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    Any measure that establishes legal charity on a permanent basis and gives it administrative form
    thereby creates an idle and lazy class, living at the expense of the industrial and working class.
        -Alexis De Tocqueville, Memoir on Pauperism
 

Gertrude Himmelfarb has written a most helpful introduction to this little known work (it was not even translated into English until 1968) by the great Alexis de Tocqueville, and I rely on her for the background to the book.  Visiting England in 1833, de Tocqueville was struck by the prevalence of pauperdom in this most prosperous of nations.  In 1835, shortly after the first volume of Democracy in America was published, he delivered this lecture to the Royal Academic Society of Cherbourg.  Himmelfarb suggests that he may have been influenced by J. B. Say's Cours d'economie politique, in which Say offered what Himmelfarb refers to as a "supply-side theory of pauperism" :

    England is the country that has the most havens available to the unfortunate, and it is perhaps the
    one where most unfortunates demand aid.  Let public welfare or private associations open, a
    hundred, a thousand others--all--will be filled; and there will remain in society equally as many
    unfortunates who will request permission to enter or who will claim it as a right if one recognized it
    as such.

De Tocqueville addresses himself to this quandary with his typical insight and foresight in a brief work which is as pertinent today as on the day he delivered the speech.

He starts out by surveying human history to determine why it should be the case that pauperism arises in advanced industrial societies, rather than in relatively backwards agrarian ones.  He concludes that the phenomenon is paradoxically a result of the advances.  Where a subsistence society requires the labor of the whole population just to feed itself, an industrial society can do so with less and less laborers.

The combination of idled hands among the many and a growing amount of disposable wealth among the few then leads to a situation where people will create new products in the hope that the wealthy will desire them.  These endeavors are inherently more risky than basic food production, which must obviously go on regardless of changing tastes or hard times.  In addition to forcing a significant portion of the population into a tenuous economic position, this manufacture of what are essentially superfluous goods creates a series of artificial desires.  No one actually needs all of the consumer products of the modern economy, but once produce them and get the rich to buy them and soon they are viewed as necessities by the society as a whole.  So, though the poorest in an industrial economy may be better off in terms of their standard of living than even the richest in a pre-industrial economy, they will nonetheless perceive themselves as destitute because they don't have all the gewgaws and doo dads that others have.  Thus, societal wealth breeds desires, wants, "needs", which are unknown in cultures which must devote all of their energies to just satisfying true physical needs.

And what do these parallel trends portend for the industrialized world ? :

    If all these reflections are correct, it is easy to see that the richer a nation is, the more the number of
    those who appeal to public charity must multiply, since two very powerful causes tend to that
    result.  On the one hand, among these nations, the most insecure class continuously grows.  On the
    other hand, needs infinitely expand and diversify, and the chance of being exposed to some of them
    becomes more frequent each day.

    We should not delude ourselves.  Let us look calmly and quietly on the future of modern society.
    We must not be intoxicated by the spectacle of its greatness; let us not be discouraged by the sight of
    its miseries.  As long as the present movement of civilization continues, the standard of living of the
    greatest number will rise; society will become more perfected, better informed; existence will be
    easier, milder, more embellished, and longer.  But at the same time we must look forward to an
    increase of those who will resort to the support of all their fellow men to obtain a small part of these
    benefits.  It will be possible to moderate this double movement; special national circumstances will
    precipitate or suspend its course; but no one can stop it.  We must discover the means of attenuating
    those inevitable evils that are already apparent.

In the second part of the Memoir, Tocqueville considers what forms of welfare will best attenuate these evils.  As a starting point it is important to note Tocqueville's rather blunt assessment of human nature :

    Man, like all socially organized beings, has a natural passion for idleness.  There are, however, two
    incentives to work: the need to live and the desire to improve the conditions of life.  Experience has
    proven that the majority of men can be sufficiently motivated to work only by the first of these
    incentives.  The second is effective only with a small minority.

It should also be noted that he does accept the notion that there is a legitimate role for charity :

    I recognize not only the utility but the necessity of public charity applied to inevitable evils such as
    the helplessness of infancy, the decrepitude of old age, sickness, insanity.  I even admit its
    temporary usefulness in times of public calamities which God sometimes allows to slip from his
    hand, proclaiming his anger to the nation.  State alms are then as spontaneous as unforeseen, as
    temporary as the evil itself.

    I even understand that public charity which opens free schools for the children of the poor and gives
    intelligence the means of acquiring the basic physical necessities through labor.

