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“The Idea of Rights”: Tocqueville on The Social Question

  • Gianna Englert

Tocqueville's writings on pauperism have gained renewed attention in the last decade. Scholars study his Memoir on Pauperism (1835) to contextualize his thought in the nineteenth century, to question the extent of his liberalism, or to locate his policy solutions on a spectrum from private charity to state welfare. Yet Tocqueville's response to pauperism must be interpreted in light of “the social question,” or the problem of how to alleviate not only the material ills of poverty, but also the phenomenon of social exclusion that accompanied it. His discussion of the social question, I argue, illuminates his particular theory of rights and their possibilities. His thoughts on the poor laws culminate in a novel theory of the educative potential of property rights. This theory of rights prompts us to revisit his position on extending political rights and on the role of political participation in overcoming class division.

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1 de Tocqueville, Alexis, Memoir on Pauperism, in Tocqueville and Beaumont on Social Reform, ed. and trans. Drescher, Seymour (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 1 .

2 Tocqueville's follow-up essay on pauperism, known as the Second Memoir (1837), was not published until 1989 as part of his collected works. See Œuvres complètes, vol. 16, Mélanges, ed. Mélonio, Françoise (Paris: Gallimard, 1989), 140–57 (hereafter OC). He also wrote a short essay called the “Letter on Pauperism in Normandy” between 1835 and 1836.

3 Drescher, Seymour, Tocqueville and England (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964), Dilemmas of Democracy (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1968), and Tocqueville and Beaumont on Social Reform (New York: Harper and Row, 1968); Welch, Cheryl, “Tocqueville's Resistance to the Social,” History of European Ideas 30 (2004): 83107 ; Drolet, Michael, Tocqueville, Democracy, and Social Reform (New York: Palgrave, 2003) and Tocqueville's Interest in the Social,” History of European Ideas 31 (2005): 451–71.

4 Swedberg, Richard, Tocqueville's Political Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

5 Keslassy, Eric, Le libéralisme de Tocqueville à l’épreuve du paupérisme (Paris: L'Harmattan, 2000); Goldberg, Chad Alan, “Social Citizenship and a Reconstructed Tocqueville,” American Sociological Review 66 (2001): 289315 ; Boesche, Roger, The Strange Liberalism of Alexis de Tocqueville (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987), esp. 133–40.

6 Himmelfarb, Gertrude, introduction to the Memoir on Pauperism (London: Civitas, 1997).

7 OC, 16:131n16.

8 Tocqueville, , Journeys to England and Ireland, trans. Lawrence, George and Mayer, J. P. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1958), 107 . Hereafter Journeys.

9 Say, Jean-Baptiste, Cours complet d’économie politique pratique (Paris: Guillaumin, 1828–29), 2:361n1. See also Eugene Buret, who wrote that the term “pauperism” was “borrowed from England, which undoubtedly deserved the honor of naming this new evil that it possessed before any other nation” ( Buret, , De la misère des classes laborieuses en France et en Angleterre [Paris: Paulin, 1840], 1:120 ).

10 Drescher, Dilemmas of Democracy, 105. One notable exception is Edmund Burke's distinction between laborers and the poor in Thoughts and Details on Scarcity (authored 1795; first printed London: Rivington, 1800 ). Burke's distinction had a dual purpose. First, he argued that the “poor” were those who simply could not work—the infirm, the elderly, the sick, children—and were thus the proper recipients of charity. Second, he wished to convince the laborer that he was not “poor” in this sense, and should not believe that he can depend on anything but his own “industry and frugality” for assistance. As we will see, the Royal Commission behind the 1834 poor law reform outlined a similar distinction.

11 E.g., Buret, De la misère des classes laborieuses; Bonaparte, Louis-Napoleon, L'Extinction du paupérisme, in Oeuvres (Paris: Temblaire, 1844); Frégier, H. A., Des classes dangereuses de la population dans les grandes villes, et des moyens de les rendre meilleurs (Paris: Baillière, 1838).

12 Tocqueville addressed the persistence of the aristocratic mindset among the English, whose “imaginations… have not broken [the] fetter” of inequality associated with aristocracy, at least as of 1835 (Tocqueville, Journeys, 72).

