Table of Contents
The Three Estates of the Ancien Régime
“You should hope that this game will be over soon.”
source: National Library of France
What was the Ancien Régime?
The Ancien Régime (a.k.a the Old Regime or Former Regime) refers to the political, legal, and social system in the Kingdom of France from the 15th century to the French Revolution in 1789. France’s Old Regime, much like many of the other feudal societies of the time, involved a rigid hierarchy, an economic system that overwhelmingly benefited the privileged classes, and an absolutist monarchy.
In retrospect, we can see just how exploitative the Ancien Régime truly was. The majority of French citizens, depicted as the old man in the illustration above, bore the weight of the relatively few nobility and the clergy. Through hard work and taxation.
The Zero Theft Movement is working to eliminate the rigged parts of the economy so that all Americans can thrive. In this article, we are taking a look at the Old Regime mainly to see how its exploitative tax structure gave overwhelming advantages to the privileged classes. We will then see how the current U.S. tax system and enforcement perhaps aren’t as fair as it might seem.
Megacorporations and their lobbyists could be heavily influencing regulation and legislation. Protect our politics and economy by joining the Zero Theft Movement.
The Estate System of the Ancien Régime
The Estates of the Realm, or the Estate System, served as the organizational structure of the Ancien Régime. It established the power imbalances and general inequities that disadvantaged the majority of French citizens.
Three Estates existed (excluding the king): the First Estate of the clergy, the Second Estate of the nobility, and, for lack of a better term, the Third Estate of everyone else. The first two estates enjoyed myriad privileges, but perhaps the most significant one was their exemption from most taxation.
We should mention that an individual being a part of an Estate did not guarantee them riches or the opportunity to enjoy those aforementioned privileges. You will see how this plays out as we explain each Estate.
The First Estate
source: Mr. Mize History 101
The First Estate consisted of clergymen, those who had seemingly committed themselves to the church. This group constituted about 0.5% of the total population.
The upper clergy (e.g. abbots and bishops) essentially came from nobility and lived as aristocrats, funding their luxuries with taxes on church lands. American historian R.R. Palmer claimed every bishop in France was a nobleman for the first and only time during the reign of Louis XVI (1754-1793).
It bears noting that being a part of the clergy did not guarantee riches and a lavish lifestyle. But the upper clergy represented only about 10% of the First Estate. Parish priests, monks, and nuns actually constituted 90% of the First Estate and lived much as peasants did. Thus, very few among the First Estate actually received the benefits and advantages of the Ancien Régime.
The Second Estate
The Wedding of Louis de France, Duc de Bourgogne, and Marie Adélaïde de Savoie (1710–11) by Antonie Dieu
Source: The MET
The Second Estate of the Ancien Régime was the nobility, who represented ~1.5% of the total population. The noble class typically had two groups: the “nobility of the sword” and the “nobility of the robe.” As the names suggest, the former included knights and the latter the magisterial class that oversaw the civil government and meted out royal justice.
Nobles inherited their titles, and their riches came from land taxes. Granted, some of the Second Estate enjoyed the privileges of the rank (e.g. carrying a sword) but had little money. For the most part, most nobles had both privileges and wealth.
The Second Estate did not have to pay most forms of taxes, including the corvée royale (unpaid labor on the roads in lieu of taxes), the gabelle (salt tax), and perhaps most importantly, the taille (the oldest form of direct taxation).
DID YOU KNOW?
Exploitative salt taxes most prominently emerged during Britain’s rule over India. Salt, essential for people living in a hot climate, could be acquired only from the British Raj. Mahatma Gandhi famously protested against the taxation by embarking on the ‘Salt March,’ a 240 mile walk to the coast.
The Third Estate
Four Figures at a Table (circa 1630) by Le Nain Brothers
source: The National Gallery
Finally, there was everybody else comprising the Third Estate. This class represented 96%-97% of the French population.
The Third Estate proved extremely diverse. From rich men of business whose wealth could match the wealth of nobles to doctors and lawyers, to the urban poor, and to the peasants working the land.
The urban poor and peasants, in particular, struggled through hard, hard lives. Grueling labor and food shortages characterized their status quo. Most were born into this group and died a member of the Third Estate.
They had little means for upwards mobility. Even if you become a successful businessman, you would often remain a member of the Third Estate. This contributed to the antipathy against the Ancien Régime, which eventually led to the French Revolution.
Tax Injustices of the Old Regime?
In the ancien régime, the Third Estate shouldered considerable tax burdens. This contributed to many of the peasants and urban poor living in destitution. The illustration above captures the situation quite accurately: the First and Second Estates keeping the Third Estate down through the heavy stone of taxes.
