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The founding generation of 1776, waged and won a war for independence. But the revolutionaries who led this war effort did not just seek to separate from England. They sought to establish an entirely new social order, a nation of citizens, not subjects, a republic, not an aristocracy. In their new nation, the people would rule.  This attempt at republic would not be the world’s first. History had seen a series of efforts to establish republican rule. Athens. Rome. Venice. Florence. All had failed. Why? America’s founders, who were well versed in the literature of the French enlightenment and the philosophy of Descartes, Voltaire, Bacon, Locke and Hobbes, carefully studied the historical record to find out. Republics, they concluded, require an equitable distribution of wealth.  Where wealth concentrates, political power can never be democratically shared.  Locke's conception of human nature was that we are capable of self-rule - that is, especially through the facility of reason, arguing that individuals can be (largely) trusted to manage their own affairs in ways that are (more or less) consistent with the interests and well-being of others.  However Hobbes suggested


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if human beings are primarily self-interested and desire-driven - we are not capable of self-rule. On the contrary: our ruthless competition with one another to satisfy individual desires will quickly lead to what Hobbes calls "the war of each against all," a "state of nature" in which life is "nasty, brutish, and short." Hobbes' conception of human nature leads us to an either/or: either we enjoy freedom from society and its laws - resulting in chaos; or we give up this freedom for an authoritarian regime - and enjoy a social order established by force.  By contrast, if Locke is right - if human beings are naturally rational. social, and thus capable of self-rule - then we don't need an authoritarian regime to save us from ourselves.  For Locke, our reason is crucial precisely as it is able to determine for us appropriate goals or ends - goals or ends which we then seek to achieve by establishing whatever rules or regular behaviors are necessary for the sake of accomplishing those goals.  Of course our Founding Fathers chose the humanistic view of Locke rather than the Randian view of Hobbes.  This choice is understandable due to the intellectual position of the Founders and their respect for reason and their suspicion of irrational belief.  The book "Washington and Religion" by Paul F. Boller, includes a quote from a Presbyterian minister, Arthur B. Bradford, who was an associate of Ashbel Green another Presbyterian minister who had known George Washington personally. Bradford wrote that Green,

often said in my hearing, though very sorrowfully, of course, that while Washington was very deferential to religion and its ceremonies, like nearly all the founders of the Republic, he was not a Christian, but a Deist.
But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.  The Federalist No. 51, James Madison.
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 the division of the land into small quantities, so that the multitude may be possessed of landed estates.  John Adams From a letter to James Sullivan, 1776.
 To America’s revolutionary founders, equity seemed natural. Most lived on small, semisubsistence family farms. In an agrarian setting, grand fortunes hardly ever accumulated. Some farmers did work harder than others, but the Earth could yield, no matter how much work was performed upon it, only so much wealth. That reality kept gaps in colonial income and wealth relatively limited. And those gaps would stay limited, the generation of 1776 believed, so long as all who labored were guaranteed the “fruits of their labor.”  If those who toiled received their due, significant inequalities of wealth would never emerge in the new American republic. The new republic would prosper,in liberty, for all.

  This catchphrase, “fruits of their labor,” would pepper revolutionary era speeches and broadsides.  The revolutionaries agreed that Republican liberty would surely fail if their new nation ever let elites expropriate what average Americans labored so hard to earn.To prevent failure, the new nation would have to be vigilant. Fortunes would have to be divided at every opportunity. In Europe, the laws of primogeniture and entail enabled wealthy aristocrats to pass on their fortunes, undivided, to their firstborn male heirs. By ending these laws, America’s founders believed, the young United States could prevent grand concentrations of wealth from accumulating — and threatening republican rule. State by state, in the decades after the Revolution, advocates of republican virtue would work tirelessly to abolish entail and primogeniture. These dangerous principles concentrate the property of the country, and with it the power and influence of a few.”  But efforts to end aristocratic inheritance laws, America’s early leaders believed, could not by themselves keep property and power dispersed. Good republicans, the revolutionaries agreed, must attack aristocratic wealth at its source — by keeping the economy free from government interference.  America’s revolutionaries subscribed, in effect, to the doctrine of laissez-faire. Egalitarians today, of course, consider laissez-faire an inherently conservative doctrine, a convenient fiction that those of wealth and power propagate to hoard what they have. But America’s revolutionaries saw the matter in a quite different light. They believed that politics, not economics, concentrates wealth and power. Wide disparities in wealth could only result when an elite manipulates politics to extract from hard-working citizens the fruits of their labor.

  This view, what James Huston, now humorously, called. "The republican theory of wealth distribution" — would hold clear sway in America’s early years. A democratic republic, Americans agreed, must ever strive to avoid, in Thomas Jefferson’s phrase, the “numberless instances of wretchedness” that inevitably arise whenever some hold far more property than others. Jefferson did acknowledge, that a completely equal division of property would be “impracticable.” But he believed deeply that “enormous inequality” had left humankind with “much misery.” A republic, Jefferson would write, “cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property.”

