not going to take risks to start companies or take a chance on new technologies. That means that exploitation of discoveries depends on patronage; either from the government or from a wealthy individual. These entities are less than thrilled with anything that would transform the way the society does things, because they have it pretty good in that society and change is a risk for them. That seems to be the pattern of all pyramid social patterns regardless of origin.

    Along comes the concept of the corporation, and the concurrent development of a credit system in Genoa and Venice. First tried for trading ventures, it worked so well that soon it spread out into other endeavors. And Europe benefited from the expansion. And the rest of the world fell behind.

    Thus, Hiero and Archimedes could invent steam engines, cranes, etc.; but there was no motive beyond intellectual curiousity to pursue them. If there was the opportunity for profit, at a limited risk; science would have progressed a lot faster.

    Subotai Bahadur

  • Paul Marks

    You have opened a bit topic Subotai Bahadur, several points need to be made.

    Firstly that the matter you have raised (limited liability) should not be confused with specific British or American 19th statutes – as you know the concept is far older (and those statutes had their flaws).

    On the question of economic importance:

    At least till the First World War the vast majority of Western economic life (including in Britain and the United States) was made up of individual or family owned enterpries – or partnerships. So one must not over stress the importance of limited liablity companies. They really came into their own when income tax became important (remember there was no Federal income tax at all in the United States till 1913) and undermined noncorporate enterprises.

    For example Henry Ford owned 100% of the Ford Motor Company in the 1930′s – so why bother with all the paperwork and regulation hadicaps that it being a “company” (rather than just people working for Henry Ford) meant? Because if it had not been a company it would have been destroyed by having to pay vast income taxes.

    Origins of limited liabilty – clubs and associations.

    Whether an association was semi secular (such as a burial club) or religous – the concept that one could only sue the corporate enity (not also the individuals who were members) is an ancient one. BUT CHINA HAD THIS ALSO.

    Take the example of a monastery. Someone might go on retreat to a monastic house (Buddist or whatever) for a certain period of time – without renouncing all the private property outside the religous house (meaning to leave the house and return to their family and farm after a period of time), but this did not mean that a trader seeking payment of a debt owned by the monastery could get everyone who was part of the monastary and sue their personal property – just the collective property of the house.

    Limited liability.

    “So why did China not develop large scale iron makers and the like?”

    People in China DID develop such things Bahadur – but various regimes stole them (thus undermining long term progress).

    Just as the French Revolutionaries stole factories and farms and……- whether indivdually owned or in corporate ownership.

    As such historians as William Doyle (see his 1989 Oxford University Press works on the French Revolution) and long before Doyle, Alfred Cobban “The Myth of the French Revolution” (1954) have pointed out – this was not a “capitalist” revolution. Of course some French historians know this also – see Florin Aftalin “The French Revolution: An Economic Interpretation” (translated by Martin Thon, Cambridge University Press).

    No my friend (if I may call you that) the key thing of the West was not limited liability (although I am no enemy of that – as long as all traders know the situation IN ADVANCE) the key thing of the West was the idea, however imperfect, that some laws limited even the power of the ruler in economic life – in such things as land ownership or taxation.

    Even the Edict of Quierzy (877) declaring that a King could not take a fief of land away from its owner or his heirs, was thought of as simply restating ancient basic right.

    Yet it would have considered unthinkable in China (how can PROPERTY law bind the Emperor?) or in Ancient Rome – or in the Islamic world.

    The reason (for example) that modern academics can not understand how different from each other the civilization the Empire of the Hapsburgs was from the Ottoman Empire (holding them to be much the same – accept that the Ottomans were more tolerant in religious matters) is that can not understand the concept of government limited by law – to them (as “moderns” i.e. Thomas Hobbes style legal positivists) law is whatever the rulers say it is, and there is no protection for private property from “the interest of the community”.

    Perhaps those silly old Tory people (such as Sir Walter Scott) were on to something when they tried to explain how feudalism (for all its faults) was not the opposite of feedom that enlightened liberal opinion claimed it was. That things were much more complicated than that – with such things as feudal serfdom being anti freedom, but the basic conception of feudal law (that law was independent of the will of the ruler or rulers – and bound them) was the foundation of freedom. And this foundation rested on proud men of arms who would not accept that they were the slaves of any man – even a King. Or a legislature elected by the divine right of the 51%.

    That is why “Progressive” people have “interpreted” the United States Constitution into being a dead letter. And also why they regard Constitutions that are even harder to “interpret” away (such as the Constitution of Texas or the Constitution of Alabama) with such hatred.

    To them such things are as hateful as the old limitations of Estates and customary law were to the “enlightened” despots from the 16th century onwards – with their efforts (never totally successful) to be as free from “restrictive feudal law” (and the Estates and Parliaments that represented it) as Ottoman Sultans or Chinese Emperors.

    For in truth the French Revolution was carrying on the work of the “enlightened” despots.

  • Paul Marks

    I wrote a long reply to you Sir (going into various historical matters), however it vanished.

    Alas.