The sequence of events leading up the French Revolution are likely unfamiliar to most. Yet money printing and a debauched French currency played no small part in those events. As a sequel to “Shorting the Federal Reserve”, 720 Global aims to provide an historical example of excessive money printing which lead to financial crisis, and ultimately the revolution of a major sovereign nation. More than a history lesson, this article effectively illustrates the road on which the U.S. and many other nations currently travel. The story relayed in this article is not a forecast for what may happen but a simple reminder of what has repeatedly happened in the past.
As you read, notice the story lines the French politicians used to persuade the opposition and justify money printing. Note the similarities to the rationales used by central bankers and neo‐Keynesians today. Then, as now, it is promoted as a cure for economic ills with manageable consequences and where failure to generate a sustainable recovery are thought to be a failure of not having acted boldly enough.
Our gratitude to the late Andrew D. White, on whose work we relied heavily. The exquisite account of France circa the 1780‐1790’s was well documented in his paper entitled “Fiat Money Inflation in France” published in‐1896. Any unattributed quotes were taken from his paper.
Before The Presses Rolled
During the 1700’s France accumulated significant debts under the reigns of King Louis XV and King Louis XVI. The combination of wars, significant financial support of America in the Revolutionary War, and lavish government spending were key drivers of the deficit. Through the latter part of the century, numerous financial reforms were enacted to stem the problem, but none were successful. On a few occasions, politicians supporting fiscal austerity resigned or were fired because belt tightening was not popular and the King certainly didn’t want a revolution on his hands. For example, in 1776 newly anointed Finance Minister Jacques Necker believed France was much better off by taking large loans from other countries instead of increasing taxes as his recently fired predecessor argued. Necker was ultimately replaced 7 years later when it was discovered France had heavy debt loads, unsustainable deficits, and no means to pay it back.
By the late 1780’s, the gravity of France’s fiscal deficit was becoming severe. Widespread concerns helped the General Assembly introduce spending cuts and tax increases. They were somewhat effective but the deficit was very slow to decrease. The problem, however, was the citizens were tired of the economic stagnation that resulted from belt tightening. The medicine of austerity was working but the leaders didn’t have the patience to rule over a stagnant economy for much longer. The following quote from White sums up the situation well:
“Statesmanlike measures, careful watching and wise management would, doubtless, have ere long led to a return of confidence, a reappearance of money and a resumption of business; but these involved patience and self‐denial, and, thus far in human history, these are the rarest products of political wisdom. Few nations have ever been able to exercise these virtues; and France was not then one of these few”.
By 1789, commoners, politicians and royalty alike continuously voiced their impatience with the weak economy. This led to the notion that printing money could revive the economy. The idea gained popularity and was widely discussed in public meetings, informal clubs and even the National Assembly. In early 1790, detailed discussions within the Assembly on money printing became more frequent. Within a few short months, chatter and rumor of printing money snowballed into a plan. The quickly evolving proposal was to confiscate church land, which represented more than a quarter of France’s acreage to “back” newly printed Assignats (the word assignat is derived from the Latin word assignatum – something appointed or assigned). This was a stark departure from the silver and gold backed Livre, the currency of France at the time.
Assembly debate was lively, with strong opinions on both sides of the issue. Those against it understood that printing fiat money failed miserably many times in the past. In fact, the John Law/Mississippi bubble crisis of 1720 was caused by an over issue of paper money. That crisis caused, in White’s words, “the most frightful catastrophe France had then experienced”. History was on the side of those opposed to the new plan.
Those in favor looked beyond history and believed this time would be different. They believed the amount of money printed could be controlled and ultimately pulled back if necessary. It was also argued new money would encourage people to spend and economic activity would surely pick up. Another popular argument was France would benefit by selling the confiscated lands to its people and these funds would help pay off its debts. In addition, land ownership by the masses strengthened French patriotism.
The debate was won by those in favor of printing. As we have seen many times before and after this event, hope and greed won out over logic, common sense and most importantly, history. Per White‐ “But the current toward paper money had become irresistible. It was constantly urged, and with a great show of force, that if any nation could safely issue it, France was now that nation; that she was fully warned by her severe experience under John Law; that she was now a constitutional government, controlled by an enlightened, patriotic people,‐‐not, as in the days of the former issues of paper money, an absolute monarchy controlled by politicians and adventurers; that she was able to secure every livre of her paper money by a virtual mortgage on a landed domain vastly greater in value than the entire issue; that, with men like Bailly, Mirabeau and Necker at her head, she could not commit the financial mistakes and crimes from which France had suffered under John Law, the Regent Duke of Orleans and Cardinal Dubois”. This time was different in their collective minds!
The final decree was passed and 400 million Assignats, backed by confiscated church property, were issued. The notes were quickly put into circulation and “engraved in the best style of the art”.
As one might suspect the church decried the action, but the large majority of French were in favor. The press and assemblymen extolled the virtues of this new money. They spoke and wrote of future prosperity and an end to the economic oppression. They thought they found a cure for their economic ills.
Upon the issuance of the new money, economic activity picked up almost immediately. As expected, the money allowed for a portion of the national debt to be paid off as well. Confidence and trade expanded. The summer of 1790 proved to be an economic boom time for France.
The good times were limited. By October, economic activity was back in decline and with it came a renewed call for more money printing. Per White‐ “The old remedy immediately and naturally recurred to the minds of men. Throughout the country began a cry for another issue of paper”. The deliberations regarding money printing were rekindled with many of the same arguments on both sides of the debate re‐hashed. A new argument for those in favor of printing was simply that the original 400 million Assignats was not enough.
While those favoring money printing acknowledged the dangers of their actions, they were also dismissive about them at the same time. These Assemblymen believed if a little medicine appeared to work with no side effects why not take more. Debate this time around was easier for the pro‐printing consortium. Of note was a well‐respected elder statesman of the Assembly and national hero named Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau (Mirabeau). During the first round of debates, Mirabeau was strongly against the issuance of the new currency. In fact he said the following: “A nursery of tyranny, corruption and delusion; a veritable debauch of authority in delirium” in regards to paper money. He even called the issuance of money “a loan to an armed robber”.
While Mirabeau clearly understood the effects of printing money, he was now swayed by the arguments of a stronger economy. He also appreciated the benefits of making a large class of landholders for the first time. Mirabeau reversed his opinion and joined the ranks of those believing France could control the inflationary side effects. He now argued for one more issue of Assignats. As a precautionary measure he insisted that as soon as paper became abundant, self‐governing laws of economics would ensure the money was retired. Mirabeau went as far as recommending the new amount of printed money should be enough to pay down the entire debt of France ‐ 2,400 million!
continue reading on the next page…