It happened today - November 2, 2015

On Nov. 2 1789 the French Revolutionary government confiscated church property. It soon used it to back a ruinous paper money scheme, so it did itself no good in the short run. But it did lasting harm in the long run.

More accurately it continued a long-standing pattern of harm because of the lack of rule of law. The seizure of church lands was “lawful” in the bureaucratic sense of having been done according to a formal rule made through an elaborate process. But it was not lawful in the deeper sense of being done under a long-standing, fixed, fair set of rules grounded in liberty and applicable to everyone. Indeed, the goal of exterminating the religious beliefs of the populace was itself proof that the new regime had no conception of an organic connection with the actual French.

In one sense the church had no conceivable complaint, having itself been a key prop of an ancien régime that was not lawful the way the English/British government had been from time immemorial. It had possessed powers and privileges that were arbitrary and unfair and was in 1789 hoist on its own petard.

On the other hand, by failing to try to establish genuine rule of law the revolutionary government made things worse in many ways and better in none. It slaughtered its enemies, itself went to the guillotine, and was succeeded by Napoleon, chaos and political comedy that rarely sank to the level of real tyranny but rarely rose to the level of good government. Even today the state in France is in a real sense rootless, hovering over the people rather than rising from them even if the British example of liberty under and the shocks of truly lawless regimes in the 20th century have made it somewhat less unreasonable and arrogant.

The suggestion would doubtless have met with scorn and then violence at the time, and was not fiscally practical. But it would have been far far better to pay for the lands seized in 1789, as a policy and a precedent. Or not to seize them at all, but simply bring them under a uniform system of law grounded in the people and binding on rich and poor, mighty and obscure, lay and clerical.

N’est-ce pas?