State welfare exacerbates the very poverty it attempts to relieve -- not because it is inadequate or badly administered, but because its failure is built in. "The inevitable result of public charity [is] to perpetuate idleness among the majority of the poor and to provide for their leisure at the expense of those who work."

That's the French author-statesman Alexis de Tocqueville, in a fascinating and frustrating paper, "Memoir on Pauperism." The obscure document is fascinating because it provides a dispassionate look at a problem we tend to view as unique to America, and does so in a time and place -- the England of 150 years ago -- that avoids the complications of race and ethnicity.

It is frustrating because Tocqueville ends his devastating critique of welfare (not included in the collected works of Tocqueville published after his death) with the promise of a second paper in which he will tell us how to prevent pauperism. According to Seymour Drescher, the University of Pittsburgh professor who translated "Memoir" for his out-of-print book, "Tocqueville and Beaumont on Social Reform," Tocqueville shortly afterward ran for the French chamber of deputies and never wrote the second paper.

"He did leave some notes hinting at the direction of his thinking," Drescher said in a telephone interview. The notes, he said, underscore Tocqueville's "almost pathological fear of bureaucracy" and suggest that his preference was for worker organizations, self-help groups and voluntary associations.

It may be stretching a point, but the things Tocqueville seems to have had in mind sound very much like what Peter Berger and others have described as "mediating structures," defined as "those institutions standing between the individual in his private life and the large institutions of public life."

Clearly Tocqueville shared their preference for private charity and joint undertakings involving families, neighborhoods, churches, and voluntary associations -- not because they are cheaper but because they work as public welfare cannot.

Private charity of the sort that preceded England's turn to state welfare "established valuable ties between the rich and the poor," Tocqueville said. "The deed itself involves the giver in the fate of the one whose poverty he has undertaken to alleviate. . . . A moral tie is established between those two classes whose interests and passions so often conspire to separate them from each other, and although divided by circumstance, they are willingly reconciled."

The present-day theorists who speak of "mediating structures" do not prescribe an end of public aid; neither did Tocqueville. Nor do they merely urge the decentralization of government. As Berger and Richard John Neuhaus put it in their paper "To Empower People":

"Decentralization is limited to what can be done within governmental structures; we are concerned with the structures that stand between government and the individual. Nor, again, are we calling for a devolution of governmental responsibilities that would be tantamount to dismantling the welfare state. We aim rather at rethinking the institutional means by which government exercises its responsibilities. The idea is not to revoke the New Deal but to pursue its vision in ways more compatible with democratic governance."

If the new emphasis on private effort sounds a lot like President Reagan's push for voluntarism (for budgetary reasons), it also sounds very much like what the black leadership is saying more and more these days.

Both the civil rights traditionalists and the new black conservatives have begun to stress that the salvation of the inner-city underclass is up to the black middle class: not because government won't do it, or hasn't the means to do it, but because government can't do it.

Tocqueville, that perceptive observer of 19th century social democracy, might wonder what took us so long.