  The first attack on equality was engineered by Alexander Hamilton during the first Congress in 1789.  Hamilton would urged Congress to assume responsibility for redeeming, at face value, a broad list of national and state-level debts going back to the Revolutionary War. To get America moving, he believed, investors needed to be rewarded. Hamilton also asked Congress to charter a national bank, an institution that would be backed by the full faith and credit of the federal government but run by private investors. Hamilton would get what he wanted — and so would America’s financiers. The more enterprising among them had been buying up Revolutionary War and state debt at rock-bottom prices. The new federal government’s decision to redeem these debts, at their original value, guaranteed these enterprising speculators enormous windfall earnings on their investments. The new national bank, meanwhile, gave the nation’s commercial interests control over a key lever of economic life. They would now have the power to privately determine the new nation’s investment priorities, a power, critics feared, that could nurture a new moneyed aristocracy.

  The new American nation, once Hamilton’s ambitious agenda had been adopted, would need revenue to foot the bill. That revenue would come largely from America’s yeoman farmers. In 1790, on Hamilton’s recommendation, Congress would levy an excise tax on the manufacture of distilled liquor. The tax amounted, in a young rural nation, to a tax on backwoods farmers, since these farmers did much of the nation’s distilling. Farmers distilled because they had little economic choice. In America’s interior, where they farmed, poor road systems made shipping wagons full of grain to market prohibitively expensive. Farmers, instead, would distill their excess grain into more easily transportable whiskey products. By taxing the stills the farmers used to manufacture these products, Hamilton’s federal government was essentially shifting wealth out of farmer hands into the pockets of the financial speculators who held America’s debt.

  But Hamilton, with a nation still devoted to the spirit of 1776, had gone too far. His use of government banking and debt to reward a wealthy elite, had trespassed on the Revolutionary credo.  Bitter disputes over Hamilton’s economic policies would soon split America’s political class into warring parties — and, in the 1800 elections, sweep Hamilton’s party, the Federalists, out of power forever.

  The victorious Jeffersonians believed the sorry events of the 1790s had confirmed the wisdom of 1776. If the people were not vigilant, if the people let elites manipulate politics, an aristocracy of wealth would re-emerge in their young republic and eventually destroy it. No republic, the Jeffersonians argued, can tolerate inequality and survive. The new United States, as James Madison had noted, needed to become more equal, through laws that, “without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence toward a state of comfort.” Aristocracy equals inequality, republicanism equals equality. In early nineteenth century America, no public figure would challenge these basic equations. Every actor on America’s political stage, radicals and conservatives alike, took this egalitarian attitude toward property as a given. Aristocracy, pronounced the utopian-minded William Leggett in the 1830s, served to “concentrate all wealth and privilege in the hands of a few.”  “In monarchies and aristocracies,” pronounced a far more conservative New Jersey Whig, Congressman Joseph Fitz Randolph a few years later, “there are classes of the very wealthy and of the very poor; in a Republic both extremes are avoided.”  This conviction — that concentrated wealth endangers republican virtue— so dominated American political life before the Civil War that every side to every great political controversy would invariably justify its position by claiming that the opposition viewpoint, if followed, would leave America dangerously unequal. In 1832, for instance, President Andrew Jackson would place his opposition to rechartering a national bank squarely in the Jeffersonian tradition.  “It is to be regretted,” Jackson, “that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.”

  Almost all Americans took as a matter of faith, wherever they stood on slavery, that  A free republic could not safely accept great gaps between rich and poor.  Most Americans also believed that the young United States had so far prevented these gaps from developing. Throughout the nation’s first century, historian James Huston notes, Americans continually celebrated “the egalitarian nature of the American distribution of wealth.” The United States, noted the economist Theodore Sedgwick, had achieved an equal division of property “such as has never been known among mankind.”  Equality, made America different — and better. “Unlike the European States,”

  The Founding Fathers clearly viewed government as the protector of the many, not the few.  It took the vast right wing conspiracy a lot of time and effort and money to buy influence to control the MSM message and achieve almost exactly the opposite of the culture envisioned by those enlightened Deists with a vision of a fair society and a government of the people, by the people and for the people.  To insist on yet more tax cuts for the wealthy in times of National emergency, to ignore the damage done by by 30 years of dribble down economics, to demonize workers of any sort and to call estate taxes anything but fair and necessary is directly in opposition to the wishes of our Founding Fathers.  Their Republican view of wealth distribution is the polar opposite of the current GnoP view.  How unAmerican they have become in their strange view of what is fair and just. An answer to this situation may be found in Tocqueville's writing.  He carefully distinguishes between "self-interest properly understood" and "unenlightened self-interest". To begin with the negative, unenlightened self-interest comes closest to our common definition of selfishness. It is that which seeks advantage for the self at the expense of others. It is directed by brute instinct alone. On the other hand, self-interest properly understood poses the rhetorical question of "whether it is not to the individual advantage of each to work for the good of all."  This is not an instinctive attitude but a learned behavior, running (at least initially) counter to the instinct towards seeking self-advantage. Through exercise of this virtue, the individual agrees to connect his quest for self-advantage with the same instinct in others. Thus it is learned that "virtue is useful".  Education becomes a most necessary tool for the restraint of unenlightened self-interest.  

