to afford all an unfettered start,
and a fair chance in the race of life. “
In my previous posting, I provided a list of critical factors that compare the conservative and progressive worldviews. One of the key progressive principles mentioned several times in that posting was common wealth for the common good. As noted in that article, this principle was also mentioned in President Obama’s inaugural speech.
Unfortunately, this principle is totally absent from the strict-father, you’re-on-your-own, conservative-without-conscience, profit-first worldview because it requires empathy and responsibility to act on that empathy. This principle is also not broadly understood any more and is only documented in a few places on the internet like The Rockridge Institute. However, common wealth is critical to our democracy and here is why.
Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were all concerned about the accumulation of great wealth and the disparities between wealth and poverty they observed in Europe. They attributed these inequities to the European “aristocratic system of land transfers, hereditary political power, and monopoly.” Rather than concentrating wealth in a very few, our founding fathers saw common wealth as necessary for creating equality of opportunity for creating self wealth.
In the following excerpt from Wealth And Our Commonwealth, William H. Gates (father of Microsoft founder Bill Gates) and Chuck Collins, an expert on U.S. economic inequality, document our founding father’s fear of aristocracy and their ideas on taxation for creating the common wealth for the common good. This excerpt was originally posted at TomPaine.com.
The essence of the American experiment is our collective rejection of European hereditary aristocracy and grotesque inequalities of wealth. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, he noted that equality of condition permeated the American spirit: “The American experiment presupposes a rejection of inherited privilege.” In the words of novelist John Dos Passos, “rejection of Europe is what America is all about.”
The nation’s founders and populace viewed excessive concentrations of wealth as incompatible with the ideals of the new nation. Revolutionary era visitors to Europe, including Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Adams, and Ben Franklin, were aghast at the wide disparities of wealth and poverty they observed. They surmised that these great European inequalities were the result of an aristocratic system of land transfers, hereditary political power, and monopoly.
Monarchies and hereditary aristocracies mocked the republican principle of self-government. Writing in Common Sense, Thomas Paine attacked the notion of hereditary government: “To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and imposition on posterity.”
In two other articles, “Rights of Man” and “Agrarian justice,” Paine extended his contempt of inherited political power to a critique of inherited economic power. Paine proposed an inheritance tax that would fund an early version of Social Security.
The distrust of concentrated wealth was so great that, in an extreme sentiment, Ben Franklin argued “that no man ought to own more property than needed for his livelihood; the rest, by right, belonged to the state.” One could not accumulate vast wealth, in the republican worldview, simply through one’s own labors. In small-scale agrarian freeholder society, where land ownership was more widely distributed among men of European ancestry, there was a “natural distribution of wealth.” Farmers, artisans, and other workers reaped the “fruits of their own labor.”
In 1776, artisans from Philadelphia put forward a provision for inclusion in the original state constitution of Pennsylvania. They advocated for a limit on the concentration of wealth. “An enormous Proportion of Property vested in a few Individuals is dangerous to the Rights, and destructive of the Common Happiness of Mankind; and therefore any free State hath a Right by its Laws to discourage the Possession of such Property.”
The provision was narrowly rejected. But the concern about inequality and accumulated wealth was present at the formation of our nation.
Indeed, central to American republicanism was the principle of a broad and fair distribution of wealth and property. Noah Webster, writing in favor of adopting the U.S. Constitution in 1787, expressed that “a general and tolerably equal distribution of landed property is the whole basis of national freedom” and wide spread distribution of property was “the very soul of a republic.” Too much inequality was a threat to a self-governing society. Without an equitable land distribution, the founders believed, the republic would not survive.
John Adams also viewed broad land ownership as a key ingredient in maintaining a balance of political power. He was greatly influenced by seventeenth-century philosopher James Harrington, who argued that the widespread distribution of property dispersed power. Adams believed that when “economic power became concentrated in a few hands, then political power flowed to those possessors and away from the citizens, ultimately resulting in an oligarchy or tyranny.” In a 1776 letter to James Sullivan, Adams articulated his perspective that a balance in property owner ship was essential to liberty.
“The balance of power in a society, accompanies the balance of property in land. The only possible way, then, of preserving the balance of power on the side of equal liberty and public virtue, is to make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society; to make a division of land into small quantities, so that the multitude may he possessed of landed estates. If the multitude is possessed of the balance of real estate, the multitude will take care of the liberty, virtue, and interest of the multitude, in all acts of government.”
