In a time of economic slowdown, social unrest, and high unemployment, what should the government do for the poor and jobless? Should the state guarantee a job for every citizen and give money to the poor, or let the free market move as it will? Can the government provide for the needy while protecting the right to private property? These are familiar questions to anyone who’s lived through the Great Recession — but they were also familiar to Alexis de Tocqueville.

In a little-known 1848 speech that Daniel Mahoney draws to our attention on the Library of Law and Liberty blog, Tocqueville explains his opposition to a government-backed “right to work” by contrasting the systems of socialism and democracy. After delving into the historical context, Mahoney explains :

Tocqueville’s “Speech on the Right to Work” is both an eloquent political intervention and a statement of his deepest principles. Those principles can be described as “Christian democratic” in juxtaposition to both socialism and to a libertarian or laissez-faire position that denies that the state has any obligation “to expand, consecrate, and regularize public charity.” What Tocqueville opposes is an absolute “right to work,” one whose “fatal logic” makes the state the “sole owner of everything” or at a minimum “the great and sole organizer of everything.” Tocqueville thus begins by making a firm distinction between “public charity,” which he supports, and “socialism,” which he adamantly opposes.

It should be noted that Tocqueville opposed not only the socialists but those deputies on the right or extreme right who opposed any government provision for the unemployed and the poor. They assumed that  misère  was simply part of the order of things. But Tocqueville insists that the French Revolution had rightly introduced “charity into politics.” In Tocqueville’s eloquent formulation, “it conceived a broader, more general and higher idea than previously held of the obligations of the state toward the poor, toward those citizens who suffered.” (Given the confiscation of church property this was also a practical necessity since under the Old Regime the church had principal responsibility for the care of the poor.) But once again he aims for a middle way between the tutelary state and public indifference to the poor.

Mahoney’s analysis is well worth reading in full, as Tocqueville’s speech (like his other works) remains relevant to today’s policy dilemmas.

Yet the proverbial “middle way” between socialism and libertarianism — which the U.S. aspires to provide through unemployment insurance, food stamps, cash benefits, worker unions, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and middle-class-friendly tax credits — is tricky to navigate. One needn’t approve of Paul Ryan’s budget plans to see that the current system, which Walter Russell Mead usefully terms “the blue social model,”  is under strain between the globalized economy, demographic changes, and technological developments. The question is how to update the model in a way that preserves its benefits and minimizes its downsides for the twenty-first century.

At the risk of offending both right and left, I’ll put some suggestions out there: raise taxes on the rich, promote  school choice , means-test Social Security, convert Medicare into a generous premium support model, make the tax code more family-friendly , supplement unemployment insurance with worker-retraining programs, scale back military spending, and reform land use regulations . Now who’d object to any of that?

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