"THE MORAL ECONOMY". Debates around Charity and Taxes in France at the End of the 18th Century

Mon, 08/26/2019 - 11:44..
Department of History
Laurence Fontaine

Confronted in the second half on the eighteenth century with unemployment and food crises and with the multiplication of vagrants and beggars, the government turned to civil society to find solutions. It is in that context that in 1777, the newly created academy of Châlons-sur-Marne asks for reflections “on the means of eradicating mendicancy by making the beggars useful to the State without making them unhappy.” The contest was the most successful one in the whole century as 126 memoirs were collected against two of three dozens at the maximum in all the other contests.

I will focus on how the authors plan to finance their projects. They propose multiple solutions ranging from charity to taxation. Yet charity and taxes are two radically opposed modes of financing, since charity is a donation made freely at the moment chosen by the donor and to the person or the intermediary of his choice, while taxes are a compulsory levy, which are deducted on dates fixed by the authorities and whose use is not observable.

I will study what charity meant at the time, how some authors after stigmatizing a subversion of the values behind it, proposed to reform the way people were exercising it while others came to refuse charity in the name of a new political paradigm: equality between all the citizen. I will show how this group of authors plan to use taxation to punish the Church and the privileged and transform the country.