Pierre de Boisguilbert and the opportunity of laissez-faire (1707)

Are we to wait for the end of the war?

Pierre de Boisguilbert and the opportunity of laissez-faire (1707)


by Benoît Malbranque



Laissez-faire (let things be) is an ideal which presents itself in various forms in French literature prior to the 17th century, and first and foremost in the writings of Rabelais and Montaigne, but whose first greatest advocate in economics is Pierre de Boisguilbert (1646–1714). This man, for sure, is a curious fellow, with a peculiar way of writing. English readers until now have never experienced his writings, for his main economic works have appeared in Italian, German, and Chinese, but not English. Boisguilbert is the author of close to one hundred letters sent to ministers in the space of twenty years, as well as several short books, published anonymously and illegally, with the aim of winning public support for his policy of both free trade and fair taxation. In his writings, he reiterated his pleas with boldness and assertiveness. The method of taxation that had been used for the past few decades was ruinous, so he wrote to the minister Michel Chamillart that “your predecessors were well-intentioned, but they acted as if they were paid to precipitate the downfall of the King and his people” (Boisguilbert 1966, I, 323). Similarly, restricting the grain trade was not only detrimental, according to him, but resulted in food shortage and starvation; it was “like stabbing every year a great amount of people” (Ibid., I, 336). His letters, he said, were as pressing as the country’s needs (Ibid., I, 353). “Please be kind enough to open your eyes to the real situation of the kingdom,” he wrote to the Controller-General (Ibid., I, 420). It is hardly surprising that ministers did not listen to him. But having failed to convince them, he released some of his writings to the public. In 1695 he published State of France (Le Détail de la France), republished the same year under the daring title of France Being Ruined under the Reign of Louis XIV, by Whom and How: Along with the Solution for a Quick Recovery.

The state of France, according to Boisguilbert, was in spoilage. Throughout the country grapevines and fruit trees were being abandoned, fields were left to ravens and owls, and all lands had lost half or even three quarters of their value (Ibid., I, 294, 433; II, 584). Such was “the corpse” of France. One then had to find the culprits and punish them (Ibid., II, 871). If the people of France were living a life of near poverty, it was because consumption was made absolutely impossible by two faulty schemes. The first one was unfair and unpredictable taxation, which in agriculture discouraged land owners from investing and farmers from working. The second was the restriction of trade both inside and outside the country, of grains, in particular (Ibid., II, 590-591).

People responsible for the collection of taxes, Boisguilbert says, behave as if France were a conquered foreign country, that one may never see again, and therefore the conquerors do not find it extraordinary that a man is entirely ruined, his house and all his belongings seized, to satisfy the tax collector (Ibid., II, 641). They failed to see that because of this unstable, unpredictable, and unfair taxation, named the taille, people across the country were dissuaded from being rich and getting richer: for someone who did not appear to be extremely poor, or paid his taxes on time without fuss, could be sure to be overtaxed the next year (Ibid., II, 596). Therefore every man hid his possessions and pretended to be on the verge of poverty. “Only a daily life of bread and water,” Boisguilbert notes, “can keep a man safe. If his neighbor sees him buying a piece of meat or some new clothes, he will be made to pay; if by accident he receives money, he must hide it, for if this was ever known, he would be a lost man” (Ibid., II, 894). Since the best way to appear poor was of course to actually be poor and to remain poor, no agricultural improvement was being made. “Everything that a man could earn in addition would not be for him; thus if he understands where his interest stands, he will do his best to stay still, as much as possible” (Ibid., II, 762. See similarly Vauban 2007, 768).

France was being ruined also, Boisguilbert wrote, because trade was restricted in many ways. Well-intentioned measures were in place, for instance, to prohibit the free flow of grains across the country. Regions where good crops were expected or obtained could not exchange with others where harvests had been bad. A series of controls and permits were making the whole business of trade very wearisome. Once a producer has experienced what it takes to sell his commodity, Boisguilbert alleged, seeing how the government employees abuse the business, the producer will make sure never to conduct trade again (Ibid., II, 606). Consequently, wine producers would rather lose some of their wine than to bother transporting it with carts and horses and be subjected to the abuse (Ibid., II, 609. See also Vauban, 2007, 768).

Faced with these two evils of taxation and restrictions, both unreasonably imposed and abusively enforced, Boisguilbert offered solutions. Taxation was to be established in such a way, he asserted, that people will be once again allowed to work and to spend their income (Ibid., I, 346; see also Vauban 2007, 762). The current trend had to be reversed, in favor of fair and predictable taxation. Taxation is coercive in essence, so even the best schemes are fraught with difficulty. But Boisguilbert said that taxes should also be made to flow directly from taxpayers to the state treasury, without an army of intermediaries and stakeholders being involved (Ibid., II, 899). As to trade, it had simply to be made free. “The freedom of roads is necessary for consumption and consequently for incomes,” Boisguilbert insisted. “They cannot rise from a situation where one encounters at every step people who are paid to prevent two countries from trading with one another” (Ibid., II, 941).

The economic policy that Boisguilbert espoused can be summarized in one motto: laisser faire la nature, that is, let nature operates its wonders freely. Because of this conclusion—as well as some brilliant passing remarks, for example on what was to become known as the “invisible hand” idea (Ibid., II, 748-749)—Boisguilbert emerges as one of the finest economists of his time. He calls for the disengagement of government from virtually all economic affairs, which are meant to function “without the intervention of any superior authority, which must be barred from any sort of production whatsoever, because nature, far from obeying the will of men, is constantly rebelling, and always finds a way to punish those who held her in contempt, by means of famine and desolation” (Ibid., II, 871). As long as one does not declare war against nature, and does not upset the natural order of things, lands are cultivated, farmers obtain incomes from their work, and they sell their products at a good value; everyone can bear his taxes and live a comfortable life. It is the marvel of freedom.

