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Bertrand de Jouvenel

Bertrand de Jouvenel

The more one considers the matter, the clearer it becomes that redistribution is in effect far less a redistribution of free income from the richer to the poorer, as we imagined, than a redistribution of power from the individual to the State.

In the disaster for humanity that was the 20th Century, dominated by the murderous dreams of collectivist ideologies and the unrestrained lust for power and the knife, those who loved liberty, be they conservative, libertarian, or “classical liberal,” recognized their common cause: opposition to ever-expanding state power. T.S. Eliot, Christopher Dawson, and Russell Kirk sought to redeem the time through recovery of our understanding of the spiritual bases of culture, and the cultural bases of ordered liberty. They were joined, in the economic sphere, by the likes of Wilhelm Roepke, but also by more secularist, market-centric thinkers like F.A. Hayek, who warned of the false appeal and disastrous consequences of following the Road to Serfdom. Yet, this sometimes uneasy partnership of defenders of cultural renewal and economic liberty included figures who sought to bridge the gap between cultural and economic thought. Such a one was Bertrand de Jouvenel, a conservative political thinker of great importance, whose writings from the middle to the second half of the 20th century deserve a wider audience than they receive.

In important works of political thought, including Sovereignty, On Power, and The Pure Theory of Politics, and also in works and essays dealing with economics and questions of how best to approach problems of public policy, Jouvenel made clear the tendency of the modern state to swallow the rest of society, and the individual with it. Ironically, Jouvenel observed, what made the state so dangerous in modern times was precisely what to most people gave to it its legitimacy: democracy.  To many, this recognition of the dark side of democracy rendered Jouvenel’s thought suspect, at best. But his point was not that rule by consent is intrinsically wrong or unjust. Rather, it was that we should recognize the proper limits even of the people to act according to their will, and that such recognition is all the more important in democratic times. From recognition of the importance of the consent of the governed, modern democracy moved to the assumption that governments are legitimate to the extent that they serve the unmediated will of the majority led. Relatively early on, this overemphasis on the normative status of The People (too often little more than an abstraction) led to the common assumption that whatever a democratically elected government did was, by definition, right and just. One need only consider the French Revolutionary Reign of Terror and its claim to act for the people to see the wisdom of Jouvenel’s warning.

In a collection of lectures published as The Ethics of Redistribution, Jouvenel showed how false belief in the power of the majority to achieve a just, fair, and (especially) equal society could succeed only in feeding the Minotaur—that monstrous combination of man and beast that the modern state had become. Thinking, wrongly, that the rich had kept for themselves sufficient wealth to satisfy the needs of all, the people for generations have voted for governmental policies aimed at “redistributing” that wealth so as to meet the needs of the poor. Unfortunately, Jouvenel points out, even if one were able to confiscate all the rich had in their possession, the sum would not come close to meeting the needs of even the poorest. Thus, Jouvenel argued, the wealth “transfer” had not been, and could not be, from the rich to the poor, but rather from most of society to the state. Various programs aimed, in theory, at enriching the lives of the poor would be funded from a general tax, taking money from most people so that the government might spend it on those it deemed worthy or in need. From attempting to provide subsistence to the hungry and the cold, the state quickly moved on to funding various ideological projects, including wasteful forms of subsidized insurance and educational programs and artistic endeavors of highly questionable value, as it built an expensive administrative apparatus to determine how much to give to whom. In this manner the state became increasingly powerful and independent of any check or oversight, even as it maintained the guise and the rhetoric of a mere servant of the people.

Jouvenel’s powerful analysis should, and in his time did, appeal to conservative, libertarian and classical liberal defenders of ordered liberty, facing the onslaught of the leviathan state. But Jouvenel’s analysis was distinctive. Perhaps most important, he followed the French philosopher and statesman Alexis de Tocqueville in seeing the main danger of the state in its hostility toward the more fundamental associations of family, church, and local community. In the name of individual liberty, the state increasingly takes unto itself the power to control and destroy all associations outside itself. In examining this process, Jouvenel asked, in On Power:

Where will it all end? In the destruction of all other command for the benefit of one alone—that of the state. In each man’s absolute freedom from every family and social authority, a freedom the price of which is complete submission to the state. In the complete equality as between themselves of all citizens, paid for by their equal abasement before the power of their absolute master—the state. In the disappearance of every constraint which does not emanate from the state, and in the denial of every pre-eminence which is not approved by the state. In a word, it ends in the atomization of society, and in the rupture of every private tie linking man and man, whose only bond is now their common bondage to the state. The extremes of individualism and socialism meet: that was their predestined course.

The greatest danger in democratic times, Jouvenel (like Tocqueville) saw, was the emptying out of society of all the institutions and communities in which people actually live. The resulting landscape of atomized individuals and the state, the mode of society propounded by too many who claim to seek the protection of individual “rights,” would spell the end of liberty, and of any decent social order. Too often overlooked by many libertarians, the “makeweights” of social institutions (including, of course, the church) were necessary for both human flourishing itself and for the cabining of political power within the bounds necessary for any decent society.

It is this insight, and the emphasis he placed upon it, which makes Jouvenel an important proponent of conservative principles and of a conservative form of political analysis. Jouvenel was no libertarian. He refused to see the state as only an enemy to liberty, or even as a necessary evil. Indeed, one might argue that, coming out of a French tradition that, particularly in his own time, valued state intervention and national uniformity entirely too highly, he was too likely to emphasize the need to limit the means of state intervention (use of voluntary incentives) without paying sufficient attention to the intrinsic dangers of any ethic of intervention. Despite this, and despite the labels “classical liberal” and “conservative liberal” (labels also often attached to Tocqueville) Jouvenel’s appreciation for, and determination to protect, the intermediary associations of civil, social life, render his work important for all who seek to understand the predicaments and possibilities of contemporary cultural, political, and social life, but especially for those who would seek to enrich the conservative mind.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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