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Tocqueville's Other Book: The Old Regime Before the French Revolution

I finally got to the end of Deirdre McCloskey's overmannered Bourgeois Equality, and then lightning struck. I just happened to stumble over a copy of Alexis de Tocqueville's The Old Regime and the French Revolution in the remainder stacks at HalfPriceBooks. For $1.00. Plus tax.


Tocqueville argues that the French Revolution changed nothing in France.

Really. The most famous event in European history and it changed nothing? Surely you are joking, Mr. T.

Here is his argument in two lines:

1. Before the Revolution, France was a centralized top-down administrative monarchy. 
2. After the Revolution, France was a centralized top-down administrative monarchy/republic, whatever.
Yes, but what about them aristos, the nasty chaps that got sliced up by Madame Guillotine unless they were saved by Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pumpernickel?

Good point. But the nobility under the ancien régime was no longer a feudal aristocracy. Its power had been sapping away for centuries. In the years before the Revolution France was governed by the Royal Council, le Conseil du roi, and the council was headed by a Controller-General. The Controller-General governed France through Intendants in each généralité, all across France.

France used to have authentic popular governing institutions. But the absolute monarchy, operating
through the Royal Council, slowly sapped away all the popular and feudal institutions, replacing them with a pure bureaucratic organization through which everything in France, from the fall of a sparrow to the conduct of war, was controlled by the center in Paris.

By the time of the revolution the nobility had no power, but it did have privileges, and especially exemptions from taxation. So everyone hated the aristos, because of their privileges. The middle class hated the stuck-up aristocrats, but they moved heaven and earth to buy some official position, which provided them with an income and an exemption from taxes.

What about the workers? Well, in 1789 we are talking about farmers, and they mostly owned their own farms because the aristocracy had been selling their land off for a while and the peasants were buying. The peasants, of course, hated the fact that they were the ones stuck with the short straw, paying the taxes and supplying the cannon fodder for the militia. So they hated the middle class.

Everyone hated everyone else and they were ready in the old Paris brickyard, you might say, to settle scores with a vengeance once the starter bellowed: gentlemen, start your engines.

But did these warring tribes demand independence from the center? Not a bit of it. Tocqueville writes about various schemes for improvement and reform.
The ends proposed by the reformers varied greatly, but the means were always the same. They wished to make use of the central power, as it stood, for shattering the whole social structure and rebuilding it on lines that seemed to them desirable.
Everyone looked to a strong central government to solve their problems.

The comparison with our own times is chilling. Tocqueville argues that in the old feudal times people got on pretty well. There were parlements and the Estates worked together, middle class and nobility, to solve problems. People up and down the social scale had the power and they used it sensibly to work out their differences. The towns were mostly self-governing, and so they governed themselves.

But by the time of the revolution nobody had any power except what they could wheedle from the Intendants and their subdelegates. So they retreated from politics and governance and argued about precedence. The guild of lawyers demanded precedence over the plumbers, and so on. And they schemed to win privileges and exemptions and government jobs.

By the time of the revolution, according to Tocqueville, France was already pretty equal: there was not much to tell between a noble and a bourgeois: they walked and talked and thought the same. But they imagined enormous differences in blood and in the quarterings on their escutcheons.

Enough said for now. Here is the heading for Chapter Ten, next up.
How the suppression of political freedom and the barriers set up between classes brought on most of the diseases to which the old regime succumbed.
Hello liberals! How is that divide-and-conquer race, class, and gender politics doing for you today?

Because I wonder. I wonder if one day your divisive politics might throw up a man on a white horse promising to Make America Great Again.

perm | comment | Follow chrischantrill on Twitter | 05/27/16 1:38 pm ET

McCloskey Again: Why Not Call The Book "Bourgeois Rhetoric?"

DEIRDRE McCloskey has finished her magnum opus Bourgeois Trilogy with Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World. And now I've finished the book, all 787 pages. Start over: Conservatism's Big Problem. I'm afraid I have a problem. What was the point of the third volume? McCloskey has said it all already. Here is how I understood her message five years ago ...

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perm | comment | Follow chrischantrill on Twitter | 05/26/16 2:05 pm ET

Sorry, Charles Murray, You Don't Get It

I revere Charles Murray, who has written books about politics that, I hope, will stand the test of the ages. We are talking about Losing Ground, which told us that the liberals knew that their Great Society welfare programs weren't working. But they did nothing to fix them. Then we are talking about Coming Apart, a look at White America from 1960 to 2010, which told us that the bottom 30 ...

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perm | comment | Follow chrischantrill on Twitter | 05/25/16 6:32 pm ET

McCloskey Again: 787 Pages For What?

THE third volume of Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Trilogy is out, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World, all 787 pages of it. And I am left wondering: what exactly is new in the third volume that had not been thoroughly thrashed out in the first two volumes, The Bourgeois Virtues and Bourgeois Dignity? So I went back through my McCloskey Week blogs of ...