13 Alban de Villeneuve-Bargemont attributed pauperism to the English model of industrial development and the flawed science of classical political economy that supported that model. Even Say, a proponent of the classical school Villeneuve-Bargemont condemned, saw pauperism as the byproduct of an English industrial (and political) system that created new, artificial needs without supplying the means to meet them. See Villeneuve-Bargemont, , Economie politique chrétienne, ou recherches sur la nature et les causes du paupérisme en France et en Europe, vol. 1 (Paris: Paulin, 1834), 22 .

14 Malthus, Thomas, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 6th ed. (London: John Murray, 1826), III.VI.6–8.

15 Buret, De la misère des classes laborieuses, 2:35.

16 Quoted in Chevalier, Louis, Classes laborieuses et classes dangereuses à Paris pendant la première moitié du XIXe siècle, 2nd ed. (Paris: Hachette, 1984), 602 .

17 Ibid.

18 Rosanvallon, Pierre, The Society of Equals, trans. Goldhammer, Arthur (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 78 .

19 Tocqueville, Journeys, 91.

20 See Boesche, Roger, “Tocqueville on the Tension between Commerce and Citizenship,” in Tocqueville's Road Map (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006), 5979 .

21 Drescher contends that Tocqueville recognized a new type of aristocracy in England, “an aristocracy of wealth” that represented a transitory condition between birthright aristocracy and a democratic social state ( Drescher, Seymour, “Tocqueville's Comparative Perspectives,” in The Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville, ed. Welch, Cheryl [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006], 28 ).

22 On the correspondence between Tocqueville and Senior, see Brogan, Hugh, “Pauperism and Democracy: Alexis de Tocqueville and Nassau Senior,” in Liberty, Equality, Democracy, ed. Nolla, Eduardo (New York: NYU Press, 1992), 129–43.

23 On “less-eligibility” see Boyer, George, An Economic History of the English Poor Law, 1750–1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) and Himmelfarb, Gertrude, The Idea of Poverty (New York: Knopf, 1984), 147–67.

24 Tocqueville, “The Poor. Examination of the Law of 14th August 1834,” in Journeys, 207.

25 Welch, “Tocqueville's Resistance to the Social,” 96.

26 Tocqueville to Duvergier, May 1837, in OC, 16:23.

27 Tocqueville, Memoir, 2. Tocqueville compiled these statistics using figures from Villeneuve-Bargemont in his Economie politique chrétienne and the Italian geographer Adriano Balbi. Though the accuracy of these statistics has been questioned, they nonetheless illustrate the point of departure for nineteenth-century conversations on pauperism.

28 Ibid., 4–5.

29 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men, in The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, ed. and trans. Gourevitch, Victor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

30 Tocqueville, Memoir, 8.

31 Ibid., 9.

32 This line of argument calls to mind the theory of alienated labor Marx and Engels would introduce roughly a decade later. See Marx, and Engels, , Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Tucker, Robert C. (New York: Norton, 1978).

33 Tocqueville, Memoir, 9.

34 Ibid., 11.

35 Ibid., 15.

36 Burke, , Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, in Select Works of Edmund Burke, ed. Payne, E. J., vol. 4 (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1990), part 5, section 12.

37 Malthus, Essay on the Principle of Population, III.5.2.

38 Swedberg devotes roughly one paragraph to Tocqueville on rights. The subject receives more attention in Himmelfarb's work, but is framed only as yet another Tocquevillean paradox. Drolet offers the most extended interpretation of the rights argument, but his claims nonetheless stop well short of those in this paper, as he claims only that rights are wedded to responsibilities and obligations (Drolet, Tocqueville, Democracy, and Social Reform, 142–43). Sheldon Wolin briefly framed Tocqueville's thought on rights as evidence of a “philanthropic politics” ( Wolin, , Tocqueville between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001], 423 ). Delba Winthrop distinguished Tocqueville's theory of rights from those of natural rights theorists (Hobbes and Locke) and Kantians ( Winthrop, , “Rights, Interest, and Honor,” in Tocqueville's Defense of Human Liberty, ed. Alulis, Joseph and Lawler, Peter [New York: Garland, 1993], 215–19).

