All Commentary
Saturday, September 1, 1962

The Old Regime


Though he had supported the Roosevelt campaign objectives in 1932, the Democratic Congressman from Indiana, Samuel B. Pettengill, found himself strongly opposed to many of the methods of the “New Deal.” In 1938 his book, Jefferson, The Forgotten Man (published by America’s Future, Inc. of New York), set forth the reasons for his opposition. The following excerpts, comparing the New Deal with the Old Regime
of prerevolutionary France, seem especially
worthy of repetition in 1962.

Methods and forms were important to Thomas Jefferson. He did not believe liberal ends could be attained by illiberal means, nor a democratic result by a dictatorial method.

So let us discuss “methods.” It will be found that certain methods urged today have their counter­part in the past—a past that Jef­ferson rejected.

These precedents may be found in the history of many centuries. With them Jefferson had a pro­found acquaintance. Their develop­ment in England led to the great Declaration of 1776. Here the “ob­jective” was “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The break with England took place because the “form of Government” became “destructive of these ends.”

The Situation in France

Let us consider conditions in France which preceded the Terror of the 1790′s, the beginnings of which Jefferson saw with his own eyes during his five years’ resi­dence there as Minister, 1784-1789.

Our authority is the great Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville (author of the famous Democracy in America), in his book on his own country, The Old Regime and the Revolution. The following paragraphs in quotes are from this notable book. Please observe that it was written in 1856. This absolves it of any charge of bias or partisanship in today’s politics. Nevertheless, these paragraphs seem like items from the daily papers:

“The law obliged no man to take care of the poor in the rural dis­tricts; the central government boldly assumed charge of them.”

“Not content with aiding the peasantry in times of distress, the central government undertook to teach them the art of growing rich, by giving them good advice, and occasionally by resorting to compulsory methods.”

“Orders were passed prohibit­ing the cultivation of this or that agricultural produce in lands which the Council considered un­suited to it. Others required that vines planted in what the Council regarded as bad soil should be up­rooted. To such an extent had the government exchanged the duties of sovereign for those of guar­dian.”

“Some reduction of the burdens which weighed on agriculture would probably have proved more efficacious; but this was never con­templated for a moment.”

“You have neither Parliament, nor estates, nor governors; noth­ing but thirty masters of requests, on whom, so far as the provinces are concerned, welfare or misery, plenty or want, entirely depend.” “The government had a hand in the management of all the cities in the kingdom, great and small. It was consulted on all subjects, and gave decided opinions on all; it even regulated festivals. It was the government which gave orders for public rejoicing, fireworks, and illuminations.”

“Municipal officers were im­pressed with a suitable conscious­ness of their nonentity.”

“The church, which a storm had unroofed, or the presbytery wall which was falling to pieces, could not be repaired without a decree of Council. This rule applied with equal force to all parishes, however distant from the capital. I have seen a petition from a parish to the Council praying to be allowed to spend twenty-five livres.”

“Under the old regime, as in our own day, neither city, nor borough, nor village, nor hamlet, however small, nor hospital, nor church, nor convent, nor college, could ex­ercise a free will in its private af­fairs, or administer its property as it thought best. Then, as now, the administration was the guard­ian of the whole French people; insolence had not yet invented the name, but the thing was already in existence.”

“Ministers are overloaded with business details. Everything is done by them or through them, and if their information be not coex­tensive with their power, they are forced to let their clerks act as they please, and become the real masters of the country.” (The bureaucracy of the eighteenth century.)

“Judges whose position was be­yond the king’s reach, whom he could neither dismiss, nor displace, nor promote, and over whom he had no hold either by ambition or by fear, soon proved inconven­ient.” (As they did in 1937.)

“A very extensive machinery was requisite before the govern­ment could know every thing and manage every thing at Paris.” (Just as at Washington! ) “The amount of documents filed was enormous, and the slowness with which public business was trans­acted such that I have been un­able to discover any case in which a village obtained permission to raise its church steeple or repair its presbytery in less than a year. Generally speaking, two or three years elapsed before such petitions were granted.” (The modern name is “red tape.”)

“A marked characteristic of the French government, even in those days, was the hatred it bore to every one, whether noble or not, who presumed to meddle with pub­lic affairs without its knowledge. It took fright at the organization of the least public body which ven­tured to exist without permission.

It was disturbed by the formation of any free society. It could brook no association but such as it had arbitrarily formed, and over which it presided. Even manufac­turing companies displeased it. In a word, it objected to people look­ing over their own concerns, and preferred general inertia to rival­ry.” (Competition.)

“It seldom undertook, or soon abandoned projects of useful re­form which demanded persever­ance and energy, but it was inces­santly engaged in altering the laws. Repose was never known in its domain. New rules followed each other with such bewildering rapidity that its agents never knew which to obey of the multi­farious commands they received.”