Thomas Jefferson, writing to James Madison in 1785 made the now famous statement that “the small land holders are the most precious part of a state.” He argued that legislators could not invent too many devices for subdividing property, “only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind.”
In the republican worldview, European aristocrats created unbalanced distributions of wealth by controlling the land through inheritance, laws of primogeniture and entail. These land tenure systems allowed land transfers only to oldest male children, maintaining hereditary concentrations of land rather than broadly distributing it. In a conscious rejection of primogeniture, Jefferson wrote:
“The descent of property of every kind therefore to all children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree, is a politic measure and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise.”
The revolutionaries believed in equitability, a notion of relative equality and fairness, rather than rigid equality. Revolutionary writers and orators underscored that American society would have modest inequalities. “The utopian schemes of leveling, and a community of goods,” wrote Sam Adams, “are as visionary and impracticable, as those which vest all property in the Crown.” Rigid equality, according to Sam Adams, would be “arbitrary, despotic, and in our government unconstitutional.” Minor inequalities would exist as the result of differences in individual talent, effort, and modest variations in property ownership.
This equitability translated into a culture that was antiaristocratic in sentiment. To be labeled an aristocrat or to be accused of advocating for “aristocratic policies” was the ultimate political slander in revolutionary America. For instance, John Adams through much of his later years had to fight the whispers that he had “monarchist sympathies,” having spent so many years consorting with royalty in France and England.
The founders celebrated the exceptionalism of the American experiment and heartily rejected aristocratic politics and economic policy. “The economic agenda for a republic became clear,” writes James Huston. “Enact the opposite of aristocratic legislation.”
What made the new nation unique was its relative equality. Noah Webster exuded confidence in the justness of the American system: “Here the equalizing genius of the laws distributes property to every citizen.” In other words, no rent to an absentee landlord or land ownership monopolies.
In their enthusiasm, the revolutionaries glossed over some of the enormous inequalities that existed in colonial society, the most obvious of which was the existence of slavery. “American society was not egalitarian and some individuals possessed impressive amounts of wealth,” writes Huston. “An elite did exist, and much of its property had come from political favoritism, inheritance, or family connections.” At the same time, their prescriptions for addressing this inequality were overly simplistic. For instance, the founders thought that eliminating the aristocratic land laws of entails and primogeniture would institutionalize relative equality. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson wrote confidently that America’s land tenure system encouraged subdivision and a broader distribution of land ownership, preventing aristocratic concentrations of ownership. Our nation’s founders were blind to some of the inequalities in their midst. But our national creed — with its aspiration to greater equality and suspicion of accumulated wealth and power — was forged at the time of our nation’s independence.
This “suspicion of accumulated wealth and power” was a significant cause for our revolution against Great Britain. The majority of our earliest citizens rejected aristocracy in favor of democracy and wanted taxation to limit the accumulation of wealth. However, this limitation must be turned to the common good of the new nation by equality of opportunity.
Now, over two hundred and thirty years later, we are in the midst of another struggle over the concentration of excessive wealth and power. This struggle has evolved slowly by reducing the funding of our common wealth for the common good. It started in 1963 when our top personal tax rate of 91 percent, which had existed since the end of World War II, was reduced to 70 percent. In 1982 the top rate was dropped another 20 points to 50 percent. Since 1987, the top tax rate has varied between 39.6 and 28 percent.
Since 1963, we have been creating a new conservative-without-conscience (CWC) aristocracy which, as our forefathers feared, is a threat to our democracy. We have been conned into letting this happen by the CWCs who have been telling us for years that taxes are not good; government will not make proper use of it; only the free market works in the best interest of the nation’s citizens; if you are disciplined, it’s OK to be extremely rich; and there are those among us who do not deserve a helping hand because they are not moral.
This growing aristocracy is using their excessive wealth and power to pay tens of thousands of lobbyists to get their taxes reduced and their powers increased further. Looking back at our early history, I suggest that today’s CWCs represent the new American Empire. They are at least leftover “Loyalists” from our revolution for independence.