39 Tocqueville, “On the Middle Class and the People,” in Tocqueville and Beaumont on Social Reform, 174–79.

40 Tocqueville, Memoir, 17.

41 Tocqueville noted that rights are typically conferred on the basis of superiority of one person over another, a claim that seems to move beyond equality toward something, as Michael Drolet has claimed, more akin to privilege. Nonetheless, what may begin from acknowledged superiority culminates in equality, placing individuals “on the same level” with one another. See Drolet, Tocqueville, Democracy, and Social Reform, 142–43.

42 Tocqueville, Memoir, 17.

43 Ibid, 19.

44 While Drolet argues that Tocqueville's “rhetoric, the thesis he advanced and the arguments he deployed were strikingly similar to those of [Malthus],” the Tocquevillean critique of public welfare, I argue, must be read in light of the “idea of rights,” a theoretical departure from the Malthusian approach to the social question. See Drolet, , “Democracy and Political Economy: Tocqueville's Thoughts on J.-B. Say and T. R. Malthus,” History of European Ideas 29 (2003): 159–81.

45 Tocqueville, Memoir, 20.

46 Ibid.

47 He also questioned whether the act could succeed, even by its own standards (ibid., 23–24).

48 Tocqueville grew ambivalent about a “less-eligibility” poor law after the Revolution of 1848. In his conversations with Senior in 1851, he declared that France “must have a Poor Law,” and considered a system of less-eligibility. But while he offered this as a possible future for France, he never abandoned the ideal of “real charity” that would “make it a bond between the poor and the rich.” See Correspondence and Conversations of Alexis de Tocqueville with Nassau William Senior, ed. Simpson, M. C. M. (London: King, 1872), 1:204–5.

49 Tocqueville, Memoir, 18.

50 Ibid.

51 Tocqueville was neither the first nor the last to use this image to describe the social divide between classes. In his Lettre aux prolétaires (Hamburg, 1833), Albert Laponneraye observed the division of France into two nations, “a nation of the privileged and a nation of the unprivileged, or proletarians” (1). Buret warned that the two classes, industrialists and workers, were so divided as to “resemble preparation for civil war” (De la misère des classes laborieuses, 2:50). Benjamin Disraeli invoked this image in the title of the 1845 novel Sybil, or the Two Nations.

52 These extremes were evident in Manchester, where “humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish; here civilisation works its miracles, and civilised man is turned back almost into a savage” (Tocqueville, Journeys, 108).

53 Keslassy has seized on this point in situating Tocqueville's thought somewhere between economic liberalism and state socialism. According to Keslassy, Tocqueville rejected public relief but offered a new conception of the state that would overcome the limitations of private charity and harness the beneficial motivations that underlie public relief. See Keslassy, Le libéralisme de Tocqueville.

54 He was more explicit about this failure in the Memoir: “I think that there is no principle, however good, whose every consequence can be regarded as good” (24).

55 Keslassy locates Tocqueville closer to the “public” side, but short of state socialism. Himmelfarb interprets Tocqueville as a proponent of private charity, but one who is nonetheless well aware of its limitations. Castel presents Tocqueville as an exemplar of nineteenth-century “politics without a state” that avoided state intervention in favor of private, contractual solutions. Reconstructing Tocqueville's arguments with an eye toward the present-day, Chad Alan Goldberg argues that a welfare state is not inimical to Tocquevillean principles. See Goldberg, , “Social Citizenship and a Reconstructed Tocqueville,” American Sociological Review 66, no. 2 (2001): 289315 .

56 Swedberg, Tocqueville's Political Economy, 2–4.

57 Tocqueville, , Democracy in America, trans. Mansfield, Harvey C. and Winthrop, Delba (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 488 .

58 Tocqueville contrasted a true “society,” bound by a shared respect for rights, with a “union of rational and intelligent beings among whom force is the sole bond” (DA, 227).

59 Ibid., 6.

60 Tocqueville, Second Memoir on Pauperism, in OC, 16:140. All translations from this text are my own.

61 Ibid., 141.

62 See DA, vol. 2, part 3, chap. 21 (p. 606), “Why Great Revolutions Will Become Rare.”

63 Tocqueville, Second Memoir, 142. See also Tocqueville's 1833 impressions of England: “in my view the first and permanent cause of evil is the way landed property is not divided up” (Journeys, 72).

