De Tocqueville's Critique of the Welfare State

I'm still bulling my way through Democracy In America, which is still as captivating and fascinating as it was from the first page. Most enjoyable is how the book challenges so many of my bedrock notions. De Tocqueville clearly likes democracy, and particularly admires the American form. But he is utterly unflinching in pointing out its potential pitfalls. 

There's an intellectual honesty specific to an era when it was, by no means, concluded that democracy was The Golden Way. Thus you can feel De Tocqueville almost anticipating the best argument of his critics and answering them, or even admitting their validity. We live in an era where the point is to defeat our critics, long before we understand their criticisms. I'm all for the former, but it should hopefully follow the latter.

I know I drove some of you up the wall with Fitzhugh's defense of slavery, but its so rare to see someone advocate a position and be willing to game out its consequences. Perverse as this sounds, I admire Fitzhugh's willingness to travel North and do battle--in person--with the wicked abolitionists.

In that same spirit, I really enjoyed the following critique by De Tocqueville of the welfare state and the entire notion of improvement. Liberals--and certainly the last conservative --accept that basic proposition of improvement. No Child Left Behind, reforming Medicare, the Ownership Society, even War in Iraq, proceeded from the notion that the American government can be used to ostensibly improve the lives of people both at home and abroad. We debate about whether that actually happened, but the premise, itself, was very much accepted by Bush.

De Tocqueville seems to be writing in a time where these ideas of "Improvement" and "Progress" has yet to really take firm hold. Here's an excerpt from Democracy in which he makes the case against government taking as its total mission "perpetual ameliorations." As he so wonderfully puts it in a democracy "A thousand different objects are subjected to improvement."

Before I cut to De Tocqueville's case, two things: 

1.) Don't get caught up on the word "poor" which in De Tocqueville's usage means something along the lines of without property.

2.) Remember that  the vast majority of us are, in fact, liberal. I'd really like to avoid using what follows as a club against the Tea Party, or some Supreme Court decision we don't like. I'm hoping that people who will respond will take the text seriously, and not just look for ways to justify themselves. 

We already know what we are. We don't need De Tocqueville to re-assure us. We need him to challenge us: 

In countries in which the poor *e should be exclusively invested with the power of making the laws no great economy of public expenditure ought to be expected: that expenditure will always be considerable; either because the taxes do not weigh upon those who levy them, or because they are levied in such a manner as not to weigh upon those classes. In other words, the government of the democracy is the only one under which the power which lays on taxes escapes the payment of them. 

*e:[ The word poor is used here, and throughout the remainder of this chapter, in a relative, not in an absolute sense. Poor men in America would often appear rich in comparison with the poor of Europe; but they may with propriety by styled poor in comparison with their more affluent countrymen.] 

 It may be objected (but the argument has no real weight) that the true interest of the people is indissolubly connected with that of the wealthier portion of the community, since it cannot but suffer by the severe measures to which it resorts. But is it not the true interest of kings to render their subjects happy, and the true interest of nobles to admit recruits into their order on suitable grounds? If remote advantages had power to prevail over the passions and the exigencies of the moment, no such thing as a tyrannical sovereign or an exclusive aristocracy could ever exist. 

Again, it may be objected that the poor are never invested with the sole power of making the laws; but I reply, that wherever universal suffrage has been established the majority of the community unquestionably exercises the legislative authority; and if it be proved that the poor always constitute the majority, it may be added, with perfect truth, that in the countries in which they possess the elective franchise they possess the sole power of making laws. But it is certain that in all the nations of the world the greater number has always consisted of those persons who hold no property, or of those whose property is insufficient to exempt them from the necessity of working in order to procure an easy subsistence. 

Universal suffrage does therefore, in point of fact, invest the poor with the government of society. The disastrous influence which popular authority may sometimes exercise upon the finances of a State was very clearly seen in some of the democratic republics of antiquity, in which the public treasure was exhausted in order to relieve indigent citizens, or to supply the games and theatrical amusements of the populace. It is true that the representative system was then very imperfectly known, and that, at the present time, the influence of popular passion is less felt in the conduct of public affairs; but it may be believed that the delegate will in the end conform to the principles of his constituents, and favor their propensities as much as their interests. 

 The extravagance of democracy is, however, less to be dreaded in proportion as the people acquires a share of property, because on the one hand the contributions of the rich are then less needed, and, on the other, it is more difficult to lay on taxes which do not affect the interests of the lower classes. On this account universal suffrage would be less dangerous in France than in England, because in the latter country the property on which taxes may be levied is vested in fewer hands. America, where the great majority of the citizens possess some fortune, is in a still more favorable position than France.

There are still further causes which may increase the sum of public expenditure in democratic countries. When the aristocracy governs, the individuals who conduct the affairs of State are exempted by their own station in society from every kind of privation; they are contented with their position; power and renown are the objects for which they strive; and, as they are placed far above the obscurer throng of citizens, they do not always distinctly perceive how the well-being of the mass of the people ought to redound to their own honor. 

They are not indeed callous to the sufferings of the poor, but they cannot feel those miseries as acutely as if they were themselves partakers of them. Provided that the people appear to submit to its lot, the rulers are satisfied, and they demand nothing further from the Government. An aristocracy is more intent upon the means of maintaining its influence than upon the means of improving its condition. 

When, on the contrary, the people is invested with the supreme authority, the perpetual sense of their own miseries impels the rulers of society to seek for perpetual ameliorations. A thousand different objects are subjected to improvement; the most trivial details are sought out as susceptible of amendment; and those changes which are accompanied with considerable expense are more especially advocated, since the object is to render the condition of the poor more tolerable, who cannot pay for themselves. 

Moreover, all democratic communities are agitated by an ill-defined excitement and by a kind of feverish impatience, that engender a multitude of innovations, almost all of which are attended with expense. In monarchies and aristocracies the natural taste which the rulers have for power and for renown is stimulated by the promptings of ambition, and they are frequently incited by these temptations to very costly undertakings. 

In democracies, where the rulers labor under privations, they can only be courted by such means as improve their well-being, and these improvements cannot take place without a sacrifice of money. When a people begins to reflect upon its situation, it discovers a multitude of wants to which it had not before been subject, and to satisfy these exigencies recourse must be had to the coffers of the State. Hence it arises that the public charges increase in proportion as civilization spreads, and that imposts are augmented as knowledge pervades the community. 

The last cause which frequently renders a democratic government dearer than any other is, that a democracy does not always succeed in moderating its expenditure, because it does not understand the art of being economical. As the designs which it entertains are frequently changed, and the agents of those designs are still more frequently removed, its undertakings are often ill conducted or left unfinished: in the former case the State spends sums out of all proportion to the end which it proposes to accomplish; in the second, the expense itself is unprofitable.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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