Notes on the texts

Boisguilbert’s style is peculiar, and I have tried to remain as faithful and as close to the original as possible. I have kept in French the names of some of the taxes of that time, notably the taille, a direct land tax, because its unjust repartition gave rise, up to a certain extent, to French political economy at the end of the 17th century, and because it was such a painful memory that Beaumont and Tocqueville, visiting Canada in 1831, found that people there were still using this word to mean a great calamity, although they never knew this tax (Beaumont 1973, 134 ; Tocqueville 1951, 285). All footnotes and insertions in square brackets [like these] are my own.

 Pierre de Boisguilbert, The state of France [le Détail de la France], 1695

 Summary of this book in 25 articles”

1. Joined together as they were 150 years ago, Sweden and Denmark occupy a larger territory than France, and yet their produce, both for the people and for the Prince, represent barely a tenth of that of France.

2. The reason for the difference is that French soil is excellent for the production of commodities needed to sustain life, and that the soil of both Denmark and Sweden is worthless.

3. However good a land may be, when it is not cultivated, for both the Prince and its owner it is as if it was worthless.

4. It is a well established fact that more than half of France is left bare or poorly cultivated, that is, much less cultivated than it could be, and even less than it once was: which is even more detrimental than if the land was entirely discarded because the produce could not meet the costs of cultivation.

5. It is certain that this decline can be computed and receive a precise estimation, like every revenue in the world, for there is nothing that cannot be estimated.

6. After extensive research and evaluation, one discovers that this decrease amounts to more than 500 million per year; and the value of all properties, cut in half on average, is a proof of this estimation.

7. It is also certain that such a calamity, of which there is no other instance in history since the creation of the world, that is, an opulent kingdom losing half of its wealth in thirty or forty years, and amidst no spread of plague, no earthquake, no war at home or abroad, and no such incidents that bring monarchies down in ruins; it is certain, I say, that some cause or other must be at the root, and that it is not due to chance.

8. There is no doubt that if someone were to find this cause, and offer it for sale to the people, there would not be a more profitable bargain ever suggested to the King and its subjects.

9. Whatever they would give, as long as it would be lower than the sum that they would obtain, there is no doubt that such an edict would be beneficial to the people, since they would gain possession of something they did not have, and that it would enrich them, once the King has paid.

10. There is no doubt, similarly, that when a man leaves his land uncultivated, he is subjected to a greater violence than the one whose property is seized, and since it only takes a quarter of an hour to put him back in possession, through a release that he would be notified, enabling him to cultivate again cannot require a longer time.

11. It all comes down to finding the cause of this abandonment, to enrich greatly the King and his people in just twenty-four hours.

12. There can only be two reasons why a man would be prevented from cultivating his land: either it is because cultivation requires funds that he is unable to obtain, neither by himself nor by borrowing; or it is because after cultivating he would not be able to sell off his productions, as he did in the past, and therefore that he would risk losing all his funds: and therefore it becomes in his interest to leave his land bare.

13. This is precisely what happens regarding the arbitrary taille. It is not extraordinary to witness a large enterprise paying virtually no taille, while a poor man, who can only count on the resource of his two arms to provide daily sustenance for himself and his family, is under intense pressure; and the reason why he is not pressured more is that if higher taxation was levied on him the payment would never be successfully collected; and thus, if he were to plow the soil, currently left bare, the harvest would not be for him, and he would lose in addition the costs of cultivation, which are very high.

14. As for the second obstacle—that is, to stop cultivating, for after the harvest selling off the products would be impossible—duties of aides and customs on import and export, being four times higher than what the commodity can bear, which is the reason why these duties become useless for the King himself, since nothing is levied, such duties have resulted in a situation where consumption was reduced by a factor of four in the course of thirty or forty years; and one is not surprised to see a whole county drinking only water, when in the neighboring county grapevines and fruit trees are pulled up; and far from resulting in an increase of the sums collected by the King, this has prevented them from doubling since 1660, as they did every thirty years, from 1447 until the said year 1660.

15. The remedy to all of this is easy, as long as one will only concern oneself, in the issue of taxation, with the interests of both the King and his people. One must examine if there cannot be a system in which sums are immediately transferred from the hand of the people, to that of the King, which would have a rule and maintain a balance between all conditions, so that the poor pays as poor and the rich as rich, and this without the involvement of judges or authorities, whose intervention implies fees and a loss of time, amounting to the primary taxation itself.

16. The edict regarding the capitation tax intended to solve all this disorder, but it can be said that it solved only one point, that is to transfer directly the sums from the hand of the people to that of the King, without the involvement of a private management system; but, first, the root cause of the abandonment of lands is not eliminated; and second, this rule of proportion according to which everyone pays according to its capacity, far from being respected in all cases, there are occasions where a man owning an office worth 100,000 écus, and assets in proportion, pays the same tax than another man whose office cost only 500 livres; and thus, since it was necessary, to tax them equally, to lower the rate of the richer, because it was impossible to raise the rate of the poorer, the King does not levy from the former a sum proportionate to his capacity, whereas the later is maybe crushed: and this resulted in the new system being unsatisfactory.

17. Returning now to the first article of these essays, one says that in order to satisfy the needs of the State and reestablish all people in their former prosperity, it is not necessary to perform miracles, but solely to stop doing violence to nature, and to imitate both our neighbors and ancestors, who never knew but two sorts of taxation, that is, the fire tax and the tenth part on lands, which was the first resource of the Kings of France, and it is only thanks to their donations that the Church has taken them over.

18. Thus are solved the problems of the capitation tax: one makes as many classes of people, following the various degrees of wealth, without leaving any room for dispute; commerce and consumption are not in any way hampered; and wherever the people have been free to choose the most suitable system of taxation, they have opted only for these two taxes.

19. Instead of the tenth part on lands, in order to create lesser changes, one only needs to order that the taille will now be levied according to occupations, and that a man who has nothing but his industry will only be required to pay between three to six livres; thus, at the level of two sols per livre, the taille will provide more funds than it currently does, because cities where the tailleis levied and where industry pays most of it, will be applied a rate, which is what they are begging for. And as for customs tariff, duties known under the name of aides, and other duties on transportation, which ruin consumption, ruling that they will be added to the taille, up to a third, and the rest to the fire tax, will enable the people to pay only about one sixth of what they pay today, while the King will receive twice as much, because the taille, including some of the revenue levied on customs, being based on the value of properties, they will regain their former level, which was double what they are now; hence the taille will double in the same way, without being cause for trouble for the owner, since the increase in revenue for the King will only follow his own prosperity.

20. It should not be argued that this will take time, for between the authorization given to sell a commodity, when potential buyers exist, and the actual sale, there is no more than twenty-four hours; and for between selling the commodity and being richer than one once was, there is no time span at all; and for between being richer than one once was, and spending more, or buying property, or improving cultivation, there is no time span either; and for between making such a move and creating a flow of riches for the people, there is again no time span; and as soon as people have money, they spend the wealth that they obtain from their labor, and are able to pay the King accordingly. Thus, everything depends on the cultivation of lands, which cannot happen as long as farmers are unable to provide the funds to cultivate, and to sell off the goods that they produce.

21. The reason why the suggestion of a system so favorable to both the King and his people cannot make itself heard is that being so easy and enabling riches to flow from the hands of the people to that of the Prince, it makes the fortune of no one, and therefore does not receive special protection, for quite on the contrary it puts in jeopardy the fortunes of those influential men who receive all attention.

22. And to touch upon the great confusion that took place in the creation of new offices, one argues that there never was a manner so detrimental to the cultivation of lands, because these offices having given rise in almost all cases to a tax exemption, since those who were buying them were powerful persons, their large contributions were shifted to a large number of destitute people who found themselves unable to cultivate lands. Not only these new creations wiped out a large number of old offices bought in good faith and representing the sole property of many families, but it set the principle that good faith was not to be a factor anymore in these acquisitions, since these offices now at risk of being eliminated at any moment, those who would have bought them, or who would have lent money in this end, would have lost everything. Thus the King has annihilated ten times more properties than he obtained by means of these new creations, and caused money to stop flowing from one hand to the next, as it once did, for one cannot say that any property is safe: and this demonstrates that the idea of taking the property of an individual for the needs of the Prince is the the most ruinous system. And since among the taxes that were levied on offices, some were too heavy, tax collectors employed the heavier-handed approach and caused the complete ruin of these individuals, although the King did not receive anything in the end.

23. One should not expect tax collectors to ever suggest another system, for their intention being to receive large remittances, they put all their hope in a system resulting in a difficult and hence ruinous recovery of taxes: such a recovery enriches them to the same extent as it impoverishes the poor, since the expenses made to forcefully collect taxes are shared between them, ushers and recors[1], who give them large discounts on what is submitted to taxes.

24. All these truths, being denied by tax collectors and their protectors, who are in much greater number than it is believed, will be certified by all important persons, either in administration or in trade, who live in the country; yet those whose interest it is to cause the ruin of everything being the only one listened to, no attention is given to those who would like to save everything, and who could not even ask to be heard without risking their own security.

25. This summary in articles is provided here so that the bad faith of those who would wish to deny their consequence will appear more clearly: for it being impossible for them to dispute any of these articles without showing their lack of reasoning power or good faith, they must assert, despite their lack of what was previously mentioned, that the King can indeed enrich himself and his people, in fifteen days, whenever he will decide that no longer will we accept that some make fortunes by causing his ruin, and that of his people, but that he will now collect all that is necessary for the present war, without being cause for despair to his people: which is what happens when a man sees his property seized and sold as a result of taxes ten times higher than what he can bear, which forces him and his family to rely on charity, and yet does not give anything to the King, as it happens everyday.

All of this, without making dangerous moves, but only by enforcing the regulations of tailles, which provide that this tax will be calculated according to the possibilities of each person, and by joining a part of the custom duties known as aides, as explained previously, and as was the case thirty years ago: and this is four times less far-reaching than the capitation tax was.

In this way, it is maintained that the people will possess two hundred million more worth of property, by this liberation of their possessions previously seized. And since the King needs sixty million per year in addition to his normal revenue, there is a thousand ways to obtain them from people who would just have seen their wealth increased by four times this amount, not to mention the future, in which it will double again, in less than the two or three years that are needed to collect the funds.

How and why Vauban and Boisguilbert were turned down by ministers

(Duke de Saint-Simon, Memoirs [1707] — abridged translation by Francis Arkwright, volume 2, New York: Brentano’s, 1915, p. 430-434.)


I have described the character of Vauban at the time when he was appointed Marshal of France. We are now about to see him brought to the grave by a bitter disappointment in a matter which redounded to his honor, and in any country but France would have gained him the richest rewards. To understand the full meaning of what I am about to relate it is necessary to bear in mind the brief sketch I have already made of him, and to know that I described him merely from the reputation of his public actions, never having had the slightest acquaintance with him, nor with any of his friends.