  All Americans are in this together, whether they act like it or not.  At their best Americans work together for a common goal and succeed.  At there worse they work for political advantage with no goal in mind except power and the nation stagnates and fails.  Anyone who speaks of any group as "real Americans" simply does not get the meaning of America where even the President is properly regarded as simply, "The first among equals".  

  We have the situation now where polling shows the highly rationally minded public at all levels and all party affiliation or independents want taxes raised on the wealthy.  When FDR proposed capping personal income at $25,000 or todays equivalent of $335,000 and a top tax rate of 100% the rich did not like it but he found similar popular support, a Gallup poll, in late 1942, found 47 percent of Americans supporting an income limit and only 38 percent in opposition.  The President got less than he wanted but got a rate of 93% on income over $200,000 or $2.680,000 in todays money.  By the end of the war the top rate was 94%.  Many Americans supported these rates.  Actress Ann Sheridan told reporters,


regret that I have only one salary to give for my country

  The New Yorker Magazine later concluded that no other news item, probably ever did so much to increase the popularity of a star.  In 1937 Carole Lombard  paid over $300,000 in federal taxes on $465,000 in income. When asked she replied


I was glad to do it, too, "Income tax money all goes into improvement and protection of the country.
  Many of the rich were angry about this but could do little due to popular support even from some of the wealthy some who became $1 a year men, working for the war effort for free.  How could anyone complain with such popular support at a time of national emergency.  Clearly both Miss. Sheridan and Miss. Lombard were patriots in the self-interest properly understood tradition of our Founding Fathers.  Not everyone was ready to support this effort to win WWII.  Actor Ronald Reagan, who had been a New Deal supporter was absolutely incensed by that tax levy.  At the height of his Hollywood scene chewing career, actor Reagan was making $400,000 per picture. With the top federal tax rate over 90 percent, Reagan used to tell his White House chief of staff Donald Regan, he always chose to "loaf" around rather than make more than two pictures a year.


y should I have done a third picture, even if it was Gone with the Wind?" Regan remembers Reagan asking. "What good would it have done me?
Clearly an unenlightened self-interest interest position, as there were millions of patriotic Americans actually fighting the war and not just playing patriots in an occasional film.  I am sure the war effort could have used the extra money if Ronnie had not loafed around during the National emergency.

  The 94% rate dropped to 82% over Truman's veto in 1948.  It jumped to 91% during the Korean War and stayed there through the 50s.  The top rate dipped to 70% in 1964,  After the 2 Reagan tax cuts it had shrunk to 28%. The steeply graduated progressive income tax had kept the rich in check on the accumulation of grand private fortunes, as the Founding Fathers intended.  The top tenth of 1 percent
were sucking up 12% of all income before the Great Depression.  That shrank until it was under 3% by the 70s. By 2007 just before the crash the top tenth of 1% were back to 12% of all income.

  The GOP is now the party of unenlightened self-interest.  The difference is the public anger that would have been unleashed against the wealthy had they not agreed to high tax rates has been usurped through the long term propaganda campaign commonly referred to as the "Vast Right Wing Conspiracy".

  The Koch brothers were going to unleash the tea party after the last election no matter who won.  They conceived the tea party, they nurtured the tea party and they have taught the tea party what to say, all for their unenlightened self interest in oil and pollution matters.  Bobby Kennedy used to say that 20% the population will believe anything.  The Koch brothers and FAUX News have repeatedly demonstrated that bit of wisdom from Kennedy.

  At some point soon taxes must be raised.  High rates would announce in no uncertain terms that sacrifice will be universal, that all Americans—even our highest and mightiest—will be expected to do their part, to give of themselves in some way that counts.  Dribble down never worked during the Reagan years or either of the Bush terms.  The tax increase during the Clinton years lead to far more growth than all the terms of the Bushes and Reagan.  To push for yet more tax cuts is insanity.  The Founding Fathers would not only support tax increases now for the good of the entire country, they would be aghast that we have let the situation get so far out of hand.  FDR won WWII with the attitude "We have nothing to fear, but fear itself."  and unleashed the creativity and productivity of the American public.  Vastly improving aircraft, developing radar, the A bomb and the proximity fuse among many other inventions.  The GOP seems to say, "Be very afraid, for all we have is fear itself."  No, we cannot borrow our way out of trouble.  We can, however, work our way out of trouble.  That, of course, will take jobs.  The GOP uses fear to short circuit rational thought or discussion in this country.  The house majority leader promised to focus like a lazar on job creation.  4 months later I can only think of one job he has made, when he hired a $520/hour lawyer to represent Congress over the defense of marriage act.

  I personally think the Koch brothers own both parties and both houses of Congress as well as the MSM, and the only way Congress will ever act on taxes in the National Interest of all Americans is through a popular uprising like Tunisia and Egypt and it better happen this Summer for the next election may be too late.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to J Edward on Sat Apr 23, 2011 at 11:15 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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