Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Marie-Antionette and Entitlement Programs

My brother, David, posted an interesting comment on my last blog about Marie-Antionette, the Austrian born aristocrat who donated her head to french peasant science.

Gary Martin provides the following history of the phrase, "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche" or "let them eat cake."

The origin of many phrases in English are unknown. Nevertheless, many people would say that they know the source of this one. It is widely attributed to Marie-Antoinette (1755-93), the Queen consort of Louis XVI. She is supposed to have said this when she was told that the French populace had no bread to eat.

The original French is Qu'ils mangent de la brioche. It has been suggested that the speaker's intention wasn't as cynical as is generally supposed. French law required bakers to sell loaves at fixed prices and fancy loaves had to be sold at the same price as basic breads. This was aimed at preventing bakers from selling just the more profitable expensive products. The let them eat brioche (a form of cake made of flour, butter and eggs) would have been a sensible suggestion in the face of a flour shortage as it would have allowed the poor to eat what would otherwise have been unaffordable. It's rather a mouthful, so to speak, but if the phrase had been reported as 'let them buy cake at the same price as bread' we might now think better of the French nobility.

Two notable contemporaries of Marie-Antoinette - Louis XVIII and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, attribute the phrase to another source. In Louis XVIII's memoir Relation d'un voyage a Bruxelles et d Coblentz (1791) he states that the phrase 'Que ne mangent-ils de la croûte de pâté?' (Why don't they eat pastry?) was used by Marie-Thérèse (1638-83), the wife of Louis XIV. That account was published almost a century after Marie-Thérèse's death though, so it must be treated with some caution.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's 12-volume autobiographical work Confessions, was written in 1770. In Book 6, which was written around 1767, he recalls:

At length I recollected the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who, on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, "Then let them eat pastry!"

Marie-Antoinette arrived at Versailles from her native Austria in 1770, two or three years after Rousseau had written the above passage. Whoever the 'great princess' was - possibly Marie-Thérèse, it wasn't Marie-Antoinette.

Her reputation as an indulgent socialite is difficult to shake, but it appears to be unwarranted and is a reminder that history is written by the victors. She was known to have said "It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness". Nevertheless, the French revolutionaries thought even less of her than we do today and she was guillotined to death in 1793 for the crime of treason. (

Regardless of the originator of the phrase, it has become synonymous in modern nomenclature with entitlement. And politicians are great at promising hungry constituents that they can have more for less. Let them eat cake! Of course the elephant in the corner is who's going to pay for all this? Don't worry, let them eat cake! We can always adopt the philosophy of "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." That seemed to work out well for Russia.

The truth is we can't have it all. We have to live with contraints and choices. I don't want a government that promises to take care of my every need. It can't be done.

I don't know about you, but maybe bringing back the guillotine for lying politicians wouldn't be such a bad idea.

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