Front Page Titles (by Subject) Of Public Expenses under the Dominion of American Democracy - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 2
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Of Public Expenses under the Dominion of American Democracy - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 2 
Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English editions, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). Vol. 2.
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This bilingual edition of Tocqueville’s work contains a new English translation of the French critical edition published in 1990. The copyright to the French version is held by J. Vrin and it is not available online. The copyright to the English translation, the translator’s note, and index is held by Liberty Fund.
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Of Public Expenses under the Dominion of American Democracy
In all societies, citizens are divided into a certain number of classes.—Instinct that each of these classes brings to the management of the finances of the State.—Why public expenses must tend to increase when the people govern.—What renders the lavish expenditures of democracy less to fear in America.—Use of public monies under democracy.
Is democratic government economical? First of all, we must know to what we mean to compare it.
The question would be easy to resolve if we wanted to establish a parallel between a democratic republic and an absolute monarchy [v: despotic State]. We would find that public expenditures in the first are more considerable than in the second.f But this is the case in all free States, compared to those that are not free. It is certain that despotism ruins men more by preventing them from being productive, than by taking the fruits of production from them; it dries up the source of wealth and often respects acquired wealth. Liberty, in contrast, gives birth to a thousand times more goods than it destroys, and, among nations that know liberty, the resources of the people always increase faster than taxes.g
What is important to me at this moment is to compare free peoples, and among the latter to note what influence democracy exercises on the finances of the State.
Societies, just as organized bodies do, follow certain rules in their formation that they cannot evade. They are composed of certain elements that are found everywhere and in all times.
It will always be easy to divide each people ideally into three classes.
The first class will be composed of the rich. The second will include those who, without being rich, live well-off in all things. The third will contain all those who have only few or no properties and who live particularly from the work provided to them by the first two classes.
The individuals included in these different categories can be more or less numerous, depending on the social state [added: and the laws]; but you cannot make these categories cease to exist.
It is evident that each of these classes will bring its own distinctive instincts to the handling of the finances of the State.
Suppose that the first makes the laws. Probably it will be little concerned with economizing public monies, because a tax that happens to strike a considerable fortune only takes what is superfluous and produces an effect that is little felt.h
Assume, on the contrary, that the middle classes alone make the law. You can count on the fact that they will not be lavish with taxes, because there is nothing so disastrous as a heavy tax that happens to strike a smallj fortune.
Now I suppose that the last class is exclusively charged with making the law; I clearly see the chance for public expenses to increase instead of decrease, and this for two reasons.
Since the greatest portion of those who in that case vote the law have no taxable property, all the money expended in the interest of society seems to be only to their profit, never to their harm; and those who have some bit of property easily find the means to fix the tax so that it hits only the rich and profits only the poor, something that the rich cannot do in their case when they are in control of the government.
So countries in which the poor6 would exclusively be charged with making the law could not hope for great economy in public expenditures; these expenditures will always be considerable, either because taxes cannot reach those who vote, or because they are fixed so as not to reach them. In other words, the government of democracy is the only one in which the one who votes the taxes can escape the obligation to pay them.
You will object in vain that the well understood interest of the peopleo is to handle the fortune of the rich carefully, because it would not take long for the people to feel the effects of any difficulties caused. But isn’t it also the interest of kings to make their subjects happy, and that of the nobles to know how to open their ranks opportunely? If long-term interest could prevail over the passions and needs of the moment, there would never have been tyrannical sovereigns or exclusive aristocracies.
You will stop me here, saying: Who ever imagined charging the poor alone with making the law? Who! Those who have established universal suffrage. Is it the majority or the minority that makes the law? Undoubtedly the majority; and if I prove that the poor always make up the majority, won’t I be correct to add that in countries where the poor are called to vote, they alone make the law?
Now, it is certain that until now, among all the nations of the world, the greatest number has always been composed of those who had no property, or of those whose property was too limited for them to be able to live comfortably without working. So universal suffrage really gives the government of society to the poor.
The unfortunate influence that popular power can sometimes exercise over the finances of the State made itself clear in certain democratic republics of antiquity, in which the public treasury was exhausted to help indigent citizens, or to give games and spectacles to the people.
