Turgot, "Letter to the King on Finance" (1774)

In 1774, the newly ascendant Louis XVI appointed as his minister of finance a pro–Enlightenment economist and administrator named Anne–Robert–Jacques Turgot, a baron from a noble family with many generations of service to the kings of France. In office, Turgot sought to implement many reforms of the royal treasury. In this passage, he informs the King of the debts he has discovered in the royal treasury and proposes reforming fiscal policy by cutting expenditures and more equitable taxation—without considering whether or not this will be acceptable to the Parlements.


24 August 1774.

Sire,

I could have wished to have detailed the reflections that are suggested to me by the present posture of the finances, but time will not permit me. I reserve myself for a more ample explanation, when I shall have obtained more accurate information. In the present moment, I confine myself, Sire, to call to your recollection three ideas:

No national bankruptcy.

No increase of taxes.

No new loans.

No bankruptcy—neither avowed nor disguised under compulsory reductions.

No increase of taxes—the reasons for this measure Your Majesty will find in the situation of your people, and still more in your own heart.

No new loans—for every loan, by diminishing the amount of the free revenue, necessarily produces at last a bankruptcy, or an increase of taxes. In a period of peace, money should not be borrowed, unless to liquidate old debts, or to discharge others bearing a higher interest.

To obtain these three points there is but one method, that of reducing the expenditure below the receipt, and so much below it as to leave twenty millions [livres] every year for the redemption of former debts. Without this precaution, the first cannonball that is fired will force the state to a public bankruptcy.

Where to retrench? Every department will maintain, that, as far as relates to itself, there is scarcely a single expenditure that is not indispensable. The reasons alleged may be very good, but . . . must give way to the irresistible necessity of economy.

It is this necessity then that calls upon Your Majesty to oblige each department to consult the Minister of Finances. It is indispensable that he should be allowed to discuss with each, in Your Majesty's presence, the degree of necessity of proposed expenses. Above all, it is requisite, Sire, when you have thus fixed upon the funds of each department, that you should forbid him who is charged with it to engage any new expense without having first consulted the Minister of Finance on the means of supplying it. Without this [measure], each department will load itself with debts, which will still be the debts of Your Majesty; and the person directing the finances will never be responsible for any correspondence between the expenditure and the receipt. . . .

A hope may be indulged, that, by the improvement of agriculture, by the suppression of abuses in the collection of the revenue, and by a more equal distribution of the taxes, the people may be sensibly relieved, without greatly diminishing the public income, but, unless economy is adopted first, no reform will be possible, for there is no reform which does not involve the risk of some interruption in the collection of funds and one must expect a multiplicity of embarrassments, which will be created by the man.

Source: Jean-Louis Soulavie, Historical and Political Memoirs of the Reign of Lewis XVI from His Marriage to His Death, Translated from the French...in Six Volumes..., vol. 3 (London: G. and J. Robinson, 1802), 423-438.