Tocqueville as Économiste
Famed for his often prophetic insights into the future and widely regarded as one of the most astute commentators on French and American political culture, Alexis de Tocqueville is widely cited on any number of questions, ranging from the historical to the social. Rather less known are his commentaries on economic matters.
Tocqueville himself only displayed a moderate interest in economics. His thoughts on such matters tend to be scattered throughout the corpus of his writings. Some owe more to his work as a politician during Louis-Philippe’s July Monarchy and the short and ill-fated Second Republic. Others take the form of speeches delivered in France’s legislature.
And yet changes in the economic configuration of society loom large in the background of his political commentaries. Democracy in America, for example, not only reflects Tocqueville’s sensitivity to the culture of political equality he encountered in the then still-young republic, but also his awareness that Americans were intensely interested in commerce and business in ways then still uncommon—and often disdained—in much of continental Europe. Now, for the first time, two French scholars, Jean-Louis Benoît and Éric Keslassy, have gathered together the most pertinent of Tocqueville’s writings with a strong economic component. This is complemented throughout by commentaries by the two editors, which contextualize each particular text, alerting the reader to the nuances and events that help lend interpretative accuracy to Tocqueville’s economic ruminations. Benoît and Keslassy stress that Tocqueville should not be understood as an economic thinker in the same sense that we can describe French contemporaries such as Jean-Baptiste Say (1767–1832) and Frédéric Bastiat (1801–1850). They do, however, maintain that economic analysis is an integral part of Tocqueville’s thought and writings (p.16) that has been much neglected.
In presenting Tocqueville’s economic thinking, Benoît and Keslassy divide the materials into two thematic sections. The first is Tocqueville’s concern about how to address poverty. The second is the place of economic change in social development. In this regard, Benoît and Keslassy do not limit themselves to Tocqueville’s De la démocratie en Amérique (1835/1840), L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (1856), the two Mémoires sur le paupérisme (1835/1837), and his posthumously-published Souvenirs (1893); they also include his 1847 reflections such as De la classe moyenne et du people, the Question financière, and his Fragments pour une politique sociale. Additionally, the editors direct our attention to Tocqueville’s 1848 speeches on the issue of “the right to work” that was much debated in the first heady days of the Second Republic, as Jacobin and socialist agitators sought to seize power from the more moderate heads that directed the Provisional Government formed after the July Monarchy’s demise.
The phenomenon of pauperism occupied the minds of countless nineteenth-century intellectuals as the Industrial Revolution spread from England and Scotland, first to Belgium, then northern France, the Rhineland, and Northern Italy. As the twentieth-century Oxford economic historian Max Hartwell famously demonstrated in his debates with the Marxist scholar Eric Hobsbawn, industrial capitalism’s advent raised every category of material living standards for every group, ranging from life-span to nutrition, in those societies affected by it. Thousands of people across Western Europe left the grinding impoverishment of much of the countryside and entered the rapidly expanding towns because the greater opportunities offered by emerging industries.
There were, however, human costs to these developments. It resulted, for instance, in changes to life-style patterns that some were able to cope with more easily than others. With the undermining of previous certitudes about one’s place in the social and economic order came considerable hardship to many people. There had of course always been significant numbers of displaced wanderers walking the highways and byways of Europe. But the advent of industrialization appears to have intensified people’s awareness of these problems, especially in urban areas where traditional ways of assisting such people seemed inadequate. Their sheer numbers also raised concerns about their potential impact on the political stability of important cities such as Paris and London.
In this volume, Tocqueville’s writings about how to address poverty quickly reveal him to be no radical libertarian. The state, he always believed, had responsibilities in this area. At the same time, Tocqueville was deeply conscious of the limited effectiveness of state action in this area, not to mention the unintended consequences of many interventionist policies about which economists are skilled at reminding those who see state action as the universal elixir to all social problems. The failure of England’s poor laws, Tocqueville noted in his first writing on pauperism, resulted from their inability to distinguish between the truly indigent and the merely lazy. Moreover, they required the middle class to pay for a system that was a source of social embarrassment for those who received payment. Tocqueville also recognized that the nature and extent of pauperism was not uniform across industrial Europe. There were, he acknowledged, places where industrialization had created prosperity across all social classes. This was certainly the case of Birmingham, which Tocqueville contrasts unfavorably with Manchester. Part of the reason, Tocqueville observed, was that Birmingham’s skilled metal workers were able to attract far higher salaries than Manchester’s textile workers, precisely because of their higher skills—an early lesson in the crucial importance of what today is popularly called “human capital.”
The writings in the first part of this anthology also underline the depth of Tocqueville’s anti-socialism. Tocqueville was so disturbed by the 1848 Jacobin-socialist uprising in Paris that he enthusiastically supported General Louis Cavaignac’s use of the French army to crush this attempted second revolution in the space of a year. For Tocqueville, socialism’s flaws were three-fold: first, it was based on a naked appeal to human materialism; second, it undermined private property as an engine and safeguard of civilizational development; third, socialism was contemptuous not only of liberty but of reason itself. Considering that socialist theory and practice were still in embryonic form, Tocqueville was one of the first to trace with uncanny accuracy the moral, economic, and anthropological errors at the heart of socialism. One of contemporary Europe’s many tragedies is that even today so few are willing to acknowledge these problems. Tocqueville was no Marxist when it came to tracing the influence of economic change upon historical change. Nonetheless his writings that touch upon economic history in this volume illustrate that it is possible to take economic developments seriously in examining political and social life without lapsing into the intellectual prison of determinism.
The editors’ focus here is on three matters: the shift in economic power from aristocracy to bourgeoisie that Tocqueville traced back to the thirteenth century; the economic changes occurring in France between 1830 and 1848 and how these shaped the July Monarchy’s fate; and lastly Tocqueville’s agitation for slavery’s abolition. The theme pervading these texts is that while one cannot turn back the economic clock, there is significant room for political decisions to be made which either enable a society to navigate these changes smoothly, or, conversely, facilitate considerable economic disharmonies that eventually have profoundly negative political and social repercussions.
For Tocqueville, many of France’s economic problems were traceable to decisions made during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Such was the impact of these choices—especially concerning the distribution of the tax burden—that, despite what Tocqueville underlines as the relative prosperity of those parts of France that had embraced commercial order by 1789, there was relatively little Louis XVI could do to assuage the social and political discontent that underpinned the 1789 Revolution.
As for the slavery issue, it is noticeable how Tocqueville skillfully blended moral and economic arguments to great effect. Slavery, Tocqueville wrote, was an economic relic. Yet he clearly believed that illustrating its economic redundancy was insufficient. The moral case for its abolition had to be made, not least because Tocqueville recognized that an “efficient slavery” would still be an intrinsically immoral institution. To this extent, Benoît and Keslassy illustrate that Tocqueville’s way of incorporating economic analysis into social thought has contemporary significance. For Tocqueville, ignoring the evidence revealed by sound economic analysis and history was deeply irresponsible—even immoral. It produced failed policies, romanticized particular historical periods, and facilitated the rise of populist demagogues. Nonetheless Tocqueville highlighted the limits of economic reductionism, which was central to his critique of Europe’s then-emerging socialist movements. Such lessons are surely indispensable for all those who today claim Tocqueville as one of their own.
Samuel Gregg is Director of Research at the Acton Institute and author, most recently, of The Commercial Society (Lexington Books, 2007).
Posted: December 24, 2007
In Search of Community
Volume 39, Number 3 (Fall 1999)