Alexis de Tocqueville – Wealth and Poverty

Why is Alexis de Tocqueville Often classified on the right?

These extracts will give you the beginning of an answer.

Solidarity between poor and rich in the future

In a few words, let us summarize that Alexis de Tocqueville predicts and demonstrates two trends:

  1. Optimism about the future: as time goes on, wealth will accumulate for more and more people and life will be sweeter for them.
  2. Pessimism about the distribution of wealth: the number of people who will have to ask for help from their fellow citizens will also increase.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s conclusion is this:

As the present movement of civilization continues, we shall see the enjoyment of the greatest number increase; society will become more perfected, more learned; existence will be easier, sweeter, more ornate, longer; but at the same time, let us foresee it, the number of those who will need to have recourse to the support of their fellow men to gather a small share of all these goods, the number of these will increase unceasingly. This double movement can be slowed down; the particular circumstances in which the different peoples are placed will hasten or suspend its course; it is not given to anyone to stop it.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Mémoire sur le paupérisme (1835), Part I

The distinction between two forms of charity

Alexis de Tocqueville separates two kinds of charity:

  1. The first is, put more simply, to help others individually as much as one can. It is supported by Catholicism.
  2. The second is institutionalized. It comes from the State, which relieves the ills of citizens. It was born from Protestantism.

→ Corrected subject – “dogmatic beliefs” — Tocqueville, on Democracy in America

There are two kinds of beneficence: one, which leads each individual to relieve, according to his means, the evils that are within his reach. This one is as old as the world; it began with human miseries; Christianity made it a divine virtue, and called it charity.

The other, less instinctive, more reasoned, less enthusiastic, and often more powerful, leads society itself to take care of the misfortunes of its members and to systematically see to the relief of their pains. This one was born from Protestantism and developed only in modern societies.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Mémoire sur le paupérisme (1835), Second part

The consequences of legal charity

Briefly, Alexis de Tocqueville identifies the two forces that lead to work:

  1. the need to live
  2. the desire to improve the conditions of existence

→ Work for the American Indians according to Tocqueville

Now, Alexis de Tocqueville explains, charitable establishments destroy this first motivation and leave only the second.

The poor, having an absolute right to the help of society, and finding in every place a public administration organized to supply them, one soon saw revived and generalized in a Protestant country the abuses which the reformation had rightly reproached to some Catholic countries. Man, like all organized beings, has a natural passion for idleness. There are, however, two motives which lead him to work: the need to live, the desire to improve the conditions of existence. Experience has shown that most men can only be sufficiently aroused to work by the first of these motives, and that the second is only powerful on a few. Now a charitable establishment, open indiscriminately to all who are in need, or a law which gives all the poor, whatever the origin of their poverty, a right to public relief, weakens or destroys the first stimulus and leaves only the second intact. The English peasant, as well as the Spanish peasant, if he does not feel a strong desire to improve the position in which he was born, and to get out of his sphere, a timid desire which is easily aborted in most men – the peasant of these two countries, I say, has no interest in work, or, if he does work, he has no interest in saving; he therefore remains idle, or spends the precious fruit of his labors thoughtlessly. In one or the other of these countries, one arrives by different causes at this same result that it is the most generous, the most active, the most industrious part of the nation, which devotes its help to provide the means of living to those who do nothing or make a bad use of their work.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Mémoire sur le paupérisme (1835), Second part

Alexis de Tocqueville concludes that workers are used to help the poorest people.Consequently, the poorest people remain idle.

→ Analysis of the link between democracy and the study of science – Alexis de Tocqueville

Further on in this Second Part of his Memoir on Pauperism, Alexis de Tocqueville explains:

Every measure which places legal charity on a permanent basis and gives it an administrative form therefore creates an idle and lazy class, living at the expense of the industrial and working class.

→ Summary of the Wealth of Nations – Adam Smith