The Distributional Dynamics of the French Revolution: A Forty Year War of Attrition
Three questions have challenged historians of the French Revolution: when did the Revolution begin, why did it last so long, and when did it end. This paper proposes answers to these basic questions by focusing on the Revolution as an economic struggle. I view the Revolution as the product of a "war of attrition" that erupted between interest groups over how to remedy the central government's budget deficit. While printing money to temporarily cover the deficit, successive regimes tried remedies, including the sale of assets, economic controls, and confiscation, before ultimately defaulting on the debt and raising the general level of taxation to close the deficit. The size of the required adjustment polarized society as each group sought to force the other to bear the cost. This polarization and shocks from civil and foreign wars help to explain the duration of the struggle. Although Napoleon's coup d'etat in 1799 is often taken as the terminal point of the Revolution, this is an appropriate choice only if one believes that the Empire was a permanent entity and the financial burden could be shifted indefinitely to the subjugated nations. Otherwise, the Revolution ends with the Restoration and the adjustment France made to shoulder the burden of reparations.
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