But even as he recognizes that there will be a proper role for charity, he warns that it must take a particular form :

    I think that beneficence must be a manly and reasoned virtue, not a weak and unreflecting
    inclination.  It is necessary to do what is most useful to the receiver, to do what best serves the
    welfare of the majority, not what rescues the few.

In practice this means that charity should never be made a right, to which the "needy" are entitled, but should instead always be considered to be a gracious gesture on the part of society.  This is necessary because rights must be based on the idea of equality of individuals, while a "right to charity" would be based on the inferiority of certain individuals.   When I assert a right to speak, or to own property, or to worship my God, I am stating that I am the equal of any man and so am entitled to be treated equally under the law.  But to assert a claim upon my fellow men for assistance is to assert my own inferiority and my dependence upon them.  This would degrade, rather than uplift, the supplicant.

Tocqueville also cites the qualitative difference between public and private charity as regards their effect on the sinews which hold society together :

    [I]ndividual alms-giving established valuable ties between the rich and the poor.  The deed itself
    involves the giver in the fate of the one whose poverty he has undertaken to alleviate.  The latter,
    supported by aid which he had no right to demand and which he had no hope to getting, feels
    inspired by gratitude.  A moral tie is established between those two classes whose interests and
    passions so often conspire to separate them from each other, and although divided by circumstance
    they are willingly reconciled.  This is not the case with legal charity.  The latter allows the alms to
    persist but removes its morality.  The law strips the man of wealth of a part of his surplus without
    consulting him, and he sees the poor man only as a greedy stranger invited by the legislator to share
    his wealth.  The poor man, on the other hand, feels no gratitude for a benefit that no one can refuse
    him and that could not satisfy him in any case.  Public alms guarantee life but do not make it
    happier or more comfortable than individual alms-giving; legal charity does not thereby eliminate
    wealth or poverty in society.  One class still views the world with fear and loathing while the other
    regards its misfortune with despair and envy.  Far from uniting these two rival nations, who have
    existed since the beginning of the world and who are called the rich and poor, into a single people,
    it breaks the only link which could be established between them.  It ranges each one under a banner,
    tallies them, and, bringing them face to face, prepares them for combat.

As is so often the case, de Tocqueville seems to have perceived social trends and understood where mankind's character would lead with the clarity of a prophet.  To a remarkable degree, the arguments he presents in the Memoir have become the accepted wisdom that lay behind Welfare reform and ideas like President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative.  We can only imagine how much different, how much better and more productive, the last two hundred years might have been had the industrialized world heeded his warning :

    I am deeply convinced that any permanent, regular administrative system whose aim will be to
    provide for the needs of the poor will breed more miseries than it can cure, will deprave the
    population that it wants to help and comfort, will in time reduce the rich to being no more than the
    tenant-farmers of the poor, will dry up the sources of savings, will stop the accumulation of capital,
    will retard the development of trade, will benumb human industry and activity, and will culminate
    by bringing about a violent revolution in the State...

Precisely such a fate did claim many of the states of Europe, and most of the rest still groan beneath the suffocating weight of their cradle to grave welfare systems.  As Tocqueville expected, America has been able to slow the onset of this fate, and the current climate of enthusiasm for privatizing social services offers some hope that we will be able to avoid it altogether, but until we actually do privatize Social Security and re-privatize health care, this sword of Damocles still dangles overhead.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Alexis Tocqueville (2 books reviewed)
Philosophy
Alexis Tocqueville Links:

    -ESSAY: Tocqueville's Puritans: Christianity and the American Founding (Sanford Kessler, August 1992, The Journal of Politics)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: THE HABIT OF DEMOCRACY: Alexis de Tocqueville and the pleasures of citizenship. (ADAM GOPNIK, 2001-10-15, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Tocqueville and the cultural basis of American democracy (Daniel J. Elazar, June 1999, PS: Political Science & Politics)
   
