France and the persistence of public order

Happy (belated) Bastille Day, everyone. While the philosophy community is celebrating (or not) the arrival of Derek Parfit’s long-awaited two-volume work on ethics, I’ve been plowing my way through the first volume of Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order. The basic question he’s trying to answer is how any society ever made the transition from a tribal society to a modern state. It starts with chimpanzee politics, moves quickly to the state of nature and then on status seeking, so it’s basically the perfect book, thematically. I’m going to write a proper review of it soon, but one passage I came across last night was particularly interesting: it is about the particular character of the French state, pre-revolution:

While England developed an advanced theory of public finance and optimal taxation, elucidated in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, French taxation was opportunistic and dysfunctional… Most important, the French fiscal system deliberately encouraged rent-seeking. Wealthy individuals, instead of investing their money in productive assets in the private economy, spent their fortunes on heritable offices that could not create but only redistribute wealth. Rather than focusing on technological innovation, they innovated with regard to new ways of outwitting the state and its tax system. This weakened private entrepreneurship and made its emerging private sector dependent on state largesse, just at the same moment that private markets were blossoming across the English channel.

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