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Are Causes of the French Revolution Present in the U.S. Today?

by James Spurgeon, published

There once was a time when the wealthy upper class and the Catholic Church didn't pay anything to the government in terms of taxes and had special socioeconomic privileges. It would fall upon the largest class of citizens, the peasantry, to pay taxes and keep the coffers of the country full.

I'm talking about pre-revolutionary France, but the description of that society would almost tend to describe the way U.S. society is currently.

The wealthy of today are generally considered the one percent. Though they do pay taxes, many people still consider the system to be unfair.

Though the wealthy pay more in taxes than the average citizen in terms of dollar amount, it is the overall percentage of their income that is significantly lower. They use offshore bank accounts and tricks written into the tax codes specifically for them to pay a lower percentage and to even avoid paying federal taxes on some of their income.

Billionaire Warren Buffett brought this topic into the political spotlight in 2012 when he announced that it was unfair that he paid a lower percentage in taxes than his personal secretary.

There have been calls for an overhaul of the tax code, but Congress has been in no hurry to act. The IRS, though, has begun to crack down on those who have foreign bank accounts and are not filing appropriate tax returns on the money that is contained within them.

According to University of Tampa professor Ryan Cragun, the U.S. government loses approximately $71 billion a year with religious exemptions. Cragun looked to his own home state of Florida as an example:

  • The state loses approximately $26.2 billion in property taxes every year;
  • Capital gains exemptions were estimated at $41 million;
  • And the clergy can claim up to $1.2 billion in tax exemptions through the parsonage allowance

Though we can trace back the religious exemption, it hasn't always been accepted. James Madison, for instance, opposed tax exemptions for religious institutions.

Religious tax exemptions are seen as a privilege and not a right as they are granted by the government because of the positive contribution religious institutions are presumed to make to society.

A 1954 law bans political campaigning by tax-exempt groups which does include religious organizations. It should come as no surprise, however, that there are several religious organizations that defy this law, including the Church of Latter Day Saints and its work to pass Proposition 8 in California. However, none of these organizations have lost their tax-exempt status.

This is the bulk of society, yet it is the part of society that often feels as though it is left out and not heard. Even in pre-revolutionary France, the nobles (the wealthy) and the Church would often vote as a bloc to overrule the Third Estate (the commoners) though they had the largest delegation. What was then called the Third Estate can now be termed the working class.

Today, the working class doesn't feel as though its elected leaders are working for their best interest or hearing their concerns.

It is often felt that the working class bears the tax burden of the country.

In the 2014 legislative session in Missouri, lawmakers approved a reduction in the state income tax, but are now asking residents to approve a sales tax to fund transportation/infrastructure projects. Both actions are largely seen as a benefit to the wealthy while placing a heavier burden on the working class and the poor.

The taxes part gets a bit complicated and murky. On top of paying income taxes, the working class must also pay payroll taxes which are used to fund Social Security and Medicare.

In 1789, there were two main powers: Britain and France. At the end of the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), both England and France were broke. To solve the problem, Britain attempted to levy taxes on its American colonies which led to the American Revolution.

Even with the coffers dry, France still entered the American Revolution on the side of the colonies. It wasn't because the French monarchy believed in the liberty the American colonists were fighting for, but rather to humiliate Britain. French forces were spread throughout the world to protect their overseas empire just like our forces are spread out in a similar fashion to intervene wherever it is needed to protect American interests today.

The military industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us of in his farewell address in 1961 is still growing. It is becoming even more powerful and costs our nation a lot of money to maintain. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the U.S. spent 19 percent ($643 billion) of its budget on defense in 2013.

There were a lot of factors that led up to the start of the French Revolution -- more than what I've gone into here. However, an underlying theme does still present itself.

The bulk of the population, the working class, is feeling as though it's paying more than its fair share and being asked to bear more and more of the burden while the wealthy get off and religious institutions are exempt.

But is it possible that the U.S will erupt into a French-styled revolution? Despite the vast similarities that have been described, our societies are very different.

We do not live under a monarch. The president is elected every four years and can only serve two terms, and we do have a representative body of our government that we elect. Though we feel as though our voices are largely ignored, we do have many nonviolent ways to fight for change within the process -- something that the people of France didn't have.

But, we must remember the causes that led the French to revolt, for they should not be ignored.

When the vast majority of people feel as though they are being taken advantage of, they will institute change. First they will try through the democratic processes that we are accustomed to, but if that doesn't work, I wouldn't put it past any society to rise up against their oppressors. After all, we, as Americans, have already done it once before.

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