At the outset my Georgetown course Contemporary American Conservative Thought, I take care to inform my students that of the dozen or so books they will be required to read, three—strictly speaking—fall outside its parameters. One, neither American nor contemporary, is Burke’s Reflections; the other two, On Power and The Ethics of Redistribution, though they can be thought of as contemporary, are products of the French political theorist Bertrand de Jouvenel (1903-87). I assign these works by Jouvenel simply because I can find no American equivalents. Like Reflections, both his works—but especially On Power—uniquely structure and highlight concerns that take us to the foundations of conservative thought.

I can only agree, therefore, with what Dan Mahoney observes at the beginning of his splendid volume: Jouvenel is one of the few truly great political theorists of the 20th century. Yet outside the small circle of conservative political theorists in the groves of academe, Jouvenel’s works are scarcely accorded the attention they are due. In France, two of his three major books are out of print and, as Mahoney remarks, save for the efforts of Liberty Press and Transaction Publishers, his works would not readily be accessible to Americans. Mahoney has set himself the task of rectifying this neglect.

In seven chapters, Mahoney covers Jouvenel’s major works and contributions, throughout providing commentary and analysis, some of it adversely critical. He also incorporates biographical information that provides a much needed insight into Jouvenel’s understanding of politics. For the most part, though, Mahoney concentrates on the books for which Jouvenel is best known: On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth; Sovereignty: An Inquiry Into the Political Good; The Pure Theory of Politics; and The Ethics of Redistribution.

Trying to synthesize Jouvenel’s contributions is difficult because of the range and depth of his concerns. After an introductory overview, Mahoney begins with the picture Jouvenel draws of the modern centralized state in the first chapter of On Power, “The Minotaur Presented,” because from this account emerge the central concerns of his later works. It is here that Jouvenel introduces the startling notion, later amplified, that the modern democratic state is potentially the most dangerous regime that has ever existed. He dramatically points out that democracies now possess powers that the most despotic kings of the 17th century could only dream about. Whereas kings frequently had to go begging for money and men to support their ventures, democratic regimes possess virtually unlimited powers of taxation as well as the capacity to raise enormous armies through conscription.


Jouvenel takes pains to emphasize the barbarism that flows from this expansion of power. At one point, after noting that the number killed or wounded in World War I was five times greater than all the men under arms at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, he laments, “We are ending where the savages began. We have found again the lost arts of starving non-combatants, burning hovels, and leading away the vanquished into slavery.”

How did democracy contribute to this expansion of state power? The answer relates to the fact that in democracies, unlike monarchical or aristocratic regimes, there is no “he” or “they” commanding “us.” As a result, in democracies the skepticism, suspicion, and even resistance that often accompany the exercise of power by the one or few over the many are absent. What is more, since the “general will” rules and all presumably share in government, unlimited force can now be safely lodged with the state.

Jouvenel’s main concern centers on limiting the power that resides in democratic states. On this score, he notes enormous difficulties, the most important of which have resulted from the breakdown of the “community of belief”—the higher laws, religious sanctions, traditions, folkways, and customs—that served to restrain power in times past. Western societies, he observes, have all suffered from the “crisis of rationality” in which these restraints have been subjected to the scrutiny of a highly circumscribed critical reason and found wanting. The result is a pervasive relativism that undermines efforts to curb power through a consensus on ethical, traditional, or religious norms. Jouvenel looks to “makeweights,” intermediate institutions and associations that might check the powers of the state. But effective makeweights, he insists, must represent social power; they cannot be the product of rational designs, even those constructed with the best of intentions. Like Robert Nisbet and other disciples of Tocqueville, Jouvenel perceives power as undermining such institutions as the family, church, and local governments, leaving the individual alone and defenseless before an almighty centralized state.

