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Before Fiscal Transparency – University of Reading

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Before Fiscal Transparency

As part of the broader project, we aimed at exploring and historicising the concept of fiscal transparency, which is hailed as a key to good governance and economic efficiency

The purpose was to examine the ways in which the principles of public accountability - and their effective implementation - can be traced back to the development of the public sphere in the 18th century which championed the traditional view according to which the management of finances participated of the sacred and mysterious nature of kingship and power.

In response to the fiscal demands of their respective Leviathans, the subjects of European monarchies called on the concept of light - in the form of the Enlightenment, les Lumières, die Aufklärung, l'Illuminismo, etc., - to dissipate the veil of darkness that hide government policy from scrutiny, check corruption, fight inequality and promote growth. The fiscal sphere was a specific target. In addition to various institutional developments, the civil society contributed a number of publications that increased public awareness. Indeed, there existed a market for private consumption of fiscal information. A variety of publishing initiatives appeared in response to questions about the resources and relative strengths of states. From the 1760s, the German geographer Anton Busching started gathering data about populations, the size of the armies and navies, and the revenue of European states, which he published and revised in the successive editions of his Magazin.

Special issue of Histoire and Mesure

The articles published in this special issue proceed from a workshop which took place at the University of Reading in April 2014, and was funded by the Economic and Social Research Centre (ESRC, UK), with the support of the Centre de Recherches Historiques at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (CRH-EHESS). A total of nine experts on six Old Regime European polities (France, Spain, the United Kingdom, the Dutch Provinces, the Kingdom of Naples and Sweden) debated on the theme 'The Excesses of the State: administrative control or political transparency in seventeenth-nineteenth century Europe?' The result is a fascinating voyage through time and space that explores the issues of control and communication in various early modern European polities.

Professor Joel Felix

Professor of French History

Virtual exhibition: Apperçus de l'Administration des finances de la France.

The purpose of this virtual exhibition is to reproduce seven historical documents which are kept in the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal in Paris. Generically called Apperçu (or sketch), these documents are synoptic tables which represent, on a single sheet of paper, a substantial amount of economic and fiscal information about the state of the kingdom of France in the years 1785 [2 documents], 1786, 1787, 1788, 1791 and 1792. The British Library (Add Ms 74100) and the Kress Library at Harvard University both hold an Apperçu for the year 1789. The latter has been digitised and can be accessed on the Gale database The Making of the Modern World. No copy of this Apperçu has been found in France. We have analysed some of its content in a chapter on Finances published in W. Doyle (ed.) Oxford Handbook of the Ancien Regime (2011), pp. 75-92.


Europe in numbers

The Apperçus for 1788, 1789 and 1791 are particularly interesting as they provide data about the following 24 countries: France, Angleterre, Turquie, Autriche, Russie, Espagne, Prusse, Portugal, Hollande, Deux-Siciles, Danemark, Suède, Sardaigne, Saxe, Venise, Bavière, Rome, Toscane, Hanovre, Gênes, Pologne, Wurtemberg, Hesse-Cassel et Suisse. The data concerns the surface, population, density, annual revenue, military expenditure, general expenditure, infantry and cavalry, and the naval strengths of each of these polities. Among other information, these Apperçus also include data about the number of ships sent to and returned from India and China by Nations de l'Europe (European Nations), with detail about the value of expected and imported goods, and the balance. A summary calculates the real value of the importations in Europe. The unit of account is the French livre tournois, then worth about £24.

As in the case of the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, the Apperçu of the BL is kept with other tables. Out of these documents, we have reproduced the État général de la situation des Finances de la France au 1er Janvr 1792. It contains valuable data about the revenue and expenditure of the state, the reimbursements as well as a table of the public debt at this date. Overall, the existence of this last Apperçu indicates a remarkable continuity between administrative practices in last years of the Absolute monarchy and the constitutional (i.e., representative parliamentary) regime introduced in France in 1789.

When size matters

The beauty of these documents and the original information they contain are not the sole reasons for their reproduction. Their very large size means that they are extremely difficult to manipulate. Digitisation was the only way to make these documents accessible and, as such, comparable. For the structure of the Apperçus and their data vary from year to year. One of the most striking and puzzling features of the Apperçus is, perhaps, the box at the right bottom which indicates the balance between revenue and expenditure.

