Tocqueville's Political Economy

By Richard Swedberg | Go to book overview

Chapter Five
PAUPERISM AND THE HABITS OF PROPERTY

RESEARCHING Democracy in America demanded a massive effort by Tocqueville, and its writing took whatever energy he had left. During most of the 1830s his life was centered on a relentless routine of arranging together material and thinking it through, slowly producing chapter after chapter till the two volumes were finished. Late in 1839 Tocqueville sent off the final installment of the manuscript to his publisher—and the first period in his life as an author and a thinker was over.

But Tocqueville also produced a few other writings during this period, two of which will be discussed in this chapter for what they can tell us about Tocqueville's thinking about the economy. One was the result of Tocqueville's trips in the 1830s to England and Ireland, and the other from his attempt, at around the same time, to grapple with the problem of pauperism or poor relief. The trips to England and Ireland resulted in a number of travel notes, and the latter in the publication of the pamphletsized Memoir on Pauperism and a second unfinished memoir.

None of these writings constitutes a major work in its own right, even if together they add up to the size of a small book. As to the notes from the trips to England, we know from Tocqueville's study of America how much more work, in his view, would have been needed to produce a full study of this country. The two memoirs on pauperism are each about the size of a modern academic essay; it was not possible to deal adequately with such a complex topic in such limited space.

Nonetheless, as I shall try to show, these two sets of writings are important in our attempt to trace Tocqueville's way of thinking about the economy. We know that Tocqueville had great difficulty in squaring his theory that modern society was becoming more democratic and equal with the fact that modern industry was expanding and producing its own type of stark inequality. Tocqueville's trips to England, which had started to industrialize in the second half of the 1700s, provided him with an opportunity to think more about this issue. So did his two memoirs on pauperism, in which Tocqueville attempted to deal with the problem of how to respond to the rise of poverty that came with industrialization in the nineteenth century.

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