How the State Has Grown to Be the Monster We Know: Bertrand de Jouvenel's On Power
By Pierre Lemieux
Bertrand de Jouvenel (1903-1987) was a French journalist and political theorist. During World War II, he participated in the French resistance movement and finally took refuge in Switzerland, where he finished his masterpiece, On Power1 (original title: Du Pouvoir). The book was first published in Geneva in 1945.
Jouvenel was troubled by the savagery of the war as the belligerents’ “national resources” were all thrown in the battle and civilian populations, part of these national resources, were bombed:
- In this war everyone—workmen, peasants, and women alike—is in the fight, and in consequence everything, the factory, the harvest, even the dwelling-house, has turned target. As a result the enemy to be fought has been all flesh that is and all soil, and the bombing plane has striven to consummate the utter destruction of them all.
Such a total war, Jouvenel realized, could not happen without the power of the modern centralized state. Jouvenel called this state, “Power” or “the Minotaur.” The question he set out to analyze was how this monster had grown so large. As indicated by the subtitle of the book, The Natural History of Its Growth, the analysis is meant to be positive political science, as opposed to normative political philosophy.
When he wrote On Power, Jouvenel obviously knew little of the libertarian or classical liberal tradition. He has been labelled a “conservative liberal” à la Alexis de Tocqueville (whom Friedrich Hayek, it is worth recalling, does recognize as a full member of the classical liberal tradition). The translator of Du Pouvoir, which appeared in English a few years after its original publication, used the term “libertarian” to render the French “libertaire,” which refers to socialist anarchism but which Jouvenel took in the more general sense of “favorable to liberty.” On Power can certainly be read as a libertarian book. That, in anterior and posterior works, the author meandered and strayed from this philosophy needs not distract us here.
The modern state has acquired a crushing power that includes war and conscription, an “inquisitorial mechanism of taxation,” and a police more effective than at any time in history. “Even the police regime, that most insupportable attribute of tyranny, has grown in the shadow of democracy,” Jouvenel observes. “No absolute monarch ever had at his disposal a police force comparable to those of modern democracies.” Power has continued and continues to grow.
Power is “command that lives for its sake and for its fruits.” State rulers want power and the perks that come with it. But, Jouvenel explained, in the very process of being self-interested, Power also benefits its subjects compared to what would be their situation in the anarchic state of nature. To gain their support and to make them more productive and taxable, Power provides its subjects with security, order, and other public goods. This is an old philosophical idea dear to defenders of absolutism, but it carries an analytical value of its own. Contemporary economist Mancur Olson distinguished between the destructive “roving bandits” in anarchy and the “stationary bandit” who takes good care of the country he considers his.
Security? Some security! Competition and war with other states provides a good excuse for Power to grab and grow in a “totalitarian race.” As the Marquis de Fontenay-Mareuil (c. 1594-1665) wrote in his memoirs (quoted in On Power), the King of France felt compelled (read: had a good excuse) to imitate “the King of Spain with his large country in which he takes what he wants.” Especially with the democratic identification of the whole population with the state, Jouvenel observes, “the whole nation becomes a weapon of war wielded by the state.” Franklin D. Roosevelt considered the American population as “human potential” for war. It’s “the era of cannon fodder.”
From Antiquity until the 16th or 17th century, Jouvenel argues, three ways existed to limit Power: divine law, fixed customary law, and powerful social authorities such as the ancient or the medieval aristocracy. All these were overcome. Divine law was brushed away by modern rationalism. Fixed customary law was replaced by changing laws made by absolute monarchs and, even more, by democratic parliaments. The aristocracy was stripped of any power.
Sovereignty, Jouvenel explains, is “the idea… that somewhere there is a right to which all other rights must yield.” The king claimed sovereignty against the aristocracy. Once the aristocracy was defeated, “the people” invoked it against the king. The king was simply replaced by the people or, in practice, by its representatives.
Jouvenel conceives liberty as “the direct, immediate, and concrete sovereignty of man over himself.” It is not participation in government, which is “absurdly called ‘political liberty’.” He forcefully argues that no regime other than aristocracy is “equally allergic to the expansion of Power.” Between the fall of the Roman empire and the modern nation-state, kings had to negotiate grants in aid from the aristocrats in order, for example, to fight wars, which were limited for this very reason. General conscription was unknown and impossible.
Jouvenel argues that liberty has aristocratic roots for it came from aristocrats who had the means and the will to defend their own liberty against Power. Liberty “is a subjective right which belongs to those, and to those only, who are capable of defending it.” It was certainly “a system based on class,” with all the drawbacks that this implies. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a modern prophet of democracy, suggested that slavery might even be the necessary counterpart of free and independent citizens voluntarily devoting their time to public affairs.
To eliminate the independent social power that the aristocrats represented, kings allied themselves with powerless individuals such as the common people and the new capitalist bourgeoisie. Aristocrats were replaced by “statocrats,” individuals who derived their authority only from their position in the service of the state. The new democratic citizens would soon fall under a Power much more encompassing than that of the local lord.
A crucial idea of On Power, which can also be found in Tocqueville, is that instead of restraining Power, popular sovereignty reinforced it. Democracy was conceived by its early theorists as liberty and the rule of law. But another conception, which won the day, identified democracy with the sovereignty of the people. In this conception, democracy replaces the rule of law by the people’s good pleasure, which in practice means the good pleasure of its elected representatives and the government bureaucracy.