The following list includes some of the taxes paid by the Third Estate in the Old Regime. You’ll see why many could not even live a remotely comfortable life.
The taille was the direct land tax based on the land a person used or held. The First and Second Estates, for the most part, did not have to pay the taille. These tax revenues served as the major source of royal income. Members of the Third Estate also had to pay a 5% property tax (the vingtième) on top of the land tax.
The church did have to pay the King a tax called the “free gift,” which came from its officeholders at roughly 1/20 the total value of the office.
Another tax was corvée royale, which allowed the King to demand a designated number of days of free labor from all able-bodied members of the Third Estate. Most but not all of the labor went to constructing roads. Only the Third Estate had to ‘pay’ this tax.
Construction of a Large Road (1774) by Claude-Joseph Vernet
source: The Louvre
The gabelle (salt tax) started as a levy on wheat, spices, and wine among other goods. 14th Century rulers eventually ruled that the gabelle would exclusively apply to salt. Salt was needed to preserve meat, make cheese, feed livestock, etc.
King Philip VI (1293-1350) established the permanent salt tax, which was known as the Pays de grandes gabelles. Not only did the Crown institute the tax, it mandated people to buy at least a certain amount of salt annually.
The tithe actually applied to the Second and Third Estates. Each member had to pay a tenth of their income or produce to the church.
The Ancien Régime Tax Structure vs U.S. Taxes Today
“Despotism alone can provide that atmosphere of secrecy which favors crooked dealing and enables the freebooters of finance to make illicit fortunes.”
― Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution
It’s quite clear that the tax structure, along with the other systemic imbalances, of the Ancien Régime, heavily stacked the deck against the Third Estate. Although the economic inequities are perhaps not as severe and blatant as they were during the Old Regime, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist now.
This brings us to the main concern of the Zero Theft Movement: is the U.S. tax system and its enforcement allowing for potential plutocrats to boost profits at the expense of the majority of Americans?
For one, we have more clear-cut issues involving tax fraud. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) published a 2019 study estimating the gross average tax gap (amount of unpaid taxes). The Agency estimated the unpaid taxes at $441 billion. The infamous Paradise Papers and Panama Papers revealed an alleged global network of kleptocrats executing money laundering schemes totaling trillions of dollars.
Nevertheless, there are also potential structural issues with our current tax structure that perhaps overwhelmingly favor corporations and the rich.
On the corporation front, in FY 2019 business paid $230.2 billion, only 6.6.% of total government revenue. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy alleges that 55 corporations paid a total of $0 in federal corporate taxes. Do you think megacorporations should be able to avoid taxes to such a degree?
On the issue of the rich, they can comfortably invest massive amounts of their wealth without worrying about paying bills or taxes. The investments appreciate in value, and they do not have to pay capital gains tax until they sell an asset. Generations can theoretically hold on to the asset before any taxes actually have to be paid.
And even when the asset gets sold, capital gains and dividends are currently taxed at a maximum income tax rate of 20 percent. That’s markedly less than the 37-percent top rate on wages and salaries. Should the capital gains tax rate be higher so that there isn’t a possibly privileged ‘investor class’?
Learning from the Old Regime
The Old Regime is one example of many showing how greed oppressed a whole community or even the overwhelming majority of people. In the U.S., just think about slavery or the exploitation of women’s labor. The corrupt among the rich have historically shown a propensity for prioritizing their profit motive over their ethics.
The U.S. economy could have myriad problem areas, but it’s up to us to push back and identify where we’re getting ripped off. That’s where the Zero Theft Movement comes in.
Our growing community investigates potential problem areas, and everyone votes on whether (1) theft is or isn’t occurring in a specific area of the economy, and (2) how much is being stolen or possibly saved. Through direct democracy, we can collectively decide where the problem areas are and start working on addressing them systematically.
Only through hard evidence can we prove where the rigged parts of the economy exist and force Congress to hold all the bad actors accountable.
The Zero Theft Movement does not have any interest in partisan politics/competition or attacking/defending one side. We seek to eradicate theft from the U.S economy. In other words, how the wealthy and powerful rig the system to steal money from us, the everyday citizen. We need to collectively fight against crony capitalism in order for us to all profit from an ethical economy.
Terms like ‘steal,’ ‘theft,’ and ‘crime’ will frequently appear throughout the article. Zero Theft will NOT adhere strictly to the legal definitions of these terms (since congress sells out). We have broadly and openly defined terms like ‘steal’ and ‘theft’ to refer to the rigged economy and other debated unethical acts that can cause citizens to lose out on money they deserve to keep.