“Nobody expected to succeed in any enterprise unless the state helped him. Farmers, who, as a class, are generally stubborn and indocile, were led to believe that the backwardness of agriculture was due to the lack of advice and aid from the government.” (How familiar this sounds! )

“Government having assumed the place of Providence, people naturally invoked its aid for their private wants. Heaps of petitions were received from persons who wanted their petty private ends served, always for the public good.”

“Sad reading, this: Farmers begging to be reimbursed the value of lost cattle or horses; men in easy circumstances begging a loan to enable them to work their land to more advantage; manu­facturers begging for monopolies to crush out competition; busi­nessmen confiding their pecuniary embarrassments to the intendant, and begging for assistance or a loan. It would appear that the public funds were liable to be used in this way.”

“The local franchises of the ru­ral districts were fading away, all symptoms of independent vigor were vanishing, provincial charac­teristics were being effaced, the last flicker of the old national life was dying out.”

“France is nothing but Paris and a few distant provinces which Paris has not yet had time to swal­low up.”

All this de Tocqueville wrote in 1856. He summed it up as follows: “History, it is easily perceived, is a picture-gallery containing a host of copies and very few origi­nals.”

So much from the great French­man writing of his own land un­der the Old Regime. Change “Paris” to “Washington,” “prov­inces” to “states,” and “France” to “the United States,” and de Tocqueville has painted with mar­velous precision our country in the year 1938 [or 1962].

Jefferson‘s Observations on the Situation in France

Now let us turn to Jefferson, who was in France immediately following our own Revolution of 1776 and just before the French Revolution broke out. What did Jefferson think of all this as he went from house to house observ­ing the life of the rich and the poor, looking in their kitchens and kettles to see what they had to eat and asking how much they produced, what taxes they paid, what lives they lived. I quote what he said:

“Never was there a country (France) where the practice of governing too much had taken deeper root and done more mis­chief.”

“As for France and England with all their pre-eminence in sci­ence, the one is a den of robbers, the other of pirates.”

“Nor should we wonder at the pressure (for a new constitution in France in 1788-89) when we consider the monstrous abuses of power under which these people were ground to powder, the enor­mous expenses of the Queen, the Princes and the Court, the shackles on industry by guilds and corporations.”

“It is urged principally against the King that his revenue is one hundred and thirty millions more than that of his predecessor and yet he demands one hundred and twenty millions further.”

“The consternation is as yet too great to let us judge of the issue. It will probably ripen the public mind to the necessity of a change in their constitution and to the substituting the collected wisdom of the whole in place of a single will by which they had been hith­erto governed. It is remarkable proof of the total incompetency of a single head to govern the nation well, when, with a revenue of six hundred millions they are led to a declared bankruptcy, and to stop the wheels of government even in its essential movements, for want of money.”

“You have heard of the peril into which the French Revolution is brought by the flight of their King. Such are the fruits of that form of government which heaps importance on idiots and of which the tories of the present day are trying to preach into our favor.”

Jefferson believed as a cardinal principle of government that it should be decentralized. He had witnessed at firsthand both at home and in France the evils, the abuses, and the dangers of a con­centrated government.

The Urge To Govern

Such was the regimentation of the eighteenth century, known to economists as “mercantilism,” and to others as paternalism. It is often supposed that government was simple “in the good old days”; that it was simple because no other kind was necessary, and that centralization of control and bu­reaucratic regimentation at the nation’s capital has existed only since, and only because of, the “economic integration” of the net­work of radios, railroads, tele­graphs, fast-moving transport, and all the paraphernalia of mod­ern science and technology.

The contrary is the truth. The itch to govern is an ancient and hereditary disease and laid its heavy hand on the simplest affairs of the smallest village two cen­turies ago.

“I have myself counted in a provincial town of no great size in the year 1750, the names of 109 persons engaged in administering justice, and 126 more busy in exe­cuting their orders,” observed de Tocqueville.

A free market is not an unregu­lated market, as those contend who itch to rule the lives of other men. Every market needs regula­tion in the public interest. But in a free market competition is the great regulator. It prevents price gouging. It improves quality. It forbids quantity limitation. It gives the consumer most and best for least.

The only other regulator is the policeman. He is personal. Compe­tition is impersonal. The one can be “reached.” His judgments can be controlled. We childishly say “pass a law.” The Romans were wiser. They said, “Who will watch the watchman?”

With the worst record in the civilized world in dealing with crime we are still crazy enough to want to turn over to more politi­cians more and more power to con­trol more and more men. In doing so we set up more tribute-takers and toll gatherers along more trade routes. We subsidize politics at the expense of business, produc­tion, employment.

After seeing enormous tolls col­lected from the lesser businesses of liquor, race tracks, dance halls, red light districts, prize fighting, wrestling, slot machines, road building, municipal supplies, even school books for our children, we hanker and yearn to place all busi­ness, all trade, all agriculture, transportation, banking, mining, and so forth, under the rule of the politician!

The men who argue for this sort of “control,” instead of the competition of the market place, are the New Tories. They are not liberals. They are not progress­ives. They are taking us straight back to the Old Regime described by de Tocqueville and Jefferson.

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