Price Controls and the Reign of Terror

by Don Boudreaux on April 25, 2008

in History, Prices, Reality Is Not Optional

In their 1975 book The Age of Napoleon, Will and Ariel Durant argue that the Reign of Terror during the French revolution was sparked, in part, by price controls.

The economy itself was a battlefield.  The price controls established on May 4 and September 29 [1793] were being defeated by the ingenuity of greed.  The urban poor approved the maxima; the peasants and the merchants opposed them, and increasingly refused to grow or distribute the price-limited foods; the city stores, receiving less and less produce from market or field, could satisfy only the foremost few in the queues that daily formed at their doors.  Fear of famine ran through Paris and the towns….

On August 30 a deputy pronounced the magic word: Let Terror be the order of the day.  On September 5 a crowd from the sections, calling for "war on tyrants, hoarders, and aristocrats," marched on the headquarters of the Commune in the Hotel de Ville.  The mayor, Jean-Guillaume Pache, and the city procurator, Pierre Chaumette, went with their delegation to the Convention and voiced their demand for a revolutionary army to tour France with a portable guillotine, arrest every Girondin, and compel every peasant to surrender his hoarded produce or be executed on the spot [pp. 62-63].


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