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Hippolyte Taine on how the modern bureaucratic state destroys spontaneous and fruitful private cooperation (1890)

The French historian and philosopher Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893) analyzed the modern bureaucratic state as it developed after Napoleon. He believed that when when the state stepped beyond its legitimate function of defending life and property from attack it inevitably destroyed all spontaneous and fruitful cooperation among the people:

Not only does the State do the work badly on a domain not its own, bunglingly, at greater cost, and with less fruit than spontaneous organizations, but, again, through the legal monopoly which it deems its prerogative, or through the overwhelming competition which it exercises, it kills or paralyzes these natural organizations or prevents their birth; and hence so many precious organs, which, absorbed, atropic or abortive, are lost to the great social body.—And still worse, if this system lasts, and continues to crush them out, the human community loses the faculty of reproducing them; entirely extirpated, they do not grow again; even their germ has perished. Individuals no longer know how to form associations, how to co-operate under their own impulses, through their own initiative, free of outside and superior constraint, all together and for a long time in view of a definite purpose, according to regular forms under freely-chosen chiefs, frankly accepted and faithfully followed. Mutual confidence, respect for the law, loyalty, voluntary subordination, foresight, moderation, patience, preseverance, practical good sense, every disposition of head and heart, without which no association of any kind is efficacious or even viable, have died out for lack of exercise. Henceforth spontaneous, pacific, and fruitful co-operation, as practised by a free people, is unattainable; men have arrived at social incapacity and, consequently, at political incapacity.

In the last place, even when the rulers do not subordinate the interests of the institution to their passions, to their theories, or to their own interests, even when they avoid mutilating it and changing its nature, even when they loyally fulfil, and as well as they know how, the supererogatory mandate which they have adjudged to themselves, they infallibly fulfil it badly, at least worse than the special and spontaneous bodies for which they substitute themselves, for the structure of these bodies and the structure of the state are different.—Unique of its kind, alone wielding the sword, acting from above and afar by authority and constraints, the State acts over the entire territory through uniform laws, through imperative and minute regulations, by a hierarchy of obedient functionaries, which it maintains under strict instructions. Hence, it is not adapted to business which, to be well done, needs springs and processes of another species. Its springs, wholly exterior, are insufficient, too weak to support and push undertakings which require an internal motor like private interest, local patriotism, family affections, scientific curiosity, charitable instincts, and religious faith. Its wholly mechanical processes, too rigid and too limited, cannot urge on enterprises which demand of whoever undertakes them delicate and safe handling, supple manipulation, appreciation of circumstances, ready adaptation of means to ends, constant contrivance, the initiative, and perfect independence. On this account the State is a poor head of a family, a poor commercial or agricultural leader, a bad distributor of labor and of subsistences, a bad regulator of production, exchanges, and consumption, a mediocre administrator of the province and the commune, an undiscerning philanthropist, an incompetent director of the fine arts, of science, of instruction, and of worship.1 In all these offices its action is either dilatory or bungling, according to routine or oppressive, always expensive, of little effect and feeble in returns, and always beyond or apart from the real wants it pretends to satisfy. And because it starts from too high a point and extends over too vast a field. Transmitted by hierarchical procedures, it lags along in formalism, and loses itself in “red-tape.” On attaining its end and object it applies the same programme to all territories alike—a programme devised beforehand in the Cabinet, all of a piece, without experimental groping and the necessary corrections; a programme which, calculated approximatively according to the average and the customary, is not exactly suited to any particular case; a programme which imposes its fixed uniformity on things instead of adjusting itself to their diversity and change; a sort of model coat, obligatory in pattern and stuff, which the government dispatches by thousands from the centre to the provinces, to be worn, willingly or not, by figures of all sizes and at all seasons.

V. And much worse. Not only does the State do the work badly on a domain not its own, bunglingly, at greater cost, and with less fruit than spontaneous organizations, but, again, through the legal monopoly which it deems its prerogative, or through the overwhelming competition which it exercises, it kills or paralyzes these natural organizations or prevents their birth; and hence so many precious organs, which, absorbed, atropic or abortive, are lost to the great social body.—And still worse, if this system lasts, and continues to crush them out, the human community loses the faculty of reproducing them; entirely extirpated, they do not grow again; even their germ has perished. Individuals no longer know how to form associations, how to co-operate under their own impulses, through their own initiative, free of outside and superior constraint, all together and for a long time in view of a definite purpose, according to regular forms under freely-chosen chiefs, frankly accepted and faithfully followed. Mutual confidence, respect for the law, loyalty, voluntary subordination, foresight, moderation, patience, preseverance, practical good sense, every disposition of head and heart, without which no association of any kind is efficacious or even viable, have died out for lack of exercise. Henceforth spontaneous, pacific, and fruitful co-operation, as practised by a free people, is unattainable; men have arrived at social incapacity and, consequently, at political incapacity.—In fact, they no longer choose their own constitution or their own rulers; they put up with these, willingly or not, according as accident or usurpation furnishes them; the public power with them belongs to the man, the faction, or the party sufficiently unscrupulous, sufficiently daring, sufficiently violent, to seize and hold on to it by force, to make the most of it as an egotist or charlatan, aided by parades and prestiges, along with bravura songs and the usual din of ready-made phrases on the rights of man and on the public salvation.—This central power itself has nothing in its hands to receive impulsions but an impoverished, inert, or languid social body, solely capable of intermittent spasms or of artificial rigidity according to order, an organism deprived of its secondary organs, simplified to excess, of an inferior or degraded kind, a people no longer anything but an arithmetical sum of separate, juxtaposed units, in brief, human dust or mud.

This is what the intervention of the State leads to. There are laws in the social and moral world as in the physiological and physical world; we may misunderstand them, but we cannot elude them; they operate now against us, now for us, as we please, but always alike and without heeding us; it is for us to heed them; for the two conditions they couple together are inseparable; the moment the first appears the second inevitably follows.

About this Quotation:

Hippolyte Taine is often regarded as an anti-democratic conservative thinker who was more interested in positivism and literary criticism. Living through the turmoil of the Paris Commune and the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71 led him to a decades long writing project to examine the nature and the growth of the French bureaucratic state from the Old Regime to Napoleon and beyond. This quote comes from the second last volume in that series where he explores the negative impact of government intervention on the spontaneous activity of free people. He believes that government regulation and control destroys private initiative and the myriad of associations and groups which spring up spontaneously in a free society. The end result is an increasingly powerful, “bungling,” “oppressive” regime of “hierarchical procedures” which turns free individuals into “human dust or mud.”

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