This is an excerpt from an essay I’ve written in 1988 for a political theory seminar at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilians-University. The whole thesis is 30 pages and I surely will not bore you with all of that. That means, however, I will have to leave out the many quotes and make it an abstract.
I reanimated the essay in the first place, because there is such a gap between how we Europeans feel about public welfare and the way it’s almost demonized by many Americans. The current discussion about health care in the US obviously stresses the discrepancy.
The starting point for the analysis was looking at two expressions. “Welfare” and “The Pursuit of Happiness.” Both terms play a major role in the French and the American revolutions. How come they mean such different things?
The French Revolution was sparked by unbearable social injustice. People were starving and the aristocracy wallowed in pleasures. Here the writings of the enlightenment fell on fertile ground. And the call for reform grew louder and louder but in the end the monarchy wasn’t reforming quickly enough, if it ever was reformable at all. The Revolution brought on the first test of the enlightenment’s ideas practical merits.
The concepts of welfare and happiness had merged increasingly in the political theories of the 18th century in France. Individual happiness was soon considered equal to the liberty of gaining property and thus prosperity. Finally there grew an understanding that those, who were not capable of supporting themselves needed to be provided with work, or when unable to work, needed to be alimented.
Jean Jacques Rousseau the protagonist of happiness as the foundation of any society asked for the promotion of general happiness by ensuring equality not only in rights but in “indulgencies,” too. For him, happiness was an emotional phenomenon which couldn’t be codified but he defined the happiness of a society as the sum of the happiness of her individuals. So he called on the rulers to “Make the people happy!” Property as a means to happiness was for him an unavoidable fact, but on the other hand, the root to all evil.
While these and other theories didn’t require a change in regime yet — Necker and Turgot two finance ministers of Louis XVI tried some reform of the monarchy partly along those lines — Antoine Marquis de Condorcet went a step further. He already propagated a form of insurance, designed to protect workers from misery. And he demanded free of charge public schooling to fight the inequality in education which was at the root of the poverty of the masses.
The French pre-revolutionary society was still an agrarian feudal system and thus wealth was equal to the possession of land. So, to cure the moral consequences of inequality, more even-handedness of the distribution of property was necessary. While Rousseau and Montesquieu were still focusing on allaying the consequences of the existing system, the rather obscure French philosopher Abbé Morelly broke entirely with it. No one was to own more than he needed and everybody was to be employed and alimented by the state. Education had to be aimed at erasing the concept of individual property.
Welfare and well-being were ultimately defined as economic well-being and thus only the elimination of social inequality would be the road to general happiness.
Consequentially the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) and the French Constitution of 1791 showed provisions which accepted the social responsibilities of the state. Soon in 1793 a much more radical constitution indicated the shifts in power from the moderate Montagnards to the more radical Jacobins. Society now was deemed responsible for not only moderating inequality but for actively disposing of it. Two years later, however, after the fall of the Sans Culottes the constitution of 1795 did away with all that and marked temporarily the end of social justice as a foundation of society.
But the idea of economic equality never went away again. Most Europeans cherish the security a welfare state (no it is not necessarily a cuss-word here) provides.
The situation in North America was different. While a quite densely populated France couldn’t provide for it’s people anymore, a whole continent was at the disposal of the American pioneer settlers, to explore and exploit.
The political writings of American revolutionaries work much more along the line of lex naturalis. They based their political theories on the assumption that man surrenders a certain amount of liberties to a civil government in exchange of protection against the possible cruelties of life. As the “state of nature” in which no one is subject to anybody is the state of perfect liberty and independence, the assignation of parts of those liberties forms a contract. The English King had broken his contract and thus gave Americans the right to rebel. The American Revolution was much more a fight for political liberty than a struggle for economic equality and focused on the premise that being given the liberty to attain wealth and the protection of property is in itself sufficient to ensure equal chances for success. The Pursuit of Happiness is part of man’s natural make-up and so the helping hand of a civil government is not called for.
America today, however is not the America of the pioneers. The country is densely populated and the wealth the country has to give has already been distributed a long time ago. Not unlike in France in the 18th century there is an upper class, almost aristocratic in its demeanor, and a dwindling middle class on the verge of losing their ability to fare for themselves. And there are a huge number of poor which are virtually excluded from the American Dream.
What do you think? Is it time to rethink the ideas of the French philosophers and put those to the test?