By now everyone has met Julia, the lucky woman in the unusual Obama campaign commercial who is looked after from cradle to grave by a compassionate federal government. With the help of the government, Julia is educated, gets free health care, free birth control, and subsidized student loans. When she decides to have a child (with no significant other, of course), government is there to help with health care and school programs (but no daycare?). When Julia retires, Medicare and Social Security look after her needs. And so on.
This happy story made me wonder what the difference is between Julia and the people Alexis de Tocqueville calls "place-hunters" (see Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part 2, chapter 20). The place-hunter is someone whose ambition finds its primary outlet in seeking a government job, a type that Tocqueville fears will arise in modern democracies. True, Julia seems to be on her own when it comes to choosing a job (she's a web-designer), though she does get government subsidized small business loans and tax credits to get started. But when so many of the major problems in life are solved by government, don't you become something like a place-hunter? At the least, you rely on government almost as much as someone who does have a government job.
So what's the problem with that? Here's our French observer, writing in the 1830's, long before the full-blown welfare state had developed:
"I shall not say that this universal and immoderate desire for public offices is a great social evil; that it destroys the spirit of independence in each citizen and spreads a venal and servile humor in the whole body of the nation; that it suffocates the virile virtues; nor shall I have it observed that an industry of this kind creates only an unproductive activity and agitates the country without making it fruitful: all that is easily understood."
No, the real problem Tocqueville sees is more political. In a "people of place-hunters" (think about that awful idea!), there can never be enough government jobs to satisfy the ever growing number of people who want such a job. And this creates a permanent class of discontented people who demand change "solely out of the need to make some places vacant", or, we may add, solely to acquire more benefits. And can there ever be enough money to satisfy the ever growing demand for more government assistance? Whether out of compassion or the desire to win political support, governments try to attract partisans by giving people jobs (or healthcare, retirement and vacation benefits, etc.); but instead, Tocqueville thinks governments end up endangering themselves, as we perhaps see in places like Greece.
Tocqueville concludes that it would be "more honest and more sure" for governments to teach each citizen "the art of being self-sufficient." Wouldn't that be better than a "people of place-hunters"?