Gilets Jaunes Victorious in French Anti-Tax Protests

The Delacroix painting “Liberty Leading the People” altered so that Liberty is wearing a yellow vest.

France has put its planned tax hikes on vehicle fuel on hold. This is the second time in recent years that mass protests and direct action against tax increases has forced the government to back down. The first case was the bonnets rouges of Brittany who forced the government to rescind a new tax on highway transport.

In this latest victory, the people called themselves the gilets jaunes or “yellow vests” after the vests they wore to identify themselves and each other in the protests (French drivers are required to carry a yellow safety vest around with them just in case, so this was an easy symbol for a mass movement to obtain on short notice).

They stopped traffic at highway, roadway, and roundabout blockades, and also blockaded fuel ports, depots, and refineries. As the dissent grew, and proved to have wide popular support, and as the government proved intransigent — with president Macron insisting that the tax would go through as planned — the protests grew riotous in the heart of Paris.

The success of the protests has led to copycat movements elsewhere in Europe.

Wikipedia has a pretty good article summarizing what has happened so far.

In the next chapter of the Politics, Aristotle takes up the political proposals of Hippodamus of Miletus.


The proposals of Hippodamus, as Aristotle describes them, are these:

  • The polis will be carefully-planned, consisting of 10,000 people, divided into three classes: skilled workers, farmers, and military (who are the only ones to possess arms).
  • The territory will be zoned into sacred, public, and private areas. The private land belongs to the farmers. The produce from the public land is used to support the military. Produce from sacred land is devoted to religious purposes.
  • There will be three divisions of law: hubris (it seems to have proven difficult to determine what this word means in the ancient Greek legal context; it could be sexual assaults or morals offenses, or outrages against widely-understood norms of behavior, or something like that), “damage” (blabê — implying damage to property only, I think), and homicide. A Supreme Court would be instituted to hear appeals of cases when it appeared that they might have been decided poorly.
  • Rather than a guilty/not-guilty binary verdict, jurors will be encouraged to each submit a more nuanced verdict according to their opinion of the case. This way, if a juror believes that a defendant is liable, but not to the extent the plaintiff alleges, the juror isn’t restricted to a simple guilty/not-guilty (either one of which might seem to be “false to his oath” as a juror), but can adjust the damages appropriately.
  • “[A]ll who made discoveries advantageous to their country should receive honors” and their children, like the children of those who were killed in battle, “should be maintained at the expense of the state.”
  • Officials will be elected by the people.

Aristotle begins his critique by suggesting that Hippodamus’s division of the people into classes will be destabilizing. “[T]he farmers have no arms, the craftsmen have neither land nor arms, and this makes them virtually the slaves of those who do possess arms.” The military in such a state will not be sufficiently motivated to share power equally.

Apparently also Hippodamus was not clear as to how the public land would be tended so as to provide for the military from its produce. Would the military class maintain it themselves? If so, they are like the farmer class but with the extra burden of serving in the military and without the benefit of private ownership of land. If instead, that land is cultivated by the farmer class, then each farmer is burdened by having to take care of two families. Perhaps that’s not a big deal, but it makes the division of public and private land pointless (why not make all the land privately owned by farmers but just require farmers to devote some portion of their produce to feeding the military class?). If instead there is some other group — neither the farmers nor the military — who tends this land, then that fourth class of person needs to be added to Hippodamus’s scheme and their place in society better-explained.

Aristotle next criticizes Hippodamus’s jury reform proposals. He thinks that giving juries more discretion is probably unwise; it goes against the grain of well-meaning reforms instituted by legislators of his day. He also wonders how, if each juryman renders a different and nuanced verdict, these verdicts are to be reconciled into a single verdict. Aristotle isn’t worried about jurors being false to their oaths by rendering a binary verdict in a case in which more nuance might be better. He says that if the indictment is written precisely, this shouldn’t be an issue: if you believe someone is not liable for ₯200, but is liable for ₯100, it’s no violation of your oath to say simply that she is not liable for ₯200 if that is the question you are asked to decide.

Aristotle next addresses Hippodamus’s idea that the state should reward “those who discover something advantageous to the state.” He here exhibits a strong conservatism: once a state has adopted a good constitution, he thinks, it should be very suspicious of innovation, and should certainly not encourage it.

He knows that this is difficult to swallow. How can new ideas that are prima facie “advantageous” be harmful? Aristotle admits that in other disciplines, like medicine and exercise “and generally in every skill and faculty” innovation has been beneficial. Why should statecraft be different?

Isn’t Aristotle’s own project an attempt to innovate and find a way to improve the state? Haven’t improvements made in the past turned out well, and isn’t that project unfinished? Aristotle admits as much:

Greeks used to go about carrying arms; they used to buy their brides from each other; and traces survive of other practices once doubtless customary, which merely make us smile today…

“Generally, of course, it is the good, and not simply the traditional, that is aimed at,” he says. And so “some occasions… call for change” and “some laws… need to be changed.” However:

[W]e must say that there will be need of the very greatest caution. In a particular case we may have to weigh a very small improvement against the danger of getting accustomed to casual abrogation of the laws; in such a case, obviously, we must tolerate a few errors on the part of lawmakers and rulers. A man will receive less benefit from changing the law than damage from becoming accustomed to disobey authority. For the example of the crafts [where improvements are incontrovertibly good] is false; there is a difference between altering a craft and altering a law. The law has no power to secure obedience save the power of habit, and that takes a long time to become effective. Hence easy change from established laws to new laws means weakening the power of the law.

This brought to mind an argument I found persuasive in Sissela Bok’s Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. Bok wrote that when we are evaluating whether or not to be honest or deceptive in a certain situation, we need to think not only of the isolated instance of the particular lie and its effect on the person or persons being directly deceived, but we need to also take into account the effects of the lie on the character of the liar, on the culture of communication and trust, and on by-standers.

But I’m also reminded of Captain Vere in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, who shared Aristotle’s conservative suspicion of innovation and his defensiveness about existing institutions, and who ended up prosecuting and presiding over the execution of a man he knew was “innocent before God,” in order to rigidly defend the sacred rule of law. “Our avowed responsibility is in this,” he told the jury: “That however pitilessly that law may operate, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it.” And this in part was because to flinch from duty would send a message throughout the fleet that the law was only a sometimes-thing that might be put aside on occasion.

Is a society governed by law so fragile and valuable that law should almost always be prioritized over conscience, as Captain Vere and Aristotle say, or is the opposite true, as as Thoreau famously argued? My own sympathies lie with Thoreau, so it will be educational for me to spend some time with the arguments of someone who has the opposite view.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics