Last week, Glenn Beck invoked the memory of Thomas Paine to encourage American citizens to protest against Obama's proposals to increase taxes on the wealthy in order to provide the poor and middle class with benefits such as healthcare and improved education.
Ironically, Paine was no libertarian--today, he might even be recognized as a
gasp socialist. Given the lionization of Paine by libertarians, and now Beck, you're probably thinking that I'm just inventing this. In fact, the writings I'm about to share with you demonstrate that if Paine was alive today he would probably be to Obama's left, and probably more of an anathema to Beck's kind than our current crop of politicians.
In 1797, Paine wrote a pamphlet called "Agrarian Justice". It was his last great pamphlet and it was addressed to the French legislature, itself in the throes of revolution. While he addressed the pamphlet to the French legislature, he meant the plan in it to be universal, as he said in his accompanying letter:
THE plan contained in this work is not adapted for any particular country alone: the principle on which it is based is general. But as the rights of man are a new study in this world, and one needing protection from priestly imposture, and the insolence of oppressions too long established, I have thought it right to place this little work under your safeguard.
Paine starts his proposal by discussing poverty. First of all, he says poverty is not natural: "Poverty, therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state. On the other hand, the natural state is without those advantages which flow from agriculture, arts, science and manufactures."
Echoing today's liberals, he decries the separation between the rich and poor: "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."
He accepts as a basic principle 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." Unfortunately, this was not the case in 18th century Europe, and is still not the case today. But how did this happen? Paine's explanation is hardly libertarian; one might even consider it socialist:
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 rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.
And how do we solve this problem?
Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated lands, owes to the community 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 prod in this plan is to issue.
The rich owe rent to those who do not own property for the privilege of cultivating the land, and taking away the natural ownership that all people have. This is a direct repudiation of the libertarian justification for private property, which conveniently ignores the fact that their justification leaves many people in a worse position than before land-ownership.
In fact, Paine directly challenges the justification for pure private property with no community responsibilities:
There could be no such thing as landed property originally. Man did not make the earth, and, though he had a natural right to occupy it, he had no right to locate as his property in perpetuity any part of it; neither did the Creator of the earth open a land-office, from whence the first title-deeds should issue.
Paine proceeds to justify private property on the common grounds that cultivation is important, but not without commensurate responsibilities in exchange for permission to cultivate:
Cultivation is at least one of the greatest natural improvements ever made by human invention. It has given to created earth a tenfold value. But the landed monopoly that began with it has produced the greatest evil. It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss, and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before.
And just as today's liberal continue do battle against the idea that they are simple trying to institutionalize charity, Paine rejected the idea that he was advocating for charity at all. Instead, he was advocating for a positive right, something that libertarians reject out of hand:
In advocating the case of the persons thus dispossessed, it is a right, and not a charity, that I am pleading for. But it is that kind of right which, being neglected at first, could not be brought forward afterwards till heaven had opened the way by a revolution in the system of government. Let us then do honor to revolutions by justice, and give currency to their principles by blessings.
In other words, Paine considers a primary purpose of government to be remedying the problems of the dispossessed poor as a fundamental right not as a form of institutionalized charity.
In case you think this was all just an intellectual exercise, Paine finishes off with a detailed plan of how to move forward. His proposal:
To create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property:
And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.
Later on, Paine also argues for the same 10 pound payment to be made to the disabled. By comparison, a housewife could make between 6 and 8 pounds for a