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Reviewed by:
  • The Fountain of Privilege: Political Foundations of Markets in Old Regime France and England, and: Le Travail. Reflet des Cultures: Du sauvage indolent au travailleur productif, and: The Rites of Labor: Brotherhoods of Compagnonnage in Old and New Regime France
  • George J. Sheridan Jr.
Hilton L. Root. The Fountain of Privilege: Political Foundations of Markets in Old Regime France and England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). Pp. xv + 280.
Annie Jacob. Le Travail. Reflet des Cultures: Du sauvage indolent au travailleur productif (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1994). Pp. 276.
Cynthia Maria Truant. The Rites of Labor: Brotherhoods of Compagnonnage in Old and New Regime France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994). Pp. xi + 356. $43.95.

These three studies together represent the long eighteenth century of Western Europe, especially France, as a period at once strangely paradoxical and familiarly rational. They highlight, in very different ways, certain values, perceptions, and institutional and ritual behaviors that gave this period extending back into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries its historical peculiarity, while constituting a “system” of rather modern elements. The Fountain of Privilege analyzes the functioning of absolutist, privilege-ridden Old Regime France according to the structural logic of its political and social institutions, explaining the regime’s deep-seated instability and eventual demise through revolution. The analysis is couched in the conceptual and explanatory vocabulary of free markets, market efficiency, and ideally entrepreneurial market agents. But the leading claims have more to do with “political markets” (8) and with the political institutions by which rights, notably those of ownership and use, were obtained, secured, and traded, than with economics tout court . A single idea drives the analysis. In simplified terms, this idea may be described as follows. Lacking a common forum where rights, both political and economic, could be traded openly and where differing interests could confront one another and thereby negotiate, French absolutism relied upon the discretionary distribution of monopoly privilege from one source or deal-maker, the Crown, among a multiplicity of separated private individuals and corporate groups as its means of assuring a reliable flow of revenue, its primary concern. Discretionary authority enabled the monarchy to do this with a small immediate cost of transaction, but the same authority undermined long-run confidence and required an institutional adjustment on the part of the holders of privilege for the system to continue to function. This adjustment, which took, for instance, the form of corporate organization and indebtedness in manufacture and finance, ultimately restricted the regime’s capacity to augment its revenues and to initiate administrative and fiscal reform. The same discretionary mechanism inhibited flows of information about emerging opportunities and also minimized incentives for bargaining among private individuals and groups, which constrained modernization of government and economic life. Thus the institutional arrangements and behaviors of rulers and ruled in Old Regime France displayed an underlying structural rationality, but its logic over time was ultimately self-constricting, to the point that the system it was intended to support could not reform itself to avoid collapse.

This is, to be sure, a highly sophisticated and trenchant thesis. Fountain of Privilege brilliantly elaborates this thesis in essays on a number of flashpoint issues of Old Regime absolutism and privilege—state and society, peasant economy and feudal dues, food policy and food riots, guilds and monopolies, state finance and public credit, and not least, the fiscal crisis [End Page 251] precipitating 1789. With evident iconoclastic fervor, the author bulldozes new trails through the dense thicket of historiographic interpretation on these most thorny topics, toppling or shaving the claims of eminent historians or interpretive schools, or clipping away at well-tendered idioms of value or belief, such as subsistence ethic and moral economy, long used to explain broad patterns of behavior. This single idea, guiding the way like a steady laser beam, deftly adjusts to the historical and contextual particularities of each issue, which are often enlightened by the author’s own archival spadework. Informed by a rigorous culture of theories of rational choice, collective action, and institutional change, as well as by comparative development studies of non-Western regions, Fountain of Privilege provides a most original cross-disciplinary reading of...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-315X
Print ISSN
0013-2586
Pages
pp. 251-253
Launched on MUSE
1998-01-01
Open Access
No
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