64 Tocqueville, Second Memoir, 142.

65 Tocqueville, Journeys, 72.

66 DA, 227–28.

67 The educative dimensions of Tocqueville's rights argument have been neglected even among scholars who acknowledge the role of rights and duties in the memoirs on pauperism. Michael Drolet acknowledges that Tocquevillean rights are, or ought to be, wedded to responsibilities and obligations, but ignores the mechanism by which the exercise of rights educates the individual toward such obligations. See Drolet, Tocqueville, Democracy and Social Reform, 145.

68 DA, 227.

69 This kind of institution appeared in various forms in France throughout the nineteenth century and earlier. Napoleon granted the mont-de-piété of Paris a monopoly on pawnbroking to meet the needs of a growing population in the city. For a more complete history, see Deschodt, Eric, Histoire du Mont-de-Piété (Paris: Le Cherche Midi éditeur, 1993).

70 OC, 16:142.

71 DA, 228.

72 Wolin, Tocqueville between Two Worlds, 489.

73 Tocqueville, , “Discussion de l'adresse, séance du 18 janvier 1842,” in Œuvres complètes, vol. 3, part 2, Écrits et discours politiques, ed. Jardin, André (Paris: Gallimard, 1985), 205.

74 Gannett, Robert, “Tocqueville and the Politics of Suffrage,” Tocqueville Review 27 (2006): 209–26.

75 Ibid., 216.

76 Gannett uses the image of “calibration” when discussing Tocqueville's shifting justifications, and argues that his overarching concern was to balance countervailing forces in society to achieve the most stable, peaceful outcomes. See ibid., 222.

77 Tocqueville, speech to the Chamber of Deputies, January 27, 1848, in Democracy in America, trans. Lawrence, George, ed. Mayer, J. P. (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 751. Tocqueville noted in his Recollections that he was not in fact as alarmed about revolution as he seemed to be in 1848 ( Tocqueville, , Recollections, trans. de Mattos, Alexander Teixeira [New York: Macmillan, 1986], 18 ).

78 Tocqueville, speech of January 27, 1848, in DA, 758.

79 Drescher, , “‘Why Great Revolutions Will Become Rare’: Tocqueville's Most Neglected Prognosis,” Journal of Modern History 64 (1992): 449 .

80 In DA, 752.

81 Tocqueville, “On the Middle Class and the People” (1847), in Drescher, Tocqueville and Beaumont on Social Reform, 174–75, emphasis mine. Tocqueville included selections from this previously unpublished work in his Recollections.

82 In his Recollections, Tocqueville condemned the bourgeois class under the July Monarchy as “a selfish and grasping plutocracy” which treated government “like a private business” (5).

83 Tocqueville, “On the Middle Class and the People,” 178.

84 Ibid.

85 For more on Tocqueville's use of “social state” and its relationship to politics, see Michael P. Zuckert, “On Social State,” in Tocqueville's Defense of Human Liberty, ed. Alulis and Lawler, 3–21; Siedentop, Larry, “Two Liberal Traditions,” in French Liberalism from Montesquieu to the Present-Day, ed. Geneens, Raf and Rosenblatt, Helena (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 1220 .

86 “Soon, it can hardly be doubted, the struggle of political parties will begin between those who possess and those who have nothing. The great field of battle will be property” (Tocqueville, “On the Middle Class and the People,” 177).

87 Tocqueville, “Speech on the Right to Work,” in Tocqueville and Beaumont on Social Reform, 185–86.

88 For more on Tocqueville, the socialists, and the “right to work” in the constitution of the Second Republic, see Watkins, Sharon B., Alexis de Tocqueville and the Second Republic, 1848–1852 (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2003), 207–21.

89 Gannett, “Tocqueville and the Politics of Suffrage,” 220.

90 Ibid.

Thank you to Richard Boyd, Joshua Cherniss, R. Bruce Douglass, Loubna El Amine, David Golemboski, Brian Kogelmann, Shannon Stimson, Cheryl Welch, and the participants of the Georgetown Political Theory Workshop for their helpful comments. Thank you also to the anonymous reviewers at the Review of Politics and to Catherine Zuckert.

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