Nearly everyone who looks at welfare now admits that certain truths are undisputed. We know that welfare tends to break families and keep them broken, that welfare checks demean the people who receive them, and that unconditional aid often leads to long-term dependence on subsidies from the state.
We are also learning that British and American social reformers of the 1880s and 1890s were aware of the problems of unrestricted government aid to the poor. The writings of Gertrude Himmelfarb, Marvin Olasky, and James L. Payne have helped to tell our generation about such important nineteenth-century poverty-fighters as Octavia Hill, Mary Richmond, and Josephine Shaw Lowell, whose warnings about the damage government could cause when it tried to help the poor were largely ignored by the creators of the welfare state.
But these sensible Victorians were not the first social reformers to warn about the state’s efforts to aid the poor. A half-century earlier, Alexis de Tocqueville was making many of the same arguments.
The Memoir on Pauperism is one of Tocqueville’s more obscure works. It was not translated into English until 1968. This latest edition, published by the Institute of Economic Affairs, is apparently the first time the work has appeared as a separate publication.
In her informative introduction, Gertrude Himmelfarb explains how Tocqueville first became interested in poverty. In 1833 he visited Britain at the invitation of Lord Radnor, a Radical Member of Parliament. At the time, Britain was in the midst of great social unrest. A year earlier, Parliament had responded to substantial pressure from the public by passing the Reform Act of 1832, which gave the vote to the middle classes for the first time. In addition, the British government was about to dramatically revise the way that the state aided the poor. Since 1795, every Englishman that earned less than a certain level (based on the size of his family and the price of bread) had been given an income supplement by the state to raise his earnings to the state-mandated minimum. The result, Himmelfarb tells us, was that wages fell, the number of unemployed farm workers rose, and the British government spent as much as 20 percent of its budget subsidizing the poor. “By the early 1830s,” she writes, “the demand for reform of the poor laws was almost as insistent as the demand for a reform of the electoral laws.”
With Lord Radnor’s help, Tocqueville was able to observe several court sessions where judges determined whether poor people were entitled to alms. He then returned to France, where he finished the first volume of Democracy in America. Then he wrote the Memoir on Pauperism, which was published in French in 1835.
Tocqueville begins the memoir by noting a paradox that was “very extraordinary and apparently inexplicable.” Travel in an impoverished country such as Portugal or Spain, he writes, and you will see very few beggars. But in England, the wealthiest country in Europe, “you will discover with indescribable astonishment that one-sixth of this flourishing kingdom live at the expense of public charity.”
What is the explanation for this paradox? Tocqueville writes that there are two motivations for people to work-to provide the necessities of life and to improve themselves. But “a charitable institution indiscriminately open to all those in need, or a law which gives all the poor the right to public aid” removes both these motivations by eliminating the need to work and not denying aid to people who do not want to better themselves. The result is the creation of a system in which “the most generous, the most active, the most industrious part of the nation devotes its resources to furnishing the means of existence for those who do nothing or who make bad use of their labour.”
Tocqueville then criticizes people who argue that the state should create jobs for the idle poor and leave it to government overseers to make sure the jobless work hard. “Is there always public work to be done?” he asks. “But even supposing that there would always be work to do, who will take responsibility for determining its urgency, supervising its execution, setting its price? That man, the overseer, aside from the qualities of a great magistrate, will therefore possess the talents, the energy, the special knowledge of a good industrial entrepreneur . . . .Would it be wise to delude ourselves? Pressured by the needs of the poor, the overseer will impose make-work or even-as is almost always the case in England-pay wages without demanding labour.”
“Any measure which establishes legal charity in a permanent basis and gives it an administrative form,” Tocqueville writes, “thereby creates an idle and lazy class, living at the expense of the industrial and working class.”
If government is the wrong instrument for aiding the unfortunate, then what about individuals? Here Tocqueville asks questions for which he does not provide answers. “Individual charity is a powerful agency that must not be despised,” he writes but “it seems quite weak when faced with the progressive development of the industrial classes and all the evils which civilisation joins to the inestimable goods it produces.”
The Memoir on Pauperism concludes with a promise of a sequel that would explain how pauperism could be alleviated. This “Second Memoir on Pauperism” was never completed, and the fragments that survive suggest that Tocqueville was unable to devise a way to fight poverty that did not rely on the state.
Alexis de Tocqueville was the first important intellectual who understood that government aid to the poor does more harm than good. The questions he raises about the dangers of state aid to the poor are important ones which remain pertinent today. The Memoir on Pauperism is an important and neglected document in the history of philanthropy, and the Institute of Economic Affairs deserves a great deal of credit for bringing it back into print.
Martin Morse Wooster is a visiting fellow at the Capital Research Center and the author of The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of Donor Intent.
Alexis de Tocqueville’s Memoir on Pauperism. Translated by Seymour Drescher, with an introduction by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Institute of Economic Affairs Health and Welfare Unit. 39 p. £ 5.