He was a thorough patriot, and had always lamented the misery of the people and the vexations under which they suffered. He knew that much of the expenditure was unavoidable; he saw how little hope there was that the King would retrench anything of what was spent in splendor and amusements; and he sighed when he reflected that there was no apparent remedy for burdens which were daily becoming more intolerable. With such sentiments he never took a journey—and he often had occasion to travel throughout the country in all directions—without making inquiries into the value of land and its fertility, the chief industries of the towns, the nature and incidence of taxes, and the mode of collecting them. Not satisfied with what he could see for himself, he employed other persons to check his own observations, and go to places which he was unable to visit. The last twenty years of his life were employed in these inquiries, which cost him a good deal of money. In the end he convinced himself that land was the only real source of wealth, and he set himself to devise a new system of taxation.

When he had made some progress with it, several pamphlets appeared written by a M. de Boisguilbert, Lieutenant-General for the bishopric of Rouen, who had for some time been working on the same lines as Vauban, and with the same objects. He had begun doing so while the Chancellor Pontchartrain was still Superintendent of Finance. He came to see him and asked him to listen with patience, saying that at first he would take him for a madman; that he would then see that his views were worthy of consideration, and that finally he would be converted to them. Pontchartrain, who was hot-tempered and plagued to death by amateur advisers, laughed, replied curtly that he would not go beyond the first stage, and turned his back on him.

Boisguilbert, undeterred by this rebuff, went back to Rouen and worked indefatigably at his system, which was almost the same as Vauban’s, although they had no acquaintance with each other. He expounded it in a very learned and exhaustive book[2], showing how it was possible to relieve the people of a great portion of their burdens, and at the same time, by causing the taxes to be collected directly by the Government, to give the King as great a revenue as he now enjoyed. But such a system would have swept the tax-farmers out of existence, and struck a deadly blow at the power of the Intendants and the supreme dominion of the Minister of Finance; it was as displeasing to all such, as it was satisfactory to persons with no private interests to maintain.

Chamillart, however, who had by this time taken Pontchartrain’s place, examined the book, and thought it worthy of consideration. He sent for Boisguilbert to L’Étang two or three times, and went into the subject with him, like an upright Minister, seeking only the public welfare.

At the same time Vauban was struck by the book, and, as he thought only of the public good, and was entirely devoid of jealousy, he sought out Boisguilbert, and they compared the conclusions they had come to. They agreed on most points, but not on all. Boisguilbert wished to retain some duties on imports, after the fashion of the Dutch, abolishing only the most oppressive: his main object was to diminish the enormous cost of collection, which ruined the people without any corresponding benefit to the King, and only served to enrich a horde of tax-farmers and their satellites. Vauban quite agreed with him in this, but he went further: he proposed to abolish all taxes, with the exception of one, to which he gave the name of Royal Tithe. It was divided into two branches: one a tax on land of a tenth part of its revenue; the other on the estimated income derived from commerce and manufacture—and this was to be light, for he thought industry, far from being loaded with taxation, ought to be encouraged. He published a book[3] in which he laid down simple and easy rules for the collection of these taxes, and added an estimate of their proceeds compared with those of the present system. After a clear statement of the respective advantages and drawbacks of each system he wound up by a forcible demonstration of the superiority of his own proposals, backing it up by evidence which could not be refuted. His book was received with general applause, and was highly esteemed by all persons capable of understanding the subject, who admired its clearness, its acuteness, and the closeness of its reasoning.

But his system had one capital defect. It is true that it would have increased the King’s revenue, saved the people from oppression, and enriched them by reducing the expense of collection to a minimum and taking out of their pockets only just what was required for the King’s exchequer. But it would have ruined a horde of financiers, clerks, and employees of all sorts, and reduced them to the necessity of living at their own expense, instead of at that of the public; it would, moreover, have cut away the foundations of those

immense fortunes which we see accumulated in such a short time. That would have been quite enough to condemn it; but that was not all. Vauban’s crime was that his system would have destroyed the authority and fortune of the Controller-General, and in a proportionate degree those of the Intendants of provinces, their secretaries, their clerks, their favorites, who would in future be powerless to help or to injure anyone. It is not surprising that all these influential persons should combine to prevent the adoption of a system which, with all its advantages to the King and his people, would have been so ruinous to themselves. The whole tribe of men of the gown roared with fury at seeing their interests imperiled.

The Dukes de Beauvilliers and de Chevreuse were led away by their respect for the memory of their father-in-law, Colbert; for Vauban’s proposals were far removed from his theories of government; they were, moreover, deceived by the specious arguments of Desmarets, in whom they placed great confidence, as Colbert’s nephew and disciple. Chamillart, though he had consented to confer with Boisguilbert, was also led away by Desmarets. The Chancellor, who could not forget that he had himself been Controller-General of Finance, was strongly opposed to the new proposals. In short, on Vauban’s side there were only two classes, alike disinterested and impotent, I mean the Church and the nobility; as for the common people, who would have gained everything by his system, they never knew that their salvation had been so near at hand.

Surrounded as he was by prejudiced persons, it is not surprising that the King should have given Marshal Vauban a very unfavorable reception when he came to present his book, which was written throughout in the form of an address to him. From that day his military services, his virtue, zeal, and capacity were all forgotten; the King saw in him only a madman led away by his love of the public welfare, and a criminal who wished to undermine the authority of his Ministers, and, consequently, his own. He said so openly, without any reserve. The unfortunate Marshal could not survive the loss of the favor of a master whom he had tried to serve. He died a few months later, having shut up himself completely, consumed by a grief which nothing could console. The King behaved with great insensibility: he affected not to be aware of the death of his illustrious servant. But that did not prevent Marshal Vauban from receiving the just homage of Europe, even of our enemies, nor was he the less regretted in France by everyone who was not a financier or a financier’s satellite.