Debating finances and the end of the Absolute monarchy

Given the political impact of the size of the deficit which paved the way to the French Revolution, and Calonne's plea that Necker had lied to the public when he disclosed a primary surplus in his Compte-rendu au roi (1781), one is utterly surprised to read in the Apperçu for 1785 that the budget in that year generated a surplus worth 600.000 livres tournois out of a revenue of 616.6 million. It is true that the other Apperçu for 1785 showed a deficit of 13 million for total revenue of 607 million. This said, the document adds: 'But we have included in the expenditure 37.5 million for reimbursements'. In other words, the budget was considered to be balanced. For 1786, the budget shows a slightly larger deficit of 16.5 million, including 37 million of reimbursements. Quite remarkably, however, the document finishes with these words: 'This report shows that the situation of the finances is nonetheless good despite the excess of expenditure over revenue'.

Despite such reassurances, we know that in September 1786 Calonne wrote a memorandum to Louis XVI and warned the king that the situation of the finances was not only very bad but that something exceptional had to be done urgently to tackle the deficit. As a matter of fact, the Apperçu for 1787 established the deficit at 140 million, from which 50 million had to be deducted for reimbursements, leaving the permanent annual deficit at 90 million. According to the Apperçus, the difference between 1786 and 1787 did not owe to the revenue (which recorded a small drop from 607 to 592 million) but to the expenditure which, in 1787, had suddenly risen from 623.5 million rose to 732 million. The striking difference in the volume of expenditure - 109.5 million - help understand why the emergence of the deficit had the effect of an earthquake in France. The revelation of the existence of a deficit questioned the very capacity of the Bourbon system of government to manage the finances of the state.

The Apperçus, with their detailed fiscal information, form a valuable complement to the polemics generated by Necker's Compte-rendu of 1781, the first French official account of current royal revenue, and, of course, the clash between the government and the elites as the result of the meeting of the Assembly of Notables which, overall, questioned the personal capability of the king to govern the finances. The conflict between the Notables and Calonne about the existence of the deficit, its origins and its size and the means to address it are the ingredients that were to transform a typical post-war fiscal crisis into the French Revolution and bring about the comprehensive collapse of the Absolute Monarchy and the Ancien Régime.

Pending questions

Who ordered the drawing of these Apperçus? When did this method of representing the situation of French finances appear for the first time? Who provided the data, how was it assembled and vetted? How many copies of these manuscripts Apperçus were made and how many still exist? To whom were the Apperçus destined? What was their purpose? How far can the data of the Apperçus help the historian better understand the historical problem of the deficit - and accounting - under Louis XVI and its broad impact? These are questions which are yet to be answered. One thing is for sure: the Apperçus, alongside many other documents published about French finances in the two decades preceding the Revolution, suggest that the secret des finances, which was a distinctive component of royal absolute power, was progressively eroded. These documents reveal the extent to which the principle of fiscal transparency had now become the norm.

Primary Sources

Jacques Necker, Compte-rendu au roi, par M. Necker, Directeur général des Finances,. Au mois de Janvier 1781. Imprimé par ordre de Sa majesté, Paris, Imprimerie royale, 1781 [various editions].

Jacques Necker, State of the finances of France, laid before the king by Mr Necker, director-general of the finances, in the month of January 1781, London, G. Kearsley, 1781, 131pp.

Mr Necker's answer to Mr de Calonne's charge against him in the Assembly of Notables, London, J. Debrett, 1787, 12pp.

Alexandre de Calonne, Requête au Roi, adressée à Sa Majesté, Londres, 1787 (various editions).

Alexandre de Calonne, Abridgment of the memorial addressed to the King of France. Translated from the French by W. Walter, London, 1787, 139pp.

État de la situation de nos finances, au mois d'avril 1707, d'après les bases publiées par M. de Calonne, ministre, et par M. Necker, np, xii-52pp.

Compte-rendu au Roi, au mois de mars 1788, et publié par ses ordres, Paris De l'Imprimerie royale, 178, xiv-183pp.

Secondary reading

John-F. Bosher, French Finances: 1770-1795. From Business to Bureaucracy, Cambridge, 1970.

Robin J. Ives, 'Political Publicity and Political Economy in Eighteenth‐Century France', French History, 2003, Vol. 17, Issue 1, Pp. 1-18.

Joel Felix, 'The problem with Necker's Compte-rendu au roi (1781)', In: Swann, J. and Felix, J., (eds.) The crisis of the absolute monarchy. Proceedings of the British Academy (184). British Academy, Oxford University Press, pp. 107-125.

Marie-Laure Legay, La banqueroute de l'État Royal: la gestion des finances publiques de Colbert à la Révolution, París, Ed. de l'École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2011.

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