The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Jouvenel, Bertrand de (1903-1987)

Bertrand de Jouvenel was a prominent French political philosopher, social scientist, and essayist whose writings covered a wide range of political and social thought. Born into a cultivated milieu—his father, Henri, was a distinguished French politician, diplomat, and journalist, and his mother, Sarah Boas, ran a celebrated salon—the young Jouvenel experienced the intellectual dislocations characteristic of the generation that came of age after the First World War. A famous journalist, he traveled widely and interviewed many of the principal actors on the world stage, including David Lloyd George, Churchill, and Hitler. In the 1920s and early 1930s, he tirelessly worked to promote Franco–German reconciliation. At the time, he identified with moderate socialist political currents. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, he became increasingly disillusioned with and discouraged by the inability of the established French political parties to address the problem of mass unemployment and to overcome debilitating partisan conflict. In 1936, he joined a radical right-wing party, the Parti Populaire Francais (PPF), headed by the excommunist Jacques Doriot, which promised to revitalize France and overcome the political “decadence” of the French Third Republic. Jouvenel left the PPF in the fall of 1938 because of its support for the Munich Pact—Jouvenel had longstanding personal as well as political ties to the imperiled Czechoslovakian democracy.

Jouvenel’s political oscillations in the interwar period and some questionable friendships at the beginning of the war helped create the impression that he had been some kind of collaborator during World War II. In fact, he joined the resistance in his native Corrèze in 1942 and fled to neutral Switzerland in 1943 with his second wife, Hélène, when the Gestapo became aware of his underground activities. It was during his Swiss exile that he wrote his best-known book, Du Pouvoir (On Power). The book, published in French in 1945 and in English in 1948, has become a minor classic and remains in print to this day. On Power marked Jouvenel’s conversion to the sober conservative-minded liberalism that would define his thought for the next three decades or more. Jouvenel was the first major 20th-century French political thinker to rediscover the political wisdom of 19th-century French liberals such as Benjamin Constant and Alexis de Tocqueville. The work is at once a powerful indictment of the progressivist rejection of natural and divine limits and an impassioned chronicle of the rise of the modern, centralized state. It also can be understood as an implicit self-correction, a reaffirmation of “old verities” that Jouvenel seemed to have forgotten in his prewar impatience to address pressing social problems and that he had to relearn through bitter personal experience. The modern Minotaur, as Jouvenel called the centralizing state, sought to devour all those “spiritual authorities and of all those intermediate social forces which frame, protect, and control the life of man, thereby obviating and preventing the intervention of Power.” Jouvenel’s classically liberal critique of collectivism is rooted in a more thoroughgoing conservative rejection of what he understood as a radical species of rationalism. Such a rationalism is marked by the reduction of the human world to the twin poles of the individual and the state. Jouvenel’s twofold concern with limiting state power and recovering the moral foundations of liberty would inform all of his writings in the postwar period.

Sovereignty, published in French in 1955 and in English in 1957, is the direct sequel to On Power. Like all of Jouvenel’s postwar writings, Sovereignty freely draws on the writings of Greek and Roman antiquity, Christianity, and classical liberalism. It is arguably Jouvenel’s most penetrating work of political philosophy. In it he attempted to redirect political science away from a narrow focus on legitimacy, on who exercises power, to a broader reflection on the nature of authority within free political communities. In this connection, he hoped to liberate the indispensable notion of the “common good” from its historical identification with the small, homogenous political communities recommended by political philosophers such as Plato and Rousseau. The common good is not an a priori concept to be imposed from above, but rather entails an ongoing effort to sustain social friendship within an open, dynamic society. In this way and others, Jouvenel mediated between the insights of ancient and modern philosophers. He opposes the conceit that the human will can ever provide the foundation of a humane and free moral and civic order, even as he rejected every effort to petrify society by creating a timeless political order freed from conflict. Jouvenel envisioned a society open to multiple private initiatives, but one where statesmen self-consciously aim to preserve the framework of civic trust.

Jouvenel was a charter member of the Mont Pelerin Society, the worldwide organization of intellectuals and economists founded in 1947 by F. A. Hayek to defend the free market and free society against its collectivist critics. He left the society in 1960, however, because of philosophical objections to what he regarded as its excessively libertarian orientation. However, his 1952 book, The Ethics of Redistribution, remains widely admired by libertarians and classical liberals. That work established an integral connection between government efforts at the redistribution of income and the unprecedented centralization of state power. It also argued that large-scale efforts at redistribution would radically transform the tenor of society, transferring influence from old aristocratic and bourgeois elites to a new soulless managerial class. Jouvenel’s opposition to redistributionist projects was never tied to moral relativism in public policy or “public choice.” As he put it in a 1960 essay, “the judgments we pass upon the quality of life are not mere expressions of individual fancy but tend to objective value, however approximately attained.” He harbored fundamental doubts about the identification of the good life with the endless expansion of wealth and the satisfaction of all subjective desires. He therefore increasingly directed his attention to sustaining the amenities of life amid the materialist preoccupations of modern society. At the same time, he had no illusions about the ability of collectivism to produce a humane and free alternative to what he called “the civilization of power.” In his later years, he became a commonsensical environmentalist, friendly to market solutions, and concerned with preserving a “home” worthy of man. He also wrote widely on “prevision,” as in his 1967 book, The Art of Conjecture, because informed reflection on the future was essential to exercising prudent judgment under conditions of modernity. His last major work, 1983’s Marx et Engels: La Longue Marche, examined the economic, philosophical, and political thought of Marx and Engels. Jouvenel’s surprisingly sympathetic engagement with the thought of Marx disconcerted some of his conservative and classical liberal admirers. This work, however, finally took Marx to task for failing to do justice to the intimate connection between initiative in the intellectual realm and freedom in the economic realm. Jouvenel put forward an unambiguously negative judgment about Marx’s political legacy: Marx’s thought, he contended, “opens the road to despotic regimes, involuntarily but logically.”

Jouvenel’s mature reflections are rich and varied, irreducible to today’s familiar ideological categories. All of his writings are united by a deep concern for reinvigorating social and constitutional restraints on “power,” for revivifying the “social authorities” that “enframe” and “protect” the life of man, and by a bracing philosophical reflection on the requirements of the “common good” within an open, dynamic society.


Further Readings

Jouvenel, Bertrand de. Economics and the Good Life: Essays on Political Economy. Dennis Hale and Marc Landy, eds. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1999.

–––––. The Ethics of Redistribution. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1990.

–––––. Itinéraire (1928–1976). Presenté par Eric Roussel. Paris: Plon, 1993.

–––––. On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1993.

–––––. Sovereignty: An Inquiry into the Political Good. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1997.

Mahoney, Daniel J. Bertrand de Jouvenel: The Conservative Liberal and the Illusions of Modernity. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005.

Originally published .