Boisguilbert, who ought to have taken warning by his fate, could not contain himself. One of the strongest objections brought by Chamillart against his proposals was the difficulty of making changes in the midst of war. He therefore published a small book[4] in which he demonstrated that M. de Sully, having been entrusted with the finances by Henry IV, and being convinced that the system was bad, had altered it completely in the midst of a war quite as serious as the one in which we were now engaged, with the best results;  then, giving vent to his indignation, he denounced a great number of abuses, beginning each sentence with : “Are we to wait for the end of the war to ?” etc. This completed the exasperation of the Ministers, already furious at being reminded of the Duke de Sully, a great nobleman, who understood finance better than the whole tribe of the gown and pen.

Their vengeance was not long delayed. Boisguilbert was banished to Auvergne. All his little income depended on his office; ceasing to perform its duties, he lost everything. He did not lose his tranquillity, being perhaps more sensible of the honor of being banished for having labored for the public good than of his pecuniary loss. His relations, however, were more alarmed, and did what they could to avert the blow. La Vrillière, who had Normandy in his department, behaved with generosity; he kept back the lettre de cachet for some days, and then obtained, as a favor to Boisguilbert, that he should simply take the journey to Auvergne, and, having satisfied the King by his obedience, should be at once recalled. But when La Vrillière applied for his recall, the King’s answer was that Chamillart was not yet appeased. 

Pierre de Boisguilbert : Are we to wait for the end of the war?”

A supplement to the State of France (1707)     


It is curious that at a time when the State experiences pressing needs and requires extraordinary resources, when the people present themselves to provide these funds without delay, [the State refuses], by means of a small number of reforms, which, without causing trouble, only require an act of will on the part of the current ministers, to enable instantly the people to provide this relief, to the benefit of these ministers themselves; it is curious, I say, that one should refuse these offers until the signing of the peace, although it is the only means by which a very profitable peace will be reached. Thus, we witness something truly remarkable, that is, that while those who are charged with the payment are asking to make it instantly and with no complaint, those whose only function should be to receive these funds, require a very uncertain term and delay to accept.

Beside this rare monstrosity, one can assure that the foreign war costs the kingdom ten or twenty time less than the internal disorder brought about by the system employed to gather taxes required to fund it. This system is causing a fire, so to speak, throughout all parts of the kingdom, it is more necessary to stop it than the foreign war, whose fruitful conclusion, once again, absolutely depends on this peace at home, which can be achieved in less than a month. Presenting the foreign war as a hurdle for economic recovery, is making the same mistake that if, a fire sweeping through a house, one would argue that it should not be extinguished until a verdict was reached in a trial on the ownership of this house, in a court located far away: and this is what will be further demonstrated by examining, article by article, this internal strife or fire throughout the kingdom.

Are we to wait for the end of the war to cultivate lands in all parts of the country, where they are idle for the most part, due to the low price of wheat making it impossible to bear the cost of cultivation, and similarly where seeds are not sown in the other fields, which causes the country a loss of more than 500 000 muids[5] every year, and a loss of 500 million in the revenue of people, because it stops the circulation of this first commodity [wheat], which set in motion every other industry, all living and dying together.

On another front, following the previous matter, are we to wait for the end of the war to enable land owners to get paid by their farmers, whereas today owners receiving nothing, making no purchase in shops, and not repaying previous loans, merchants are going bankrupt?

Are we to wait for the end of the war to stop uprooting grapevines, as every day is the case, when three quarters of the people are drinking water only, because of heavy taxation of alcohols, exceeding four or five times the price of the commodity; and when the revenue is offered to be paid to the King by the people, at twice the value, using another method, which would be four times more profitable for them, must they be silenced, and must their request be examined in a distant future, that is, must people be granted the possibility to cultivate grapevines, when all of them will have been removed from the ground: for it would be completely useless, and would not be wiser than calling for a doctor to cure a dead man?

Must we wait for the end of the war to enforce a new rule for the tailles, such that they will be fairly distributed across the country, and will not allow large fortunes to be barely subjected to taxation, when a poor man who has nothing but his two arms to earn a living for himself and his family, sees not only the sale of his deteriorated furniture or instruments, necessary for his livelihood, as it happens regarding the ustensile tax, which is based on the taille, but also witnesses his doors and bed base being taken away from his house in order to pay a tax four times greater than what he can bear? Mr. Sully, who put things back in order, found France in the state that it is today, and he was not convinced that the war had anything to do with the laws and regulations, since he enacted an ordinance in 1596 regarding the fair distribution of the taille, as well as other matters, which he resolved in the midst of two wars, a civil one and a foreign one, then causing devastation inside and outside the kingdom, with a higher degree of severity than today: and this was so properly executed that both the king and his people became very rich, when formerly they were in a very sorry state.

Are we to wait for the end of the war to save the lives of two or three hundred thousand creatures who die every year from poverty-related causes, and this especially at a young age, for less than half of all children will ever be old enough to earn a living, because mothers lack breast milk, due either to lack of food or to excessive workload; and when those who reach an older age have only bread and water, but no bed, no clothes, no remedy in case of illness, and no sufficient strength to perform their work, which is nonetheless their only source of income, and therefore die before even having walked half of the road?

Are we to wait for the end of the war to end similarly the war that is made on properties, which can happen instantly, if the King would only declare that taxes will now be raised according the capacity of each taxpayer, as is currently the case in England, in Holland, and in every country in the world, and as was even the case in France for one thousand one hundred years; and that we will not be bombing anything anymore, especially offices, like it happened to many people: all leading to the loss of a man’s only resource, and therefore to his falling into poverty, and to the hopelessness of all other owners of such properties who wait a same fate, without the king ever receiving anything. Are they not deprived of all credit, for credit is based on the ability to pay, and is completely diminished if the value of assets plunge; the same thing happens in a city living under the threat of bombing: although houses do not experience any damage, their value fall down by some ninety percent, and climb back to their common level as soon as the threat is over. Therefore, by signing a peace at home, we can instantly double or triple the value of all properties, and consequently the credit, which again is half of the wealth of nations.

