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Can the Public Expenditures of the United States Be Compared with Those of France j - 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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Can the Public Expenditures of the United States Be Compared with Those of Francej
Two points to be established in order to appreciate the extent of public expenses: national wealth and taxation.—Fortune and expenses in France are not known exactly.—Why you cannot hope to know fortune and expenses in the Union.—Research of the author to learn the total amount of taxes in Pennsylvania.— General signs by which you can recognize the extent of the expenses of a people.—Result of this examination for the Union.
Some have been much occupied recently with comparing the public expenditures of the United States with ours. All of these efforts have been without result, and a few words will suffice, I believe, to prove that it must be so.
In order to be able to appreciate the extent of public expenses among a people, two operations are necessary: first, you must learn the wealth of this people, and then what portion of this wealth they devote to State expenditures. The person who researches the total amount of taxes without showing the extent of the resources that must provide them, would be pursuing unproductive work; for it is interesting to know not the expenditure, but the relation of the expenditure to the revenue.
The same tax that a wealthy taxpayer easily bears will succeed in reducing a poor man to poverty.
The wealth of peoples is made up of several elements: real estate holdings form the first, personal property constitutes the second.k
It is difficult to know the extent of land suitable for cultivation that a nation possesses and its natural or acquired value. It is still more difficult to estimate all of the personal property that a people has at its disposal. Personal property, because of its diversity and amount, eludes almost all efforts of analysis.
Consequently we see that the oldest civilized nations of Europe, even those in which the administration is centralized, have not yet established the state of their wealth in any precise way.
In America, no one has even conceived the idea of trying. And how could you think to succeed in this new country where society has not yet peacefully and finally settled down, where the national government does not find at its disposal, as ours does, a multitude of agents whose efforts can be simultaneously commanded and directed; where, finally, statistics are not studied, because no one is found who has the power to gather the documents or the time to look through them?
So the constituent elements of our calculations cannot be obtained. We do not know the comparative wealth of France and of the Union. The wealth of the one is not yet known, and the means to establish that of the other do not exist.
But, for a moment, I agree to put aside this necessary term of comparison; I give up knowing the relationship of tax to revenue, and I limit myself to wanting to establish what the taxes are.
The reader is going to recognize that by narrowing the circle of my research, I have not made my task easier.
I do not doubt that the central administration of France, aided by all the officials at its disposal, might succeed in discovering exactly the total amount of direct or indirect taxes that weigh upon the citizens. But this work, which an individual cannot undertake, the French government itself has not yet finished, or at least it has not made the results known. We know what the State expenses are; the total of the departmental expenses is known; we do not know what happens in the French towns. So no one can say, as of now, what amount public expenditures in France total.
If I now return to America, I notice difficulties that become more numerous and more insurmountable. The Union makes public the exact amount of its expenses; I can obtain for myself the individual budgets of the twenty-four states that constitute the Union; but who will teach me what the citizens spend for the administration of the county and of the town?11
Federal authority cannot extend to forcing the provincial governments to enlighten us on this point; and if these governments themselves wanted to lend us simultaneously their support, I doubt that they would be able to satisfy us. Apart from the natural difficulty of the enterprise, the political organization of the country would still conflict with the success of their efforts. The magistrates of the town and of the county are not appointed by administrators of the state, and do not depend on them. So it may be believed that if the state wanted to obtain the information we need, it would meet great obstacles in the carelessness of the lower level officials it would be forced to use.12
Useless, moreover, to try to find out what the Americans would be able to do in such a matter, because certainly until now they have done nothing.
So today in America or in Europe not a single man exists who can teach us what each citizen of the Union pays annually to meet the expenses of society.13
Let us conclude that it is as difficult to compare fruitfully the social expenditures of the Americans with ours, as it is to compare the wealth of the Union to that of France. I add that it would even be dangerous to attempt it. When statistics are not based on rigorously true calculations, they mislead rather than guide. The mind is easily led astray by the false air of exactitude that statistics conserve even in their discrepancies, and it rests untroubled in the errors that it thinks are cloaked in the mathematical forms of truth.
