Agrarian Justice and a response to “What Is True Equality”
I like having smart readers/friends to interact with. Got asked a good question about my post, “What Is True Equality”. The reader was wondering if I had read Thomas Paine’s Agrarian Justice and if it aligns with my theory of equality.
I like Thomas Paine and I read Agrarian Justice in one of my philosophy classes, but that was years ago. I think I’ll download a copy on Google Play and reread it, but here’s my quick take on it (if you follow my twitter, these answers are basically an extended version of my tweet-replies).
Paine was a very influential figure during the founding of this country and I feel like Agrarian Justice is one of the most pivotal pieces of his entire body of work. It sets the foundation for what we now consider “fairness” and paints a picture of how a society should function and treat property ownership as well as how that same society should look out for the general welfare of the people. The gist of the work is somewhat collectivist theory, concluding that the Earth belongs to the human race and that private ownership is necessary but along with it we should also acknowledge that that property was also once everyone’s and therefore taken from those that no longer have. Most of the property that he is talking about can be summarized as land, agriculture and the like. Paine does acknowledge that because of private property rights (allowing some to take property that was once owned by all), we have progressed as a race and become civilized. However he concludes that with the perks of civilization, we’ve also created poverty.
Paine assumes that it is this, therefore, the responsibility of the “affluent”, who own property and produce earnings, to take care of those that are forced into “poverty”.
Paine introduces many notions that we see in today’s government, such as property, income and inheritance taxes. He also comes up with what we now consider social security, where those who earn would pay a tax that can be redistributed to those that reach a certain age.
Right off the bat, in the 3rd paragraph of Agrarian Justice, Paine loses my support. He purports that poverty is a condition that only exists due to the creation of a civilization. He compares the modern man to the Native American culture. His general premise is that the Native American lives outside of civilized life yet they have a generally decent life. He compares the state of life in civilization to that of Native Americans and he concludes that civilization has created both an “affluent” life that is better than that of the Natives but it’s also created a state of poverty, which he considers to be worse than the life of the Natives.
Paine says, “The life of an Indian is a continual holiday, compared with the poor of Europe ; and, on the other hand, it appears to be abject when compared to the rich. Civilization, therefore, or that which is so called, has operated two ways ; to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state.”
Poverty is not created by civilization or as a side effect of wealth. Poverty is the general condition of man. Without civilization or progress, we all live in poverty. It’s only through civilization, industrialization and property rights that we move out of poverty and into differing levels of wealth. I believe that even the poorest of the poor today are better off than the majority of humans were 10,000 years ago. I can bore you with another 2,000 words on this but instead I’d like to direct you to this great lecture. (Part 1 of 4)
Thomas Paine’s entire theory is based on this notion that there are evils in civilization that create poverty yet there are more benefits to civilization than there are evils. Therefore we must curtail or “remedy” the evils in order to preserve the perks of civilization.
In Paine’s words: “It is always possible to go from the natural to the civilized state, but it is never possible to go from the civilized to the natural state. The reason is, that man, in a natural state, subsisting by hunting, requires ten times the quantity of land to range over, to procure himself sustenance, than would support him in a civilized state, where the earth is cultivated. When, therefore, a country, be comes populous by the additional aids of cultivation, arts and science, there is a necessity of preserving things in that state ; because without it, there cannot be sustenance for more, perhaps, than a tenth part of its inhabitants. The thing, therefore, now to be done, is, to remedy the evils, and preserve the benefits that have arisen to society, by passing from the natural to that which is called the civilized state.
In taking the matter upon this ground, the first principle of civilization ought to have been, and ought still to be, that the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if he had been born before -that period. But the fact is, that the condition of millions, in every country in Europe, is far worse than if they had been born before civilization began, or had been born among the Indians of North-America at the present day. I will show how this fact has happened.”
This is the assumption on which Paine based Agrarian Justice on and I completely disagree with the legitimacy of the claim that we are forced into worse conditions within civilization than we would have been subjected to without it.
Since I disagree with the binding principle of the entire theory, there’s no real need to go forward. Paine’s supporting argument for why we need social welfare is that we took property from these people and forced them into a worse condition than they would have lived in and therefore, we should pay them a portion of our own gains as a sort of ‘thank you’ for allowing us to use their portion of the Earth to create for the good of society.
I don’t introduce any real conclusions on what I think is true equality, but I do, however reject the “new” equality that President Obama and some the Occupy movement are trying to implement. I think I’ll put together a future post that explains what I would consider true equality, but for now I’ll just respond with saying that I don’t believe Thomas Paine got it right in Agrarian Justice and that I don’t believe Paine is representing the same sort of equality that I believe in.
If you haven’t read Agrarian Justice, I suggest that you do (It’s available for free all over the internet). Paine talks about certain issues that I may or may not agree with, one of which is the inheritance tax and the notion that you have the right to someone else’s property simply out of a genetic link. It’s actually pretty short and an important piece of work, especially considering the current socio-political climate.