The popular sovereign became the new king, but without the restraints that law and aristocracy previously imposed. Liberty diminished since “[e]very increase of state authority must involve an immediate diminution of the liberty of each citizen.”
Jouvenel could not know Hayek’s work on law and liberty, as it was published after On Power, but he shows very Hayekian tendencies on that topic. He argues that legislation is a modern idea that Power used to escape the restraint exercised by laws above itself—either divine law, natural law, or customary law. The state could now change the law at will to support its goals and expansion.
English liberties (and American liberties) were long protected by the common law (and the constitution), and by the judicial regime, where judges were powerful enough to check Power and its agents. With the abolition of judicial independence, the French revolution rapidly turned into the worst tyranny the country had known.
The state is called upon to provide all manner of security—physical and “social”—which requires that there be no limit to its power. Security was bound to win over liberty when participation in popular sovereignty was extended to individuals who were not independent and could not defend their liberty. So, argues Jouvenel, social legislation was adopted to protect the poor and the middle class.
As everybody puts all his hopes in Power, the door is opened to Caesarism, of which Roosevelt was an American representative. In other countries, the saviors were often more dangerous. Thus, “the role of savior assumed by Power justified both in the United States and in Germany a prodigious step forward by the state.”
One of Jouvenel’s scenarios for the future is that liberty may exist only as a temporary equilibrium when “social forces” happen to be in balance. The ultimate outcome may depend on what people want. As he often does, Jouvenel raises a good and troubling issue: “Where the idea comes from that men hold despotism in detestation, I do not know. My own view is that they delight in it.”
Some obviously do. But, we may ask, is it a large proportion? How does it depend on political and economic institutions? Can liberty-loving individuals form a new aristocracy?
The last chapter of On Power is presented as more normative and is not the best in the book. Jouvenel claims that classical liberalism is “utopian” and often “irrelevant to the needs and passions of men.” Perhaps he did not realize that the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were inseparable from classical liberalism and that, after a few millennia of economic near-stagnation, their conjunction was generating a tenfold multiplication of the standard of living and dramatically reducing extreme poverty on earth. It is certainly relevant that one millennium of aristocratic Middle Ages did not achieve that level of growth. In brief, Jouvenel’s theory either does not explain the Industrial Revolution; or else, he is blind to its achievements.
Jouvenel’s ideal society is the classical philosophers’ “good society,” which has many points of friction with the non-elitist, modern idea of individual liberty. The author of On Power might have been a bit more prudent in his skepticism of individualism if he could have read “Individualism: True and False,” the lecture that Hayek gave in the very year that Du Pouvoir was published. Hayek argued that true individualism does not require atomized individuals but, on the contrary, calls for social institutions and voluntary organizations.
Jouvenel, who had studied some science, mathematics, and law at the Université de Paris—apparently a bit as a dilettante—knew little economics. In On Power, he cites no economics work. It is thus not surprising to read him saying that “[n]o positive study has yet been made of the means by which the harmony of society is maintained and mended,” which of course has been a major thread of economic inquiry. He criticizes economics on the basis of vague and muddled understandings of key concepts. He repeats many clichés of his time, like consumer demand being “the fruit of an impudent publicity.” He belies any understanding of the idea of consent, which provides an antidote to an ideal society determined by philosophers. How French an intellectual he was!
A related weakness is Jouvenel’s imperfect understanding of the role of property rights in economic prosperity. He lauds the Supreme Court as a bulwark against Power, but blames it for supporting “the consequences of a monstrously distorted conception of the rights of property” and for rejecting “some timely social insurance legislation.” This is not easy to square with the need he sees to restrain Power. Similarly, I don’t find convincing or adequate his argument that capitalists cannot be the new aristocracy capable of opposing power. Perhaps he could only imagine “capitalism” as crony capitalism.
Like ancient philosophers, Jouvenel sees aristocracy, democracy, and tyranny as the only feasible regimes. That he could not imagine a beneficial anarchy is not surprising given the paucity of related scholarship at the time he was writing On Power. Perhaps the work of Anthony de Jasay,2 had it been available, would have persuaded Jouvenel that the ideal of anarchy can be used as a gauge of social arrangements and a model against which to evaluate them.
These critiques don’t change the fact that On Power is a book worth reading. It raises critical questions and provides a strong indictment of the soft tyranny under which we live. That tyranny is not soft for everybody, and it is not getting any softer. Jouvenel points his finger to Power constituting “for all its tinsel dresses, a despotism such as the West has never known before.” He speaks about the demand for state-created order that “ends in letting loose disorder on a gigantic scale” and against “the absurd solution of making general disorder the remedy for particular disorders.”
Moreover, the book is easily readable and accessible for the layman. Especially if you can read its original French version, it is written in beautiful prose (the English translation gives a taste of that).
 See “Anthony de Jasay: A Remembrance,” by Michael Munger. Library of Economics and Liberty, June 3, 2019. For a collection of Anthony de Jasay’s writings, see his column, “Thinking Straight” at the Library of Economics and Liberty.
*Pierre Lemieux is an economist affiliated with the Department of Management Sciences of the Université du Québec en Outaouais. His latest book is What’s Wrong with Protectionism? Answering Common Objections to Free Trade (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). He blogs on EconLog. He lives in Maine. E-mail: PL@pierrelemieux.com.
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