While Mahoney faults Jouvenel for certain ambiguities surrounding his treatment of tyranny, there can be no question that he viewed the beneficent welfare state as a threat to liberty. So much is clear from the final chapters of On Power. Jouvenel frames the issue in terms of liberty or security—with security possessing the upper hand, resulting eventually in a “social protectorate.” Already, he remarks, the view has taken hold that the resources of the state should be employed to “increase the sum of human happiness.” Moreover, insofar as science has “reduced the human being to one animal among many,” why should it not be, he asks, “Power’s business to impel man along the path of his perfection?” Looking ahead he could anticipate the state tending to such matters as the proper family diet and care of the body. Ultimately, he feared the emergence of those tempted “to build Cities of the Sun” that would embody their visions of perfect societies free from evils and disorders.

Mahoney regards an abiding concern with liberty as the major common theme in Jouvenel’s political trilogy. Whereas in On Power he offers a gloomy prognosis for the future, in Sovereignty, as Mahoney relates, Jouvenel had come to accept the realities of the modern state and employed his analytical abilities to confront the complex questions surrounding how authority could be employed to preserve liberty and simultaneously realize the common good. He recognized that in the “open society” there is incessant change and a wide diversity of interest with an attendant loss of social solidarity, leading many individuals to yearn for the homogeneity, harmony, and close bonds of the small community. Insisting that a return to such idyllic communities was simply out of the question, the “conundrum” faced by Jouvenel, as Mahoney structures it, was how to balance the liberty, innovation, and change of the large modern nation state with the virtues of the small, closely knit, harmonious community. It may be that Jouvenel never satisfactorily resolved this tension. Nevertheless, his analysis and insights are themselves a sufficient reward for the serious thinker.

Jouvenel, for all of his concern about state power, was far from being a libertarian. Liberty and the realization of individual potential, he insists, depend on the strength and vibrancy of varied associations, particularly the family which protects, nourishes, and orients the individual to the ways of the wider community. Moreover, he rejected the theoretical foundations upon which individual rights and libertarianism rest. In his Pure Theory of Politics, wherein he seeks a purely descriptive, non-normative model for understanding politics, he goes to some lengths in emphasizing the inadequacies of the social- contract approach for this purpose. Because his focus in this undertaking centers on the capacities of “man to move man,” he concedes that he must “deal with simple relationships between individuals.” He is quick to add, however, that individuals “are not independent atoms”; on the contrary, they are “deeply rooted in social soil.” On Mahoney’s showing, Jouvenel shared Burke’s understanding of society as a contract in the sense of a partnership, especially that between the living, the dead, and those who are to be born.

Jouvenel’s Ethics of Redistribution is a unique work because it focuses not on the economic aspects but on the disastrous cultural consequences that would ensue from equalizing income through redistribution. For instance, he points out, society would have to forgo “first-quality goods” and eventually the skills necessary to produce them, there being no one with the wherewithal to purchase these goods. While the “creative intellectual and artistic activities” would be among the first to suffer, the long-term effects on society as a whole would be devastating—charity and voluntarism would disappear; hospitality would diminish; hobbies would have to be abandoned; incentives would vanish. Jouvenel maintains that as the state attempts to compensate for what is lost through redistribution, its power grows to truly dangerous proportions. Ultimately, it even becomes the arbiter of what cultural activities will be supported.

This is not to say that Jouvenel equated the good life with material satisfaction. In his writings on economics and the modern state, as Mahoney shows, he is concerned with ways to “humanize and civilize the productivist city.” Readers of his Ethics of Redistribution, for example, cannot help but note his harsh criticism of certain policies in today’s commercial states. Redistribution, he believes, has led individuals to seek shelter in the womb of corporations that are accorded special tax treatment by the state. Perhaps reflecting Catholic social theory, which is never too far beneath the surface of his analyses, Jouvenel laments this development as prejudicial to the individual and family. “It is quite incomprehensible,” he writes in this connection, “that a breeder of dogs for the race track should be allowed his costs, depreciation, etc. while the father of the family is not.”

Mahoney’s thorough and lucid exposition of Jouvenel’s thought is a most welcome addition to the Library of Modern Thinkers—a series edited by Jeffrey O. Nelson and published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute—which includes works on the life and thought of Robert Nisbet, Ludwig von Mises, Wilhelm Roepke, and Eric Voegelin.

George W. Carey is Professor of Government at Georgetown University and author of A Student’s Guide to American Political Thought.