So let us abandon numbers and try to find our proof elsewhere.
Does a country present an aspect of material prosperity; after paying the State, does the poor man still have resources and the rich man superfluity; do both appear satisfied with their lot, and do they still seek to improve it each day, so that industry never lacks capital and capital in turn does not lack industry? Lacking positive documents, it is possible to resort to such indicators to know if the public expenses that burden a people are proportionate to its wealth.
The observer who kept to this evidence would undoubtedly judge that the American of the United States gives to the State a less significant portion of his income than the Frenchman.
But how could you imagine that it would be otherwise?
One part of the French debt is the result of two invasions; the Union has nothing to fear about that. Our position obliges us as a rule to keep a numerous army under arms; the isolation of the Union allows it to have only 6,000 soldiers. We maintain nearly 300 ships; the Americans have only 5214 of them. How could the inhabitant of the Union pay to the State as much as the inhabitant of France?
So there is no parallel to establish between the finances of countries so differently placed.
It is by examining what happens in the Union, and not by comparing the Union with France, that we can judge if American democracy is truly economical.
I cast my eyes on each of the various republics that form the confederation, and I discover that their government often lacks perseverance in its designs, and that it does not exercise continuous surveillance over the men it employs. From this I naturally draw the conclusion that it must often spend the money of the taxpayers uselessly, or devote more of their money than necessary to its undertakings.
I see that, faithful to its popular origin, it makes prodigious efforts to satisfy the needs of the lower classes of society, to open the paths to power to them, and to spread well-being and enlightenment among them. It supports the poor, distributes millions each year to the schools, pays for all services, and generously recompenses its least important agents. If such a means of governing seems useful and reasonable to me, I am forced to recognize that it is expensive.
I see the poor man who leads public affairs and has national resources at his disposal; and I cannot believe that, profiting from State expenditures, he does not often drag the State into new expenditures.
So I conclude, without resorting to incomplete figures and without wanting to establish risky comparisons, that the democratic government of the Americans is not, as is sometimes claimed, an inexpensive government; and I am not afraid to predict that, if great difficulties came one day to assail the peoples of the United States, you would see taxes among them rise as high as in most of the aristocracies or monarchies of Europe.
[j. ] This section does not exist in the manuscript; it does not appear in the criticisms of family and friends. It seems to have been included following a polemic on the economy of republican government, in which the United States was generally taken as the example. In September 1831, Sebastien L. Saulnier, official voice of the government, prefect of police and editor of the Revue Britannique, published “Rapprochements entre les dépenses publiques de la France et celles des États-Unis” (Revue Britannique, n.s., VI, 1831, pp. 272-324, reprinted in various publications), in which he claimed that the United States had an extremely expensive form of government and that American finances were consequently in chaotic condition. Since the moment for discussion in the Chamber of Deputies of the proposed budget for 1832 was at hand, Lafayette saw in this article an attempt on the part of the government to influence the parliamentary debate. He solicited the opinions of James Fenimore Cooper and of General Bernard, following which he published a brochure that circulated among the deputies (Le général Lafayette à ses collègues de la Chambre des députés, Paris: Paulin, 1832, 68 pp.) The letter of Cooper had been published separately, in English (Letter of J. Fenimore Cooper to Gen. Lafayette, on the expenditure of the United States of America, Paris: Baudry, December 1831, pp. 50, iii, and also in the Revue des deux mondes, n.s., V, January 1832, pp. 145-82). Saulnier answered with two new writings: “Nouvelles observations sur les finances des États-Unis, en réponse à une brochure publiée par le Général Lafayette” (Revue Britannique, n.s., VIII, pp. 195-260), and a letter to the editor of the same review (n.s., IX, November 1833, pp. 164-94). In 1834, Francisque de Corcelle published an article, “Administration financière des États-Unis” (Revue des deux mondes, 3rd series, I, 1834, pp. 561-84), with new statistics obtained from an inquiry into the American financial system done by Edward Livingston. New data, Corcelle argued, would demonstrate that the Americans paid lower taxes than the French. The article by Corcelle had probably attracted Tocqueville’s attention, because he wrote to D. B. Warden on 21 July 1834 (YTC, CId), asking him for “the brochures of Bernard, Lafayette and Cooper.” Regarding this, the following note is also found in the drafts: “Brochure of General Bernard and of Mr. Cooper on the finances of the United States appeared in the middle of 1831. I believe that General Lafayette’s aide-de-camp published something on the same subject” (YTC, CVh, 4, pp. 21-22). See note 51 for p. 156.
