"About thirty or forty years before the Revolution broke out, the scene changed. Every portion of the social body seemed to quiver with internal motion. The phenomenon was unprecedented, and casual observers did not notice it; but it gradually became more characteristic and more distinct. Year after year it became more general and more violent, till the whole nation was aroused. Beware of supposing that its old life is going to be restored ! 'Tis the awakening of a new spirit, which gives life only in order to destroy.Enriching the public? Now that doesn't sound *quite* like the ruthless French monarchy we learned about in school, now, does it? Rather sounds.....(gasp)....like a modern socialist country.
... I have said elsewhere that the comptroller-general and the intendants of 1740 were very different personages from the comptroller-general and the intendants of 1780. This is shown in detail in the official correspondence of the time. At both periods intendants were invested with the same authority, employed the same agents, used the same arbitrary means ; but their objects were different. In 1740 intendants were engrossed with the business of keeping their province in order, levying militia, and collecting the taille; in 1780 their heads were full of schemes for enriching the public. Roads, canals, manufactures, commerce, and agriculture above all, absorbed their attention."
"Day after day, the central government conquers new fields of action into which these bodies can not follow it. Novelties arise, pregnant with cases for which no precedents can be found in parliamentary routine : society, in a fever of activity, creates new demands, which the government alone can satisfy, and each of which swells its authority ; for the sphere of all other administrative bodies is defined and fixed ; that of the government alone is movable, and spreads with the extension of civilization. "D'Tocqueville goes on to describe the efforts of the Old Regime to provide for the public welfare in this period: a "general concern for the ills of the poor", which he admits was a new thing for the time, including tens of thousands of livres in what we'd call public assistance and welfare payments. Then he sums up with describing the tenor of sentiment a decade before all hell broke loose:
No one in 1780 had any idea that France was on the decline; on the contrary, there seemed to be no bounds to its progress. It was then that the theory of the continual and indefinite perfectibility of man took its rise. Twenty years before, nothing was hoped from the future; in 1780 nothing was feared. Imagination anticipated a coming era of unheard-of felicity, diverted attention from present blessings, and concentrated it upon novelties.In the 1780s theories abound about the indefinite perfectibility of man. In the 1790s we see the guillotines and the Reign of Terror.
So is the restless centralization and boundless activity we see in our own government right now a symptom of a new revitalization? Or is it, as it was in France 1780, an ill omen best summed up in that Biblical maxim: Pride goeth before the fall.