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perm | comment | Follow chrischantrill on Twitter | 05/24/16 7:00 pm ET

|  May blogs  |  April blogs  |


“I Want a President”

Georg Simmel’s Sociology

Charles Murray’s By The People

Thomas Piketty’s Capital

The Spirit Level

McCloskey’s “Bourgeois Era”

Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation

A Look at the Left: “Contra-deBoer”


It is Grand: Three Anti-capitalist Candidates for the USA

I JUST GOT my copy of Deirdre McCloskey’s new Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the Worldwhich completes her three-volume hymn to the middle class. The first thing that jumps out, in the introductory “Exordium” that tells the story so far, is this:

For reasons I do not entirely understand, the clerisy after 1848 turned towards nationalism and ...

more | 04/26/16

On Tax Day Let Us Talk About Spending and Free Stuff

For some reason April 15, Tax Day, is a peak day for my government spending site, more | 04/19/16

Go Ahead Peaceful Protesters, Make My Day

The Answer to Islam is Jobs

The Primal Scream of the Policy People



RMC Contents
Chapter 1: After the Welfare State

WHAT WILL come after the welfare state?  After 120 years, at the turn of the twenty-first century, it is clearly showing its age.... more

Chapter 2: Down in South Carolina and Out in Brooklyn
Chapter 3: Awakenings of Monotheism
Chapter 4: The Nineteenth Century From the Top Down
Chapter 5: The Nineteenth Century From the Bottom Up
Chapter 6: Popular Religion in the Nineteenth Century


RMC Book of the Day

Meltzer, Milton, Slavery, from the rise of western civilization to the Renaissance,

RMC Books on Education

Andrew Coulson, Market Education
How universal literacy was achieved before government education

Carl Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic
How we got our education system

James Tooley, The Miseducation of Women
How the feminists wrecked education for boys and for girls

James Tooley, Reclaiming Education
How only a market in education will provide opportunity for the poor

E.G. West, Education and the State
How education was doing fine before the government muscled in

RMC Books on Law

Hernando De Soto, The Mystery of Capital
How ordinary people in the United States wrote the law during the 19th century

F. A. Hayek, Law Legislation and Liberty, Vol 1
How to build a society based upon law

Henry Maine, Ancient Law
How the movement of progressive peoples is from status to contract

John Zane, The Story of Law
How law developed from early times down to the present

RMC Books on Mutual Aid

James Bartholomew, The Welfare State We're In
How the welfare state makes crime, education, families, and health care worse.

David Beito, From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State
How ordinary people built a sturdy social safety net in the 19th century

David Green, Before Beveridge: Welfare Before the Welfare State
How ordinary people built themselves a sturdy safety net before the welfare state

Theda Skocpol, Diminished Democracy
How the US used to thrive under membership associations and could do again

David Stevenson, The Origins of Freemasonry
How modern freemasonry got started in Scotland

RMC Books on Religion

David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing
How Christianity is booming in China

Finke & Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990
How the United States grew into a religious nation

Robert William Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism
How progressives must act fast if they want to save the welfare state

David Martin, Pentecostalism: The World Their Parish
How Pentecostalism is spreading across the world


Sponsored: 64% off Code Black Drone with HD Camera
Our #1 Best-Selling Drone--Meet the Dark Night of the Sky!

American Capitalism’s Great Crisis
clueless commentary from a Democratic operative with a byline.

Milton Friedman, Adam Smith, and Other People’s Money
a four-quadrant analysis of private and government spending.

Piketty’s Crumbs
What is the real value of, say, electric light and air conditioning? And all the other modern wonders.

Debt and Delusion
Explains how central banks inflate the economy without consumer inflation.

> archive


cruel . corrupt . wasteful
unjust . deluded


Take the Test!


Work to restore the Road to the Middle Class. Here’s how. Ground it in faith. Grade it with education. Protect it with mutual aid. Defend it with the law. more>>


The Road to the Middle Class is a journey from a world of power to a world of trust and love. In religion, it is a journey from power gods that respond to sacrifice and augury to the God who makes a covenant with mankind. In education, it is a journey from the world of the spoken word to the world of the written word. In community, it is the journey from dependence on blood kin and upon clientage under a great lord to the mutual aid and the rules of the self-governing fraternal association. In law it is the journey from the violence of force and feud to the kingŽs peace, the law of contract, and private property.


What Liberals Think About Conservatives

[W]hen I asked a liberal longtime editor I know with a mainstream [publishing] house for a candid, shorthand version of the assumptions she and her colleagues make about conservatives, she didn't hesitate. “Racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-choice fascists,” she offered, smiling but meaning it.
Harry Stein, I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican

US Life in 1842

Families helped each other putting up homes and barns. Together, they built churches, schools, and common civic buildings. They collaborated to build roads and bridges. They took pride in being free persons, independent, and self-reliant; but the texture of their lives was cooperative and fraternal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism

Taking Responsibility

[To make] of each individual member of the army a soldier who, in character, capability, and knowledge, is self-reliant, self-confident, dedicated, and joyful in taking responsibility [verantwortungsfreudig] as a man and a soldier. — Gen. Hans von Seeckt
MacGregor Knox, Williamson Murray, ed., The dynamics of military revolution, 1300-2050

Society and State

For [the left] there is only the state and the individual, nothing in between. No family to rely on, no friend to depend on, no community to call on. No neighbourhood to grow in, no faith to share in, no charities to work in. No-one but the Minister, nowhere but Whitehall, no such thing as society - just them, and their laws, and their rules, and their arrogance.
David Cameron, Conference Speech 2008

Socialism equals Animism

Imagining that all order is the result of design, socialists conclude that order must be improvable by better design of some superior mind.
F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit


[Every] sacrifice is an act of impurity that pays for a prior act of greater impurity... without its participants having to suffer the full consequences incurred by its predecessor. The punishment is commuted in a process that strangely combines and finesses the deep contradiction between justice and mercy.
Frederick Turner, Beauty: The Value of Values

Responsible Self

[The Axial Age] highlights the conception of a responsible self... [that] promise[s] man for the first time that he can understand the fundamental structure of reality and through salvation participate actively in it.
Robert N Bellah, "Religious Evolution", American Sociological Review, Vol. 29, No. 3.


©2014 Christopher Chantrill

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