Necker, "Account to the King" (1781)
Unlike the British, where the crown’s finance minister gave an annual report to Parliament, the French royal treasury’s accounts were a closely guarded secret. Yet Louis XVI’s second finance minister, Jacques Necker, a Swiss banker, who claimed to be more attuned to the benefits of public confidence than to palace intrigue at court, thought the crown would be better able to raise funds if it were to issue a public report of its budget, and to this end he wrote and had published 100,000 copies of his Account to the King in 1781. He hoped this report would win support for reforms among the Parlementary magistrates and other regional elites; however, the result was the opposite—Necker was dismissed again, preventing once again any public discussion of the disastrous state of the royal finances. This excerpt comes from the introduction to Necker’s report.
Having devoted all my time and my strength in the service of YOUR MAJESTY since you appointed me to this position, it is important for me to give you some public explanations concerning the success of my works and the actual state of the Finances.
I would have renounced to the satisfaction of . . . explaining my behavior, if I had not thought that by doing so, all this [information] could have been very useful to YOUR MAJESTY's affairs. Such an institution, if it became permanent, would be the source of the most important advantages because the obligation to publicly show his administration would influence a Finance Minister from the first steps in his career. Darkness and obscurity favor nonchalance. . . . This report would also allow each of the people—who are part of YOUR MAJESTY's Councils—to study and follow the situation of the Finances. . . . Such an institution could have the greatest influence on public confidence.
In fact, if one fixes his attention on the huge credit England enjoys, and which constitutes their main strength in war, it would be impossible to attribute it entirely to the nature of its Government. Because whatever the authority of the French Monarch is, his interests will always depend on fidelity and justice. . . .
Another reason for the great credit of England is the public notoriety to which the state of Finances is submitted. Each year this state is presented to the Parliament, then it is printed. And all the lenders who regularly know the proportion that is maintained between incomes and expenses are not troubled by suspicions and fanciful fears, which are always part of darkness.
In France, the state of Finances has always been a mystery. If sometimes somebody talked about it, it was only in the preambles of Edicts, and always when money had to be borrowed. But these words, too often the same to be true, have necessarily lost their authority, and men of experience only believe in it because of the moral nature of the Finance Minister. It is important to found confidence on more solid bases. . . .
The sovereign of a kingdom such as France can always, when he wants, maintain the balance between ordinary expenses and incomes. The reduction of expenses—which is always the wish of the public—belongs to the King. When circumstances require, only he has the power to increase taxes. But the most dangerous, as well as the fairest of resources, is to blindly look for some temporary aid, and to borrow either through increases of income or through savings.
Such an Administration, which seduces because there seems to have no more immediate problems, only increases difficulties and leads to the precipice. On the other hand, a more simple and frank behavior would multiply the means of the Sovereign and would save him forever from any kind of injustice.
It is then a great view of Administration from YOUR MAJESTY to have been allowed to give a public report on the state of your Finances. And I wish, for the happiness and the strength of the Kingdom, that this happy institution is not temporary. What is there to fear from such a report if [you] . . . make expenses proportional to incomes, and guarantee lenders, every time the needs of the State require their confidence!
Jacques Necker, Compte rendu au Roi (Geneva: Duvillard, 1781), 1–3.