A Historical Document: A Lawyer's Brief for the Mid-Twentieth Century Democratic Party
links for 2007-11-17

Apres Moi le Deluge Intellectual History Blogging

Re: Michael Sonenscher, Before the Deluge: Public Debt, Inequality, and the Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution.

The book begins:

The phrase après moi le deluge... by... Mme. de Pompadour... and the various attitudes toward impending disaster it might have been intended to express... have often been associated with the French Revolution.... [T]he phrase was current... before 1789... applied to public debt. This... was how it was used... by Victor Requeti, Marquis de Mirabeau.... Mirabeau applied the phrase to... government borrowing and, more particularly, to the practice of using life annuities to fund the costs of government debt. Life annuities, he wrote, were the quintessence of what he called "that misanthropic sentiment [ce sentiment ennemi] après moi le deluge."... [T]hey were a way of drawing bills on posterity. Like all forms of public credit... consumed wealth before it was produced... leaving a state... having to face the future without the accumulted assets... to maintain its long- term domestic prosperity and external security... could... destroy... "civilization."

I am going to have to go read Mirabeau pere's Etretiens d'un Jeune Prince avec Son Governeur. It sounds to me that the phrase is applied by Mirabeau pere to describe not a feckless government that borrows long (to fund wars, canals, or harbors) but rather a feckless father who invests the family wealth in annuities that end on his death. After all, from the viewpoint of long-run governmental fiscal prudence, life annuities are not the quintessence of badness--they are, in fact, vastly preferable to consols. It is only from the viewpoint of the dynastic family that life annuities are especially bad.

Is this a good thing to do at the very opening of a book that presents itself as deriving new insights from close readings of old texts?...