    -ESSAY: The Tragedy of Democracy: 'Rights', Tolerance and Moral 'Neutrality': It took a 19th century aristocrat to realise that democracy?s greatest virtue-the elevation of individual autonomy over hereditary influence-could also be its greatest vice. (Samuel Gregg, Policy)
    -REVIEW: of Tocqueville: A Biography (Samuel Gregg, Policy)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA :  tocqueville
    -ETEXT : Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
    -Tocqueville's America (American Studies at the University of Virginia)
    -The Alexis de Tocqueville Tour : Exploring Democracy in America  (CSPAN)
    -PAL: Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 1859)
    -The Tocqueville Review (University of Toronto)
    -Alexis de Tocqueville Institution
    -Le Club Tocqueville
    -BOOKNOTES : Title: Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America   Author:Harvey Mansfield Sunday, December 3rd, 2000 (C-SPAN)
    -SPEECH : Ashbrook Colloquium : Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop    Topic: "Democracy in America" (Friday, March 30, 2001, Ashland University)
    -PROFILE : ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE (Robert C. Frederiksen, Florida State University)
    -ESSAY :  Welfare and Charity: Lessons from Victorian England (Gertrude Himmelfarb, Acton Institute : Transforming Welfare: The Revival of American Charity)
    -ESSAY : Back to the workhouse for America : how a group of historians influenced George W. Bush's domestic policy (Tristram Hunt, New Statesman)
    -ESSAY : Skepticism, Meliorism, and The Public Interest  (Irving Kristol, The Public Interest)
    -ESSAY : Tocqueville today (Roger Kimball , New Criterion)
    -ESSAY : THE TOCQUEVILLE FRAUD (John J. Pitney, Jr. , The Weekly Standard, November 13, 1995)
    -ESSAY : Panic Tocqueville
    -ESSAY : Gramsci vs. Tocqueville or Marxism vs. the American Ideology (Ronald Radosh, FrontPageMagazine.com | January 4, 2001)
    -ESSAY : Higher Learning :  In which our man in Washington foregoes dirty talk for Tocqueville and finally learns what a wigwam is. (Michael W. Lynch, Reason, June 2001)
    -ESSAY : In search of a forgotten dream : In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville travelled through America, and hailed its unique spirit of equality. David Cohen retraced his journey to find a nation with a very different mood (New Statesman)
    -A Biography of Alexis de Tocqueville by Mike Noble
    -COURSE NOTES : POSC-329: Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America--Then and Now (Salvatore Lombardo, Siena College)
    -LINKS : RESOURCES ON ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE  (Christine Alice Corcos, CENTER OF CIVIL LAW STUDIES LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY LAW CENTER)
    -ARCHIVES : Tocqueville (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : Tocqueville (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEW : of Memoir on Pauperism (Terry Teachout, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Memoir on Pauperism (Robert Haggard, Essays in History)
    -REVIEW : of Memoir on Pauperism : The Forgotten Tocqueville: What he saw in 19th century England (Martin Morse Wooster, Big Eye)
    -REVIEW :  of A Memoir of Pauperism by  Alexis de Tocqueville (Richard Grenier, Washington Times)
    -REVIEW : of Memoir on Pauperism (D. Nyhan)
    -REVIEW : of Memoir on Pauperism (Brewer Family Homepage)
    -REVIEW : of Democracy in America (CALEB CRAIN, NY Times Book Review)
    -LETTER : To the Editor (James Q. Wilson, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, by Alexis de Tocqueville; transl. by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Michael Novak, Wilson Quarterly)
    -REVIEW : of Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, translated  and edited by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Noemie Emery, National Review)
    -REVIEW : of Democracy in America  By Alexis de Tocqueville. Translated, edited, and with introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Peter Wood, Partisan Review)
    -REVIEW : of Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, translated  and edited by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (John W. Dean, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville Translated, edited, and with an Introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Stephen Holt, History Today)
    -REVIEW : Tocqueville, ed. and trans. by Mansfield and Winthrop, Democracy in America (Seymour Drescher, Journal of American History)
    -REVIEW : of Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy. By Pierre Manent (Brian C. Anderson, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of Tocqueville's Revenge: State, Society, and Economy in Contemporary France. By Jonah D. Levy (John S. Ambler, American Political Science Review, September 01 2000)
    -REVIEW: Tocqueville's Lament  (P.N. FURBANK, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: Robert O. Paxton: The Divided Liberal, NY Review of Books
            Tocqueville: A Biography by André Jardin
             Tocqueville and the Two Democracies by Jean-Claude Lamberti

SEYMOUR DRESCHER :
    -Seymour Drescher  (History Department, University of Pittsburgh)

GENERAL :
    -Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty
    -Acton Institute : Transforming Welfare: The Revival of American Charity
    -LECTURE : The Effects Of The Social Welfare System On Unemployment (Des Moore, H.R. Nicholls Society XVIII Annual Conference 1997)
    -ESSAY : Replacing Welfare (Michael Tanner, Cato Online)
    -ESSAY : Reinventing the Welfare State : Welfare reform is not just for policy wonks. It's about the world of work and family we will pass on to the next generation (Nancy Fraser, March 1994, Boston Review)
    -ESSAY : Ending Welfare As We've Know It : What Comes Next? (John W. Barry and Bruno V. Manno,  February 1997, capital Research Center)
    -REVIEW : of Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam (James Davison Hunter, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW : of A New Birth of Freedom by Harry Jaffa (Glenn Tinder, Weekly Standard)

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