Questions I'm Going to Ask John Nye
By Bryan Caplan
My colleague John Nye specializes in French economic history. Other than his job market talk, though, I can’t say that he’s done much to bring me up to speed in this field. Since I have much to learn, I’m taking the initiative. I’ll kick things off by asking his opinions about some of the most intriguing passages I come across in the Durants’ The Age of Napoleon. Three questions for John:
1. One recurring demand on the French revolutionaries’ list was the abolition of tolls on roads. What was the story here? Did this
reflect a garden-variety monopoly problem? A tragedy of the toll
commons problem, where decentralized piecewise tolls actually exceed
a monopolists’ profit-maximizing price? Or mere anti-market bias?
Personally, I’d start by checking whether toll collections before their
abolition exceeded government expenditures on road construction and
maintenance after their abolition. I wonder if John will agree.
2. The Durants say that within France, Napoleon was a radical tax cutter. To make ends meet, he made the rest of Europe pick up the slack:
His greatest success as an administrator was in finance. Strange to say, his wars, till 1812, usually brought in more than they cost… Enough remained to prepare for the next war, and to keep taxes far below their level under Louis XVI or the Revolution.
“Before 1789,” says Taine, “the peasant proprietor paid, on 100 francs’ net income, 14 to the seignior, 14 to the clergy, 53 to the state, and kept only 18 or 19 for himself; after 1800 he pays nothing of his 100 francs of income to the seignior or the clergy; he pays little to the state, only 25 francs to the commune and departement, and keeps 70 for his own pocket.
Is this a fair summary of French realities? And if so, what does this say about Tyler Cowen’s claim that modern technology was a virtual necessity for the rise of Big Government? On the Durants’ account, it sounds like the Bourbon monarchy took an even larger share than the Swedish welfare state at its peak.
3. The Durants also seem to claim that Napoleon sharply increased living standards in France:
By and large, as hostile critics agree, the first thirteen years of Napoleon’s rule gave France the greatest prosperity she had ever known.
Is this correct? If so, how much credit belongs to Napoleon’s low taxes within France – and how much to his looting of the rest of Europe?