The origins of income tax: Vauban and Turgot

The origins of income tax: Vauban and Turgot

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The need for the creation of a income tax in France was born at the end of the 17th century. In the matter, two great characters Vauban (in the Grand Siècle) and Turgot (in the Age of Enlightenment) were each precursor or visionary. Close to their kings, they could have taken advantage of the system, but their ideas were to save money in favor of the kingdom, to encourage entrepreneurship and trade and above all to distribute the tax burden over the entire population, which was against the law. fundamental principles of the kingdom.

Vauban, economist and political thinker

By virtue of his function as an engineer, Vauban (1633-1707) after having traveled so much (nearly 180,000 kms and most often on horseback) had a good idea of ​​French territory and a fairly accurate vision of the country's problems, accumulating a mass of printing, notes and specific information about the provinces. Not being of great birth, he dreams of a state nobility, based on merit and not on birth, favoring intelligent and efficient people.

Around 1684, he made a statement of France, when the War of the League of Augsburg broke out. He believes that reforms must be carried out, because as he writes "one must not flatter, the interior of the kingdom is ruined, everything suffers, everything suffers and everything moans". From 1703, he put all his drafts in order, carried out surveys, always with the same goal: to enrich the kingdom. In one of his works, he insists and "denounces the poverty of 60% of the population, 30% is not well off and only 10% of the population is at ease"; "The upper part crushes the lower in France, one possesses all the goods, eats them and dispels them in superfluity, and the other dies of hunger and misery".

For the American colonies, he mentions that they have no value unless they are populated, even predicting that New France, our current Canada, will have 26 million inhabitants in 1970! Which will ultimately be the case.

The Royal Tithe project

The people being very important to him, he sticks to it and tries to find solutions to alleviate his suffering, make him happier while increasing the king's income. He wrote his last memoir, which would be printed during his lifetime “if the royal tithe could take place”. Taxes being legion, it is always necessary to find others. He believes that the Three Orders must be "flattened" in the name of social justice and equity for the future prosperity of France. All direct taxes would be replaced by a single tax; the tax would be reduced by half; the royal tithe would be proportional to income, privileged orders not being exempt. He informed the king and read passages to him.

His work "La Dîme" was clandestinely printed in 300 copies, distributed to his friends and relatives close to the king. But the manuscript will be condemned shortly before Vauban's death in 1707, by the Censors of the King's Privy Council, on the grounds of going against monarchical policy if it is disseminated in public.

He will still be known throughout Europe and will have a great posterity. However, in 1710, the "tenth" was put in place, but will be disastrous, because other taxes will not be removed.
After Vauban and Louis XIV, the tax problem will be the constant preoccupation of Louis XV and Louis XVI, unfortunately leading to the end of the monarchy, 80 years after the writings of our great engineer, economist and political thinker.

Turgot, defender of economic and political liberalism

Louis XVI, after ascending to the throne, wanted to rule alone as his ancestor, without Prime Minister, but assisted by a man of confidence in the person of the Count de Maurepas. The latter brought Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727-1781) into the government, into the portfolio of the Navy.

Turgot is intended for the Church, but is more interested in economic problems and participates in the Encyclopedia. A man of reflection, driven by the desire to save money and teeming with innovative ideas, he is a follower of the freedom to undertake. At the age of 34, he worked in the generality of Limoges, encouraged the construction of roads, charity workshops, established a textile industry, established a size tariff in proportion to the rent and the value of the land , replaces the drudgery by a tax distributed over the population.

In his writings, he advocates economic and political liberalism, defending individual freedom and the invasion of private property. After his lightning stint in the Navy, he took the post of Comptroller General of Finance in August 1774. During his interview with the king, he frankly explained his ideas to him “no bankruptcy, no increase in taxes, no 'loans'.

Turgot wants to clean up the finances to bring the expenditure below the recipe, by saving 20 million pounds per year. He proposed drastic savings such as lowering the costs of all ministries, expenses having to be approved in advance by the comptroller; he advocates for the reduction of the expenses of the King's House which represent a sum greater than the State deficit; he reduced his salary by almost half of his own accord ... but unfortunately he could not do anything about the Queen's expenses.

A universal income tax?

He wants to improve the recipes. Most of the tax burden rests on agriculture, nonsense for Turgot who writes "it is always the land which is the first and only source of all wealth, agriculture is the only means of increasing income. of State ". In the spirit of Vauban's ideas, the Comptroller General of Finance wants a tax reform that would distribute the charges over the entire population, without privilege for the nobility and the bourgeoisie. He is in favor of the freedom of enterprise, the freedom to trade and passes a law "of freedom of the internal trade in grain and freedom to import foreign grain". He knows he has speculators against him and expects the price of wheat to rise. As a consequence, it is soon the "war of flour" where the merchants make such stocks that the prices increase.

In 1776, he proposed six decrees: abolition of the royal corvée; introduction of a tax paid by owners for road repair, which was previously the responsibility of the peasants; abolition of privileges and submission of the Three Orders to taxation; abolition of jurandes and masteries so that every man has the right to work without restriction. But the result is hatred of the nobility and of Parliament.

However, he continues his reforms, because he believes in the King, with the secularization of education and public assistance; the redemption of seigneurial rights; the introduction of a property tax with general revision of the cadastre; the creation of a municipality managing all the problems of local interest, which would elect cantonal and provincial assemblies, which amounts to overturning the fundamental laws of the kingdom.

He will not be able to go further, he will be able to do nothing for the kingdom or for the monarchy which he feels in difficulty, even in danger. This is too much: Louis XVI no longer trusts him, accusing him of wanting to govern everything, to direct everything, he goes so far as to say "Monsieur Turgot wants to be me, and I don't want him to be me". Turgot sends a final letter to the king "never forget, Sire, that it is weakness which put the head of Charles I (of England) on a block ..." In May 1776, he was dismissed and prayed for to leave Versailles and the Court. Faithful to his ideas, Turgot refuses the pension granted by Louis XVI "I must not set an example of being the responsibility of the State".

These two great characters, Vauban and Turgot, were truly visionaries. A large part of their ideas were taken up a few hundred years later and the difficulties are still the same, the State still not having enough revenue and always more expenditure!


- History of tax, by André Neurisse. PUF, 1978.

- Vauban, the inventor of modern France, by Dominique Le Brun. Vuibert, 2016.

- Turgot or the Myth of Reforms, by Lucien Laugier. Albatross, 1979.

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