Are we to wait for the end of the war to enable the King to pay officers at the right time, so that they will be able to recruit their soldiers in a timely manner?

Are we to wait for the end of the war to give sufficient funding to the King so that through a large scheme soldiers will be voluntarily recruited, and that we will not see anymore men being dragged into the army, with their hands behind their backs, like we would do for convicts being sent to galleys or even to the gibbet; all of which, according to Mr. Sully, in his Memoirs, only makes other soldiers feel discouraged, and the armed forces, as well as the nation, despised, as all soldiers desert the military at the first opportunity, or die of sorrow?

Are we to wait for the end of the war to stop putting the King and the State in debt, and at such a pace that when the war ends the interests on the borrowing will cost the people more than the war itself, and therefore that they [the King and the State] will have to fight a perpetual war [that is, against the people]?

Are we to wait for the end of the war to eliminate all promissory notes which, causing trouble for commerce, cost four times more every year than their overall value, that is, four times more than the foreign war itself? The kingdom can balance this with a fair taxation on both individuals and communities[6]. By endorsing these debt issues, and paying them in four years with four successive payments, including interests, a flow will be ensured, without loss by users; and the revival of consumption, made possible in three hours following the end of a very heavy violence made against nature, will bring a benefit four times greater to all people endorsing this so-called new charge, just as it will do for the rise or increase caused by delivering to the needs of the King.

Are we to wait for the end of the war to stop selling properties, and offices most of all, every single day, with the right to enjoy and freely dispose of them, and a special privilege for those who will have loan funds to this end, and then, sometime later, to resell this new title to another person, without compensation of any sort to the original purchaser, nor to the lender: which, by destroying confidence, the heart and soul of commerce, sever all ties between the prince and his subjects, and cause money alone, thanks to its being able to avoid such storms, to be estimated the one and only good, and therefore is hidden in the most obscure places of refuge that one can imagine, and cause the full termination of all sorts of consumption, to which this money is nothing but the very humble servant? It is completely absurd to seek other causes to the scarcity witnessed nowadays, than this termination of consumption, as would be denying that by restoring it, which can be done in a moment, money will be found as common as ever: yet for a very long time it was thought that the solution was the destruction of its only driven force, that is, once again, the ruin of consumption.

The most limited mind, and the one most surrounded by darkness, that one can ever imagine, cannot be blind enough to defend this; the problem must be in the heart, for according to the holy Scripture, once the heart is corrupted, a saint coming from this other world in this very end, would not be able to put it [the corrupted heart] right. Thus, although it will be proven that it is of the same certainty, that people can, after three hours of work by ministers, and one month of the people themselves applying it, without turmoil, without shaking the foundation of any old establishment, that the people, I say, can provide one hundred million of additional funding for the King and its current needs, while making a benefit four times greater: and this will be proved as decisively as if an angel were to bring this proof from the skies; yet we do not expect to convert a single one of these corrupted hearts, that is, those who make a fortune from public destruction: this plea is only addressed to those who could be influenced by the contagion of depraved subjects, and therefore are rather suspect on such an issue.

Here is how we will provide this proof: what is constantly true, would not acquire a higher degree of certainty if all the saints from heaven were to come to attest it, and surely it is as unquestionable that the Seine flows in Paris, than if angels were to testify for it.

Something else that one cannot deny is that all facts on which several people are found to be agreeing, without any prior agreement between them, are as certain as if we witnessed them with our own eyes.

All reasonable men who never made the journey until Rome would rather bet all their possessions, against a coin of thirty sous, that there is indeed a city of that name in the world, because far too many people have said and written it, without having consulted among themselves to spread a lie, for it not to be true: and if someone were to contradict this fact, he would be treated as a madman and a lunatic.

One maintains that acquiring one hundred million of new revenue from the people, with a profit four times greater for them, with three hours of work and one month of practice, is as certain as this example of Rome, since all people with unbiased opinion are ready to sign under such a proposition; and one asserts also that if the King were to record in writing the reasons put forward to prove the impossibility of such a recovery, not only would he not know where to start and where to stop, but he would be found detestable by God and all mankind. The request of a delay period, until after the signing of the peace, is purely and simply an admission that this is either very easy, or that there is no contradiction possible, since war and peace outside have no relation with the state of things inside the kingdom with regard to taxation: and therefore it amounts to saying roughly that, while it is true that the current system is setting a fire throughout the country, it is advised that this fire will only be extinguished after the signing of the peace; not, once again, that this peace is in any way related to the disorder at home, but solely because it is beneficial for some that a delay is give, and that the fire is raging, given that they enrich themselves in this manner, and that they are themselves the arsonists, who are heavily paid for such services.

