Alexis de Tocqueville is known for his classic work, Democracy in America in which he comments on nineteenth century social life in America. However, very few are familiar with another work of his that sheds great light on what is happening in America today.
That work is his Memoir on Pauperism. It could have been written yesterday so timely is its message. Consider this. It is an account of Tocqueville’s visit to England in 1835. Upon returning to France, he reported on the marvels of England then at the cutting edge of industrial development and progress. Not unlike America today, England was a model of prosperity, a veritable Eden full of the world’s best amenities, entertainment and dazzling wealth.
And yet…Tocqueville discovered to his surprise that amid this impression of flourishing opulence, fully one-sixth of the population was on public welfare. These “paupers” were not the result of some temporary crisis; they were a well established underclass that tended only to increase in number.
This observation was followed by one that was even more astonishing.. He reported that a similar visit to Spain or Portugal would have yielded an incredibly different result. While people in those countries had a much lower standard of living, he affirmed that the number of paupers in those countries was statistically insignificant. He cited one estimate from Portugal that found the rate of paupers in one region to be one in twenty-five inhabitants; while in another regions those on public aid were as few as one in ninety-eight!
The noted writer gave various explanations for the differences between welfare models in England and Portugal. However, one observation is particularly striking from which we can draw useful conclusions for the present.
The English model of the Industrial Revolution that admittedly increased production and living standards led to a breakdown of traditional structures long in place that had prevented people from having recourse to public welfare. When the structures of an organic Christian society – family, community and church – were broken down by the whirlwind of changes due to a frenetic industrialization, the government stepped in and the welfare rolls grew. Where those threatened structures remained in place, public welfare participation was insignificant.
The lesson we can glean from this is that traditional structures matter. In seeking after progress, we cannot throw the baby out with the bath water. Too often, we have swept aside the natural mechanisms, which, like antibodies, normally served to keep society in balance. When these institutions and norms are weakened, artificial means must then be employed at great expense.
There is a second observation found in Tocqueville’s memoir. This deals with the role of public welfare in modern society. He claimed that when government establishes public charity on a permanent basis, it creates an idle class living at the expense of the industrious, and corrodes character. In fact, Tocqueville affirmed, “it depraves men even more than it impoverishes them.”
That is not to say that public aid should be abolished. There are times when aid is needed especially in times of disasters, extreme cases and catastrophes. Public assistance should then be swift, ample…and temporary. However, the best charity is that of private alms-giving which should be personal, natural…and voluntary.
When public charity replaced individual alms-giving, it served to break a valuable tie that traditionally existed between rich and poor. In the act of individual alms-giving, the benefactor took a personal interest in those whom he endeavored to aid. Likewise, the beneficiary expressed personal gratitude for the help given. A bond of affection was thus formed. As Tocqueville noted, “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 circumstances they are willingly reconciled.”
The tie of widespread individual charity unites a people in a single bond while public welfare based on the idea of entitlement creates division and resentments. The industrious resent being relieved of their money without consent. The poor no longer express gratitude but resentment about benefits that are now deemed entitlements and which are never seen as sufficient.
The breaking of the bond of charity between rich and poor set the stage for Marxist class struggle and its modern reincarnations. This can be seen in our entitlement society in which such bonds are discouraged and government empowerment is encouraged. It can also be seen in our culture of frenetic gratification in which the individual reigns supreme, unencumbered by strong ties to tradition, family, custom, or moral law that normally serve to unite people together in society.
Thus, we can draw timely conclusions from Tocqueville’s commentary. The first is that welfare systems and schemes will not resolve the problem of poverty in America – and will often only make them worse. Their nature is to replace natural mechanisms with costly alternatives. The second conclusion is more important. Only those personal ties that create a social fabric will address poverty at its root. These bonds are the natural mechanisms which society employs to solve these problems at little cost. To continue as we are now, will lead to our ruin.
In our fast-paced globalized world where everything is rapidly changing, we would do well to stop and ponder the sorry state of our natural institutions that should serve as support against misfortune. In my book, Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society—Where We’ve Been, How We Got Here and Where We Need to Go, I discuss the tragic consequences of a modern society that ignores the lessons of Tocqueville. What is needed is an urgent return to an organic Christian society which builds these necessary bonds that give us the elements to deal with misfortune and poverty.