It is true to say that the representative system was almost unknown in antiquity.p Today, popular passions arise with more difficulty in public affairs; you can, however, count on the fact that, in the long run, the delegate will always end by conforming to the spirit of his constituents and by making their propensities as well as their interests prevail.
[This same tendency is even more noticeable in England with the poor tax, the only tax that is established by the people, that profits only them, and that has a democratic origin and object.]
The profusions of democracy are, moreover, less to be feared the more people become property owners, because then, on the one hand, the people have less need for the money of the rich and, on the other hand, they encounter more difficulties establishing a tax that does not hit them. From this perspective, universal suffrage would be less dangerous in France than in England, where nearly all taxable property is gathered in a few hands. America, where the great majority of citizens own property, is in a more favorable situation than France.
Still other causes can raise the sum of public expenditures in democracies.q
When the aristocracy governs, the men who conduct State affairs escape all needs by their very position; content with their lot, they ask above all for power and glory from society; and, placed above the anonymous crowd of citizens, they do not always see clearly how the general welfare necessarily works toward their own grandeur. It is not that they see the sufferings of the poor without pity; but they cannot feel the miseries of the poor as though they shared them themselves. As long as the people seem to be content with their own fortune, these men consider themselves satisfied and expect nothing more from the government. Aristocracy thinks more about maintaining than improving.r
When, on the contrary, public power is in the hands of the people, the sovereign power seeks everywhere for something better, because it has a sense of unease.
The spirit of amelioration then extends to a thousand different objects; it gets down to infinite details and is applied, above all, to types of amelioration that cannot be achieved except by paying; for it is a matter of improving the condition of the poor who cannot help themselves.
In addition there exists in democratic societies an agitation without a specific aim; a sort of permanent fever reigns there that turns toward all kinds of innovation, and innovations are nearly always costly.
In monarchies and in aristocracies, the ambitious flatter the natural taste that carries the sovereign power toward fame and power, and they often push it therefore toward great expenditures.
In democracies, where the sovereign power is needy, you can hardly gain its good will except by increasing its well-being; that can hardly ever be done except with money.s
Moreover, when the people themselves begin to reflect on their position, a host of needs arises that they had not felt at first and that can only be satisfied by turning to the resources of the State. As a result, public expenses seem generally to increase with civilization, and you see taxes rise as enlightenment spreads.t
Finally, a last cause often makes democratic government more expensive than another. Sometimes the democracy wants to economize on its expenditures, but it cannot succeed in doing so, because it does not have the art of being economical.
As the democracy frequently changes views and, still more frequently, changes agents, it happens that enterprises are poorly conducted or remain incomplete. In the first case, the State makes expenditures disproportionate to the grandeur of the end that it wishes to achieve; in the second, it makes unproductive expenditures.
[f. ] In chapter VIII of book III of the Social Contract (Contrat social), Rousseau had asserted, on the contrary, that the democratic form was the least costly.
[g. ] Édouard de Tocqueville:
This entire paragraph seems to me to leave much to be desired. The first sentence presents, with the tone of affirmation, a proposition that is in no way evident; there have been and there still are very economical absolute monarchies; witness Austria, Prussia today. What I criticize most in this piece is that you seem to confuse two perfectly distinct things: the comparatively high level of public expenses and the sources of wealth; it is certain that generally the latter must increase with liberty; as for the reduction of public expenses, that is less sure. All that one can say is that, with an absolute government, economy can never be permanent because a prodigal prince may succeed an economical prince, but this economical prince can be found and is found often enough. So I would propose softening the beginning of this paragraph and finishing the first page as follows: Still this principle can have some exceptions, but what is beyond doubt is that despotism ruins peoples much more by preventing them from being productive than by taking the fruits of production from them. That way the two ideas are distinct (YTC, CIIIb, 2, pp. 6-7).
