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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Marshal Vauban: royal engineer and single taxer

The bluff, hearty, patriotic Maréchal Sebastian Le Prestre, Seigneur de Vauban (1633–1707), was scarcely a fervent or militant oppositionist to royal or Colbertist policies. The leading military engineer in France, the man who constructed the mighty military fortifications guarding the French state, ennobled by Louis XIV for his services, was scarcely an opponent of the Crown. Although a loyal monarchist and absolutist, Vauban, after revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, grew deeply troubled at the policies of Louis XIV, especially the crippling system of taxation as well as the oppression of the Huguenots. Upon the revocation, the naive Vauban, convinced that the good king was surrounded by evil or purblind advisers, wrote a Memoire for the recall of the Huguenots’ addressed to the king. Vauban pointed out that the revocation had disrupted trade and commerce, and was causing opposition to the monarchy itself.

The heedlessness of the king did not daunt Vauban, who continued to write similar pleas to King Louis. Finally, at the end of his life, in 1707, this man who had risen from birth in poverty in St Leger to become the land's greatest military engineer, a marshal and a nobleman, published his comprehensive treatise, Projet de dixme royale (Project for a royal tithe). Vauban proposed the abolition of most of the oppressive network of taxation, and its replacement by a single tax, a proportional tenth of the income of each subject. The reasoning was that the state provided the people with the service of security, and that those who receive such service should pay accordingly. One wonders, however, how anyone can demonstrate that those who receive such a service are enjoying the service in proportion to their income. Furthermore, every other service on the market is paid for, not in proportion to the buyer's income, but in a uniform single price, paid by one and all. The purchasers of bread, or automobiles, or stereo sets, pay a single price for each product, and not in proportion to their income or wealth. Why then do so for the alleged service of security?
At any rate, Vauban was highly effective in pointing out that the impoverished producers of the country were shouldering a large part of the burden of taxation, and was eloquent in urging their relief.
Vauban refused to publish the Dixme royale widely in 1707, and only circulated a small number of copies among friends. This did not save the aged marshal from Louis XIV's wrath, however. The king's censors and police condemned the book, and the publishers were hunted down and punished. Marshal Vauban died on the day the king's order was executed.

Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (2 volume set)

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