As the CWCs have grown their aristocracy, our infrastructure, our government and the rest of us have suffered. Our bridges and highways are decaying. Our schools are failing our children and only the very rich get a good education. Our air and water are poisoned. Our national resources are being pillaged for profit. Our right to vote is under threat to help keep the CWC minority in control. Our heath care is failing to care for all but the very rich CWCs and our climate may turn on us all like never before while the CWCs speed around in their luxury SUVs.
What all this means is that we are transferring the funding of our nation’s common wealth back to the Paris Hiltons, Rupert Murdochs and other powerful CWCs of the world through one tax reduction after another. Yes, you might get something back to help pay your bills that are piling up, but the CWCs get much much more and will buy another yacht or congressman with their spare change. The rest of the nation, on the other hand, struggles to get their kids a good education, find affordable transportation to get to work, keep themselves and their children healthy and wonder if their future is doomed to climatic cataclysm. In the mean while, the mega-rich continue to shop extravagantly, collect unreasonable bonuses and take corporate welfare while avoiding proportionately replenishing our common wealth through progressively higher taxation.
Common wealth is not what CWCs believe in. CWCs are moral by virtue of their disciplined nature and are thus more deserving of wealth and power than other citizens. Their individualistic, self disciplined, moralistic, authoritarian, direct-causation worldview means all the money they earn is theirs. They earned it all by themselves.
CWCs don’t recognize that the nations’ infrastructure helped create their wealth. Since it didn’t help them, there is no need for them to pay to maintain it. Thus, they believe that taxes to fund the common wealth are wrong regardless of its contribution to their self wealth.
In addition to our vanishing common wealth, our democratic government is disappearing courtesy of the CWC aristocracy. In the CWC worldview, the Government interferes with creating wealth and steals self wealth just to give it to undisciplined immoral slackers (Remember, direct causation blinds the CWCs to the intermediate common wealth that is managed by the democratic government to promote equal opportunity for all). So, to minimize government, stop funding it. Specifically, stop taxing the CWCs that gain the most from the infrastructure which was built from our common wealth. In addition, redirect what common wealth is left to privatize government functions and help maximize the CWC aristocracy.
Privatization is fine as long as the government responsibility to protect and empower is not part of the deal. Privatizing means there is no accountability to the voters and profit takes precedence over protecting and empowering citizens. Our democratic government is responsible for protecting and empowering its citizens. The free market is responsible for making profit and profit will trump protecting and empowering citizens every time.
Our democratic government must protect and empower all of us. Protection includes the police, firefighters, emergency services, public health, the military, and so on. Empowerment includes the infrastructure needed for business and everyday life: roads, communications systems, water supplies, public education, the banking system for loans and economic stability, the SEC for the stock market, the courts for enforcing contracts, air traffic control, support for basic science, our national parks and public buildings, and more.
Building the new CWC aristocracy is wrong. It robs us of our common wealth, redirects our protection toward war and away from civil rights, prevents building and maintaining our nation’s infrastructure and eliminates equal opportunity.
Many of us believe, like our American revolutionary heroes mentioned at the beginning of this post, that we need to be responsible for ourselves and others and do what is necessary to keep and continually improve our democracy. Our innate empathy tells us that as parents we must protect and empower our children and, likewise, our government must protect and empower its’ citizens. To do that, we must proportionally fund the nation’s common wealth for the sake of the nation’s common good.
The progressive worldview closely matches our Founding Fathers. Progressives support Paine’s inheritance tax and Jefferson’s progressive tax. We must fund the common wealth for the common good. We must fund the common wealth so the government can protect and empower we the people. We must fund the common wealth to promote equality of opportunity for creating self wealth which will replenish the common wealth. We must fund the common wealth to promote our American democracy and inhibit the new CWC aristocracy.
The CWC worldview is wrong. We can’t have a government to protect and empower us (infrastructure) while we let the very rich become the mega rich. Eventually, most of us will pay a very high price.
The Greatest Generation paid for World War II with income tax rates as high as 94 percent. All we were asked to do for Bush’s war was shop.
It’s time we pay our own way. It’s time to stop asking others (China, Japan, etc.) to pay our bills. It’s time for the very rich and corporations to contribute much more to our common wealth so they don’t succeed in turning our democracy into an aristocracy.
I close with a quote from another great American, an American that was not an aristocrat, Abraham Lincoln.
“This is essentially a people’s contest. On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from their shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance in the race of life. Yielding to partial and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the government for whose existence we contend.” – Abraham Lincoln Address to Congress (4 July 1861)