Perhaps the toughest social problem facing America today is the persistence and growth of the so-called "underclass" in our affluent society. We don't know how to solve it, and we still debate its causes: alienation, racism, official meanness, isolation, joblessness, loss of moral compass.
I have just seen, in an old issue of The Public Interest, an obscure paper of Alexis de Tocqueville suggesting that the debate is a good deal older and more universal than I had thought.
Tocqueville, looking at the Europe of 150 years ago, found himself intrigued by a curious phenomenon. The more industrially advanced, the more progressive, the more "civilized" the society, the greater the incidence of pauperism.
The Frenchman was particularly fascinated by England, which in 1835, when he delivered his "Memoir on Pauperism," was the most advanced country on the continent.
For all the wealth and graciousness of living that caught the Frenchman's eye, he was struck by something else: one-sixth of the population lived on the public dole. In Spain and Portugal, poorer and less cultivated by far than England, only between 1 and 4 percent of the inhabitants were indigent.
What lay behind this striking paradox? Two things, Tocqueville told the Royal Academic Society of Cherbourg. First, the more highly developed a society, the more things there are to want and, subsequently, to "need." Indoor plumbing and central heat, once beyond the dreams of kings, are modern-day necessities whose absence constitutes serious misfortune. In primitive societies, "poverty consists only in not finding enough to eat."
But according to historian Seymour Drescher of the University of Pittsburgh, who discovered the "Memoir," Tocqueville had another explanation for the paradoxical association of progress and pauperism: public welfare.
By the time of his observations, charity, which earlier had been the province of the monasteries, had been taken over by the state, with overseers in each parish given the right to tax inhabitants in order to feed the disabled and find work for the able-bodied.
It sounds like an eminently reasonable plan -- as reasonable as our own welfare system must have seemed to those who devised it -- and it worked out about as poorly as our own. Tocqueville thought he understood why.
"Man, like all socially organized beings, has a natural passion for idleness. There are, however, two incentives to work: the need to live and the desire to improve the conditions of life. Experience has proven that the majority of men can be sufficiently motivated to work only by the first of these incentives. The second is only effective with a small minority. Well, a charitable institution indiscriminately open to all those in need, or a law which gives all the poor a right to public aid, whatever the origin of their poverty, weakens or destroys the first stimulant and leaves only the second intact. The English peasant, like the Spanish peasant, if he does not feel the deep desire to better the position into which he has been born, and to raise himself out of his misery (a feeble desire which is easily crushed in the majority of men) -- the peasant of both countries, I maintain, has no interest in working, or, if he works, has no interest in saving. He therefore remains idle or thoughtlessly squanders the fruits of his labors. . . .
"Any measure that establishes legal charity on a permanent basis and gives it an administrative form thereby creates an idle and lazy class, living at the expense of the industrial and working class."
Charles Murray couldn't have said it more harshly: our efforts to alleviate poverty only make it worse.
But since a decent society cannot simply ignore poverty, what is to be done? Tocqueville thought he knew, but he never got around to saying.
"The measures by which pauperism may be combatted preventively will be the object of a second work which I hope respectfully to submit next year to the Academic Society of Cherbourg," he said at the end of his "Memoir."
Is it possible to guess what he had in mind? It's worth a subsequent column to try.