Such statements should come as no surprise, being made by tax officers, since it is thanks to this very system that they make immense fortunes and bring the downfall of the State, and that since 1689 they have received 200 million as being their part in the levying of taxes, notwithstanding the large void that grows under their feet, exceeding ten to twenty times what they receive alongside the King, by such a destructive canal; and similarly, before 1661 such objections would not have been found surprising coming from the mouth of ministers, because they were either tax officers themselves, or they had parts in the dealings, as was found by the chamber of justice after the hearing of both parties; and this was also the situation at the moment when Mr. de Sully became minister, and therefore he said to the king Henri IV that tax officers, which are a cause of ruin for a kingdom, were only invented by ministers for the purpose of deceitfulness, since it would be impossible for them to withdraw anything from sums flowing directly from the hands of the people, to that of the prince, as is the common practice in every country in the world; whereas having stakeholders, they are absolute masters of every value in the world, and can push a rich man into poverty, and the poorest man into opulence as and when they so wish, and are only deprived of the right to receive any sum if they choose not to exercise it, their expected moderation being the only limit; since, say I, ministers were in this situation before 1661, their reply, that a delay is needed to change a very poor system, would have come as no surprise, because it would have been received like an official document by which they would ask to be maintained in a position so fruitful for them, although so detrimental to both the King and his people; but today, and since 1661, that complete integrity has suddenly been established in government, without any remain of the previous system, which was extreme fraudulence, it was very surprising to witness on three successive occasions the fourfold multiplication in the number of stakeholders and disgraceful procedures, as well as the reply that a delay was needed before extinguishing a fire set on all parts of the kingdom, with the dismissal of the request made by the people to provide for the needs of the King, in a crucial moment for the monarchy, and all because some call a disruption, what is the solution of the greatest turmoil that was ever witnessed, and a heavy violence against nature, which can be solved instantly with less trouble than was experienced in 1695 when the capitation tax was established in the midst of the war. And if this capitation tax, which was supposed to bring an end to extraordinary taxes, have yielded no result, because of those who misled the ministers in establishing it, but have rendered this tax ridiculous, and therefore unable to meet the King’s needs, one should not fear a same fate as to the reform that we are putting forward, for it will bring more than one hundred thousand, with a benefit four times greater to those who will pay even six times more than their previous share, and this thanks to more attention given to these four articles: grain, alcohol[7], a fair distribution of tailles, and the end of extraordinary means of taxation; all of which only requires an act of will on the part of the King and his ministers, to put a stop to this very heavy violence against nature, which is happening now despite this neglect of attention resulting in a loss for the kingdom of more than one thousand five hundred millions since 1661, date on which integrity was established in government, and yet the previous time of fraudulence did not cause such pitiful outcomes, but quite the reverse, for in 1661 the price of all goods was two times higher, as were those of the King, than they were thirty years ago.

If this figure of one thousand five hundred millions is found astonishing, let us put it in another way, and we maintain that out of forty thousand cities and towns scattered throughout the country, there is not a single one of them that has not lost, on average, fifty thousand livres in income, both in land and industry, or rather, ten and twenty times more than what the King yields with all sort of taxes: and this can be verified in any location that those with whom we disagree will choose. And one should not blame the lack of species, whose quantity, counting precisely what has flowed in and out, is now double what it was in 1661, at a time when the additional one thousand five hundred million of rent existed. But money has become paralytic, while then it had the legs of a deer: and this is the sole foundation of the people’s wealth, and consequently of the covering of the King’s needs. For every sort of taxes is found excessive or moderate, not on the basis of the actual amount requested, but according to the value of lands on which they are yielded, and this value is higher or lower in proportion to the sale of goods and commodities produced by these lands: all of this indicates that, since this production can be doubled in just a moment, one does not need any more time to make species flow again at the same pace than the water of a torrent after the opening of an embankment on the verge of a hill: and the absurd notion that this water shall not flow down into the valley, after the opening of the embankment, until a foreign war was ended, is no different than the objection of those who claim that we must wait the end of this same war for consumption to reestablish itself, although the violent causes that force it to stop can be removed in just a moment, and at any time.

When we talk about an increase of one hundred million in the revenues of the King in just a moment, we are not talking about one hundred million in species of a new production, like in Peru, but about one hundred million of bread, wine, meat, and other commodities, which being the only support of life, will be similarly that of the military, which will see their needs being cover with only ten million, and even less, which flowing ten times from the hands of the people to that of the prince, will ensure this provision of commodities of which ten times more is lost today, in commodities both already produced and to be produced, and this, while on the other side these ten million, which can only walk under the orders of consumption, remain for years in hideouts from which all the machinery in the world is unable to extract them: on the contrary, all the measures taken only result in them being hidden more deeply, while it is possible to put them in motion in just a moment, along with everything else: and this is what we are offering, with the guarantee of the people, which means more than that of tax collectors, for there is not a single soul, not interested into this mess, who will not give, with pleasure and profit, the two sous per livre of his income to be paid of the surplus with certainty, which certainly is not the case today, but would inevitably be under the system put forward here, which is much more suitable for the funding of the war than all measures taken until this day.

 Three letters on the exile and persecution of Boisguilbert

[Archives nationales, G7 721. — Arthur de Boislisle, Correspondance des contrôleurs généraux des finances, 1683 à 1699, vol. 2, 1883, p. 569-570. — Pierre de Boisguilbert ou la naissance de l’économie politique, INED, vol. 1, p. 425-428]


From Boisguilbert to the Controller-General (Michel Chamillart), 17 March 1707.

 “This 17 March [1707].

Your excellency[8],

I would very humbly ask for your forgiveness if 112,000 livres of taxes paid by myself during your ministry, and the same sum being presently required of me, have made me lose my head enough to disobey your orders, in the hope that the public would be kind enough to join its pleas to mine, to obtain from you some policies about which for a long time you have agreed to receive my opinion. I have been given an order to go to Brive-la-Gaillarde. I am convinced, your excellency, that my sentence would be smaller than my crime, if my situation was that of every other man; but as to me, leaving Rouen means asking a wife and many children to beg for food, now that nothing can be obtained from the lands, and the daily emoluments of my office being my only source of income. I started removing, everywhere that I could, copies of my works, and sending to the fire my very numerous manuscripts; and if, your excellency, following the example of God, you would be merciful to me, you would be shown in the future that my repentance is genuine, and in such instances the voluntary penitence of the author is more striking than any sentence he may receive. I implore you not to let my wife and my children be punished for a crime which is only my own, and I urge your character full of goodness to grant me pardon, so that my future silence may bring you the proof of my acknowledgment.

