Tocqueville understood, as few modern writers do, that pauperism is above all a psychological, not an economic, condition. And he saw in the English system of social assistance to the poor the same insidious threat to men’s independence of character that he saw, only as a potentiality in American democracy.
Tocqueville’s Memoir on Pauperism was published in 1835, shortly after the first volume of Democracy in America. He had visited England, then by far the most prosperous country in Europe, if not the world. But there was a seeming paradox; a sixth of the population of England were – or had made themselves – paupers, completely reliant upon handouts from public charity. This was a proportion greater than in any other country in Europe, even in such incomparably poorer ones as Spain and Portugal. In the midst of what was then the utmost prosperity, Tocqueville found not only physical squalor, but moral and emotional degradation.
Tocqueville surmised that the reason lay in the fact that England was then the one country in Europe that provided public assistance, as of right, to people who lacked the means to support themselves. The reign of Elizabeth I had conferred this right, as a way of dealing with the epidemic of begging that followed the dissolution of the monasteries. In the past they had provided essentially private and voluntary charity to the poor, on a discretionary basis.
As first sight, remarked Tocqueville, the replacement of discretionary charity by public assistance granted as of right appeared deeply humane. What, he asked, could be nobler than the determination to ensure that no one went hungry? What could be more fair and reasonable than that the prosperous should give up a little for the welfare of those with nothing?
If men were not thinking beings who react to their circumstance by taking what they conceive to be advantage of them, this system doubtless would have had the desired effect. But instead, Tocqueville observed that voluntary idleness to which the seemingly humane system of entitlement gave rise – how it destroyed both kindness and gratitude (for what is given bureaucratically is received with resentment), how it encouraged fraud and dissimulation of various kinds, and above all how it dissolved the social bounds that protected people from the worst effects of poverty. The provision of relief by entitlement atomized society: Tocqueville cited the case of a man who, though financially able to do so, refused to support this daughter-in-law and grandchild after this son’s death, precisely because public support was available to them as of right. Having paid his taxes, why should he do more? The provision of charity as of right destroyed the motive for human solidarity in the face of hardship, and undermined both ties of personal affection and the sense of duty toward close relations. Intended as an expression of social responsibility, it liberated selfishness. As Tocqueville grasped, the shift of responsibility from individual to collectivity had an enormous and deleterious effect on how people thought and felt, and therefore upon society as a whole. Where this shift had taken place, economic progress was perfectly compatible with squalor of every kind, and general wealth with degradation.
It wasn’t until the end of the twentieth century, with its unprecedented prosperity and its militant moral relativism, that Tocqueville’s prescience became clear. Until very recently in human history, sheer physical poverty has seemed much more a menace than any attempt to relieve it could ever be. But none of the social pathology of a modern British or American slum would have surprised Tocqueville, who foresaw it all 165 years ago.