Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Problems of “Privilege”

From Quillette:
The suggestion that French society should be transformed through the elimination of privilege might have remained only a daring idea aired in philosophical debates, had the debt-ridden French monarchy not stumbled into a desperate crisis in the late 1780s. Previous attempts by the monarchy to push through reforms of the French judicial and economic systems had been stymied by traditional institutions representing the interests of the nobility. Now, as reform seemed more urgent than ever, many were ready for radical solutions. In 1789, as crowds stormed the Bastille, and as non-noble elites proclaimed themselves to be a ‘national assembly,’ the previously obscure cleric Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès placed himself in the center of French politics with an essay singling out privilege as the cause of France’s woes.

This essay, What is the Third Estate?, came to be seen by many revolutionary politicians as a justification and elucidation of their own inchoate demands. Sieyès himself became one of the most prominent figures of the revolutionary decade of the 1790s, and saw many of his ideas put into action. In What is the Third Estate?, Sieyès condemned France’s ‘Estates system,’ by which people were identified as clergy (First Estate), nobles (Second Estate), or the rest: the vast majority of the population (Third Estate). He called for a new kind of society in which elites would be chosen not on the basis of their bloodline, but on the basis of ability and merit. People like himself—smart, ambitious men from comfortable but non-aristocratic backgrounds—should make the decisions that mattered. (Read more.)

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