It is with a very high respect that I am, your excellency, your very humble and very obedient servant[9].



Censorship and suppression under France’s Old Regime (Ancien Régime) was both severe and timid, like the power of kings had been for many centuries. Half a century after Boisguilbert, the physiocrats would experience a similar treatment when attacking the tax system and its creatures: in December 1760, eight days after the publication of his book Théorie de l’impôt, Mirabeau’s house was visited by soldiers saying: we received the order to arrest you and send you to prison, but without pressing you, so tomorrow is perfectly fine, if you find today inconvenient (Letter from Mme d’Épinay to Voltaire, December 1760 ; see Voltaire 1959, 234.). He brought a trunk loaded with papers, and spent a total of eight days in prison, studying, writing, reading; and having started with a book of funny maxims from Provence, his servant was surprised to hear him laughing alone a few minutes after the guards had closed his cell (Letter by Mirabeau to the countess of Rochefort, 6 January 1761). Fifteen years later, Baudeau and Roubaud were also gently treated in their exile, following Turgot’s dismissal in 1776, and their attacks on the tax system (Archives de la Bastille, département de lArsenal, Ms. 12448. Dossier relatif aux abbés Baudeau et Roubaud).

Boisguilbert’s fate was similar. He had hoped and begged for absolute clemency, which unexpectedly did not come. Therefore he traveled to Brive-la-Gaillarde, in the center of France, still hoping for the King’s pardon. His exile was short-lived. All that was required was the well-publicized power of government along with the more or less sincere apologies of the author.


From Boisguilbert to the Controller-General (Michel Chamillart), 11 April 1707.

This 11 April [1707]

Your excellency,

I have the honor to repeat to you the pledge that I made previously while staying in a foreign land, which is: to cease speaking and writing, in any manner whatsoever, about the affairs of the state, except to you only, when and if you would only grant me a permission to do so, hoping that following the example of God, who forgets all about the past when giving pardon to sinners, you will be kind enough to allow me to come and salute you when I will be in Paris. I have burnt all my manuscripts, which were very numerous, except for a copy of the Memoirs by Mr. de Sully, in eight volumes, with my notes and some papers attached to the pages—there are one hundred of them only—thanks to which without even leafing through or opening these books, one can understand in half an hour the sort of policy put in practice by a horseman aged 35, with no prior study, to restore in three months a kingdom which was in a more pitiful state, following wars both at home and outside, than it is today, and all of this while having the whole government and the court as his sworn enemies, to the point that they wanted him to be murdered, as he was made aware by the King himself. The first principle of his policy was the free export of grain, without any taxes, permissions or passports; and in fact the king Henri IV explains in a letter of his own writing, that everything is lost when it is decided otherwise. This sole article cost today four times more than the war itself, due to the cultivation of half our lands having stopped. I have heard that you are well aware of this, but that the King argues the opposite. Perhaps if His Majesty would see the opinion of his ancestor, he will prefer following it than that of the first president of Paris and Mr. d’Argenson, especially give the advice to the contrary by you as well as the public.

It is with a very high respect that I am, your excellency, your very humble and very obedient servant.



Answer by the Controller-General (Michel Chamillart), to the previous letter.

Since you are still addressing me after having given to the public all your eccentricities, the only good advice that I can give you is to throw to the fire your remarks on the memoir by M. de Sully, and to convince yourself once in your lifetime that one can only make use of examples from the past when the situation is nearly in the same proportion, and when a kingdom is rich enough to bear the charges that the Kings wish to establish. If you understand well what I am saying, which is not very difficult to grasp, you will now focus on administering justice[11] and you will stop working on the affairs of the State.




Beaumont, Gustave de. 1973. Lettres d’Amérique 1831–1832. Texte établi et annoté par A. Jardin et G. W. Pierson. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Boisguilbert, Pierre de. 1966. Collected works under the title Pierre de Boisguilbert ou la naissance de l’économie politique, Paris: Institut national d’études démographiques. 2 volumes.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. 1951. L’Ancien régime et la Révolution, in Œuvres complètes, volume 2, part 1, Paris: Gallimard.

Vauban, Sébastien le Prestre, maréchal de. 2007. Projet de dîme royale, in Oisivetés de Monsieur de Vauban, édition intégrale établie sous la direction de Michèle Virol, Paris:Champ Vallon.

Voltaire. 1959. Correspondence edited by Th. Besterman, volume 44. Geneva:Institut et musée Voltaire.





[1] Public officials in charge of seizures and executions.

[2] Le Détail de la France (the state of France), 1695.

[3] Projet de dîme royale (A project of royal tithe), 1707.

[4] Supplément au Détail de la France. (A supplement to the State of France). 1707

[5] One muid represented a different amount in Rouen, where Boisguilbert lived, and in Paris. In any case it was a little under 2m3 or 2000 liters (21 square feet or 67 500 us fl.).

[6] Guilds, first and foremost.

[7] Meaning, the free trade of grain and alcohol.

[8] French has Monseigneur (Monsignor).

[9] This is nothing but the common closing formula in letters of the time.

[10] The name is given with various spellings in the archives : Boisguilbert, Boisguillebert, or even Bois-guilbert (like the town, in Normandy). Boisguilbert is the most commonly used by historians.

[11] Boisguilbert held a charge of lieutenant-général, which is somewhat similar to a préfet in today’s France, or a district attorney in the United States.

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