Dickens Knew Taxes Started the French Revolution

Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities is one of his most romantic love stories, but it's also one of his most applicable. The beautiful saga of young people in love is framed by the developing and breaking of the first French Revolution. In telling their story, Dickens describes the rumblings of the early discontent, the growing sense of realization that life did not need to be as dark as it was, the sense of agitation rolling over the country, the torrent of passionate violence raining on anyone marked, and the crash of the guillotine over and over.

Yes, the Revolution was about politics and religion and envy and many other things. But the spark was much more primal: hunger.That storm isn't the applicable part, but its cause is. (That Revolution was only partially successful, by the way. All the old problems kept coming up, even after many more revolutions over the span of decades. That part, at least, it still applicable.)

Whether you've read A Tale of Two Cities or not, you know the French Revolution happened because the people were sick and tired of being sick and tired. They were fed up with being forced into poverty by selfish laws enacted by both national and local governments, living literally in the shadows of glittering, gilded palaces. Yes, the Revolution was about politics and religion and envy and many other things. But the spark was much more primal: hunger. Hunger based not on famine, but on the financial inability to provide food, because their money went to the building and upkeep of the palaces in whose shadows they lived.

In Chapter 8 of Book 2, Dickens describes the local French lord Monsieur the Marquis driving through one of the villages under his jurisdiction to get to his chalet on the other side, just a few years before the Revolution:

The village had its one poor street, with its poor brewery, poor tannery, poor tavern, poor stable-yard for relays of post-horses, poor fountain, all usual poor appointments. It had its poor people too. All its people were poor, and many of them were sitting at their doors, shredding spare onions and the like for supper, while many were at the fountain, washing leaves, and grasses, and any such small yieldings of the earth that could be eaten. Expressive sips of what made them poor, were not wanting; the tax for the state, the tax for the church, the tax for the lord, tax local and tax general, were to be paid here and to be paid there, according to solemn inscription in the little village, until the wonder was, that there was any village left unswallowed.

Ironically, France still has fairly high taxes.

Most of us aren't being taxed to starvation, but we're certainly living with far less capital than we're earning. Income tax is discussed the most, but all those other small taxes like sales, restaurant, alcohol, gas, and tariffs add up. And they tend to snowball: many of us live in places with a city sales tax, a city income tax, a toll on commonly used roads, and more. It’s one thing if we’re seeing this money put to good use, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s still dealing with potholes and bad street lighting in spite of my tax money. In fact, judging by my own experience at least, the states with higher taxes have the worst roads, and the states with lower taxes have the best roads.

Today our taxes have names like "Federal Income Tax" and "State Sales Tax" instead of "State Representative's Paycheck" and "Muh Roads."Think of everything you'd be capable of doing, seeing, building, investing in, or donating to if you kept 100 or even 95 percent of your earnings, rather than the mere 75 or 60 percent you are now. You could do a lot, couldn't you? If they had kept their earnings, the 18th century French could’ve eaten. If you kept your earnings, you could open a restaurant to feed today’s hungry.

We have enough checks and balances now to keep taxes from having names like “State Representative’s Paycheck,” “Upkeep for the Governor's Mansion,” “Building a Fancy but Unnecessary Building So the Mayor Looks Good to the Competition,” and, way down at the bottom, “Muh Roads.”

Instead, today these names are hidden under the bulk names of “Federal Income Tax,” “State Income Tax,” “State Sales Tax,” “City Sales Tax,” “Property Tax,” and dozens of others, which is both a blessing and a curse. It means we don't have to risk heightening our blood pressure to dangerous levels every time we see our taxes broken down, but it also means we don't realize what our money is being spent on. We live assuming that we are paying these taxes, sometimes unknown to us in the first place, as the price for living in society, the price for those roads, albeit cracked, and those street lights, albeit burned out.

Perhaps if our taxes were clear to us as it was to the French revolutionaries, we'd insist more strongly (though still peaceably, of course) on tax cuts, and increasing standard deductions, and, ideally, tax elimination. Guillotines unnecessary.