Agrarian Justice Still Ahead of US Political Thought

Thomas PaineThomas Paine’s most visionary work was Agrarian Justice where he called for a Social Security kind of system for everyone over the age of fifty as well as a one-time payment to be made for everyone at the age of 21. It was to be funded with inheritance and property taxes. So it was actually a whole lot more liberal than Social Security, which is based upon a regressive tax and doesn’t provide any starting capital to young people. It was published in 1797, and if it were proposed today, it would be met with screams of “Socialism!”

It was written for the French Republic, although he took pains to note, “The plan contained in this work is not adapted for any particular country alone: the principle on which it is based is general.” In addition to being far ahead of our own time, the pamphlet is notable for its detail. Most of it goes into depth about how the program would be paid for. In roughly 6,000 words, Paine provides far more detail than was found in any of Paul Ryan’s budgets that were so loved by Washington journalists everywhere.

What is most interesting about the work, however, is the logic that he presents. I love it because it shows that he understood the problems with property rights. They provide a good to society, but with a cost: people can’t just start farming or hunting or foraging anywhere they want. He noted that native peoples in America had a standard of living that was greater than the standard of living of the poor in the “civilized” world. Just the same, they had a standard of living that was less than that of the rich. As a result, the rich should offset this deficit suffered by the poor through a small redistributive program.

It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, cultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with the rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal…

Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated lands, owes to the community a ground-rent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds; and it is from this ground-rent that the fund proposed in this plan is to issue.

It’s very simple. Yet even most liberals I talk to don’t understand it without an explanation. To Americans, the idea of property rights seems almost God given. But even on the most basic level, there is a cost to property rights: the cost of a government to enforce them. It is much more than just this, of course. The problem is that in modern America (and I assume most other places at most other times), most of the costs of property rights are hidden because they fall almost exclusively on the weakest people in society.

I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of just how generous Paine was being. He offered £15 to people at the age of 21 and £10 per year to everyone 50 and older. I managed to find the United Kingdom Nation Archives calculator for this purpose. But when I put in £15 in 1800, it told me that would be worth £483. This is roughly what £15 in 1960 would be worth today.

Looking at it another way, Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice is worth £10,000 per year. That’s in 1813 and he is unimaginably wealthy. But that income is supposedly only worth £340,000 today. That’s a lot of money to someone like me. But that is nothing compared to Mitt Romney (roughly $20 million per year at least), who is a small player — certainly nowhere near as rich as Mr Darcy. Similarly, in Jane Eyre (1847 — fifty years after Paine), the heroine is paid £30 per year as a governess. That’s less than £1,800 per year.

If we figure that the calculator is off by about a factor of fifty (and I think that is low), the lump sum payment at 21 would be roughly £25,000 ($40,000). And the old age pension would be roughly £16,000 ($26,000) per year. Note that Paine was offering a much more generous retirement than we do today in the US. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone; the United States has one of the most stingy retirement programs of any developed country.

It bugs me that politics in the United States have regressed. Of course the Republicans are totally unhinged. But the Democrats have spent the last two decades pushing ever to the right. If he were alive to day, I don’t think Thomas Paine would feel any more comfortable in the Democratic Party than I do. Certainly it is true that since Paine’s time, things have improved. But we seem to be headed in the wrong direction. In 1965, it was easy enough to think that things would only get better. But since then, the economic environment has gotten worse. And more than ever we need Thomas Paine. But we always have. We have still to catch up with his thinking from over 200 years ago.


See also: Property Rights

One reply

  1. […] flows and that the economy is not static. Yet both men believed in redistribution. Back in 1797, Thomas Paine laid out the case for redistribution: the government enforcement of property rights means that many people end up […]

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