On Abolishing privilege in 2014 and 1789

An interesting article in today’s Libération by Marcela Iacub brings to mind the night of 4 August 1789, during which deputies representing the clergy and aristocracy gave up their inherited, feudal privileges. The fundamental question facing the population in 1789 now faces us today, and an acute sense of injustice is mounting daily in France and the US, which are both struggling with ways to restore a sense of justice in countries which appear to embrace, enforce, and protect the privileges of the few. Should privilege be abolished from the top down, by governmental decree, welfare or taxation policies? Or should the state maintain its laissez-faire economics and allow the market to continue widening the gap between the 1% and the rest of us?
The history of the French Revolution provides one example of people voluntarily relinquishing their rights to privilege, but it is worth noting that the generous élan of August 4, 1789 followed a bloody summer known as the Great Fear, when peasants and other disenfranchised folks took justice in their own hands, pillaging, stealing, and otherwise leveling the playing field in rural France. The famously public generosity of August 4 was thus generated by fear more than solidarity. Our time is heading in the same direction, as Marcela Iacub notes, and it remains to be seen what solution may be found to curb the rightful anger of the disenfranchised. Iacub proposes a law that would limit the ability of the super-rich to inherit the wealth of their families (above a certain level), and thereby restore a sense of justice among those unlucky folks who inherit nothing but the will to work hard and hope for a better life. But can the dispossessed find satisfaction without violence against their oppressors? And is it reasonable to expect the privileged to relinquish their comforts voluntarily?

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