[k. ] In the 1835 edition: “The wealth of peoples is made up of several elements: population is the first; real estate holdings form the second, and personal property constitutes the third.
“Of these three elements, the first is easily discovered. Among civilized peoples you can easily reach an exact count of the citizens; but it is not the same with the other two. It is difficult to . . .”
The correction is probably due to a criticism from Nassau William Senior in a letter to Tocqueville of 17 February 1835:
I cannot think that population is an element of wealth. It may rather be said to be an element of poverty. The wealth or poverty of the people of a country depends on the proportion between their numbers and the aggregate wealth of that country. Diminish their numbers, the wealth remaining the same, and they will be, individually, richer. The people of Ireland, and indeed of England, would be richer if they were fewer. I do call a country like China, where there is an immense population, individually poor, a rich country, though the aggregate wealth of China is greater than the aggregate wealth of Holland, where the population is, comparatively, individually rich (Correspondence and Conversations of Alexis de Tocqueville with Nassau William Senior, London: Henry S. King & Co., 1872, I, p. 4).
[12. ] Those who have wanted to establish a parallel between the expenditures of the Americans and ours have clearly felt that it was impossible to compare the total of the public expenditures of France to the total of the public expenditures of the Union; but they have sought to compare detached portions of these expenditures. It is easy to prove that this second way of operating is no less defective than the first.
To what will I compare, for example, our national budget? To the budget of the Union? But the Union is occupied with far fewer objects than our central government, and its expenses must naturally be much less. Will I contrast our departmental budgets to the budgets of the individual states that make up the Union? But in general the individual states attend to more important and more numerous interests than the administration of our departments; so their expenditures are naturally more considerable. As for the budgets of the counties, you find nothing in our system of finance that resembles them. Will we add expenditures made there to the budget of the state or to that of the towns? Town expenditures exist in the two countries, but they are not always analogous. In America, the town assumes several needs that in France are left to the department or to the State. How, moreover, must town expenditures in America be understood? The organization of the town differs depending on the states. Will we take as the rule what happens in New England or in Georgia, in Pennsylvania or in the state of Illinois?
It is easy to see, between certain budgets of two countries, a sort of analogy; but since the elements that constitute them always differ more or less, you cannot establish a serious comparison between them.
[13. ] Should you succeed in knowing the precise sum that each French or American citizen pays into the public treasury, you would still have only one part of the truth.
Governments ask not only money from the taxpayers, but also personal efforts that have a monetary value. The State raises an army; apart from the balance that is charged to the entire nation to supply it, the soldier must still give his time, which has a greater or lesser value depending on the use that he would make of it if he remained free. I will say as much about the service of the militia. The man who is part of the militia temporarily devotes a precious time to public security, and really gives to the State what he fails to acquire for himself. I have cited these examples; I would have been able to cite many others. The government of France and that of America collect taxes of this nature; these taxes burden the citizens. But who can appreciate with exactitude their total amount in the two countries?
This is not the last difficulty that stops you when you want to compare the public expenditures of the Union to ours. The State has certain obligations in France that it does not assume in America, and reciprocally. The French government pays the clergy; the American government leaves this concern to the faithful. In America, the State takes care of the poor; in France, it leaves them to the charity of the public. We give all our officials a fixed salary; the Americans allow them to collect certain fees. In France, service charges occur only on a small number of roads; in the United States, on nearly all roads. Our roads are open to travelers who can travel on them without paying anything; in the United States there are many toll roads. All these differences in the way in which the taxpayer acquits himself of the expenses of the society make comparison between the two societies very difficult; for there are certain expenditures that the citizens would not make or that would be less, if the State did not take it upon itself to act in their name.