[h. ] Édouard de Tocqueville:
This proposition can be and will be contested; in most States, the rich are not so rich as to be indifferent to the total amount of the tax that strikes their fortune. I do not even know if they have ever been seen to be so; and in France in the time of the great lords and great fortunes, it was the rich who screamed the most when taxes were increased. So this paragraph is applicable only to the class of courtiers that one tried hard to confuse with all of the nobility, but that had never been more than a very small portion. All the nobles of the provinces and the rich who did not dissipate their income at the court desired economy in finances and saw public expenses increase with great disgust (YTC, CIIIb, 2, p. 7).
[j. ] Hervé de Tocqueville: “The word small is badly used applying to the middle class. Mediocre or something equivalent should be used” (YTC, CIIIb, 2, p. 11).
[k. ] [iw1]In the manuscript: “. . . the government of the middle classes is the most economical . . .”
Gustave de Beaumont: “I find the assertion presented in much too strong a form. Theoretically that appears true to me. And yet it is only a theory. I would put ‘seems to be so by its nature’ ” (YTC, CIIIb, 2, pp. 20-21).
[m. ] Hervé de Tocqueville:
The assertion of the author is contradicted by the example of France. Never has more been wasted, never have there been larger budgets than since the middle class has governed. I will observe in passing that the government of the middle class is, at bottom, only a small aristocracy on a larger scale. Attached to democracy by number, to aristocracy by the insolence and harshness of the parvenu, this government would be well able to have the vices of both. I urge Alexis to reflect on this again (YTC, CIIIb, 2, p. 11).
[o. ] The manuscript says “the lower classes.”
[p. ] Of the principle of representation./
It is the principle of representation that eminently distinguishes modern republics from ancient republics.
Partially known in antiquity however. See Federalist, p. 273 [No. 63 (ed.)].
Superiority that it gives to the modern ones, practicability of the republic.
It tends to be weakened more and more in America.
Frequency of elections. Dependence of power on the people. Binding mandates. Public vote (YTC, CVh, 1, pp. 5-6).
[q. ] In the manuscript, what follows forms a section entitled: other causes that make public expenditures rise higher under democratic government than under others.
[r. ] In the manuscript: “When the aristocracy governs society, the only necessary care it has for the people is to prevent an uprising against it.”
Hervé de Tocqueville:
This sentence is harsh though true. But let us not forget that the violent acts of the Revolution came from the fact that this truth had penetrated the people too deeply. Let us not once again put on the foreheads of the upper classes this mark that has been so deadly to them. It is more than useless for Alexis to alienate himself from these classes. So this sentence must be cut or softened. It can be cut without disadvantage to what follows. Then the chapter would begin in this way: When the governing power is placed in the people, the spirit of amelioration is extended to a host of objects.
If Alexis absolutely does not want to sacrifice it, this must be inserted: The aristocracy has often been reproached for not having a care for the people, etc. Then it is not he who pronounces and condemns; he is only reporting an opinion current in the world.
Édouard de Tocqueville: “This observation seems just to me” (YTC, CIIIb, 2, pp. 13-14).
Gustave de Beaumont: “Idea much too absolute that is suitable to modify” (YTC, CIIIb, 2, p. 21).
[s. ] In the margin: “Isn’t this subtle?”
[t. ] In the manuscript, this paragraph finishes in this way: “. . . taxes generally increase with enlightenment; and public expenses with civilization which should seemingly make them almost unnecessary.”
Hervé de Tocqueville: “This is nothing less than clear [sic]. I do not understand why civilization should make public expenses nearly unnecessary.”
Édouard de Tocqueville: “Nor do I” (YTC, CIIIb, 2, p. 14).
Hervé de Tocqueville:
Here are two divisions of the chapter devoted to generalities. But the author comes to no conclusion, and the reader will not fail to complain about it. He proves very well that democratic government is and must be expensive. But he does not arrive at the application that is indispensable to justify a theory. Is American democratic government proportionately more expensive than another; are public expenditures higher there? Not only must the author say so, but he must also explain why, give certain examples. If he has refrained because he is going to do so later, he must indicate it here. It is impossible for this division to end in this way, in a vague way.
Édouard de Tocqueville: “That is very true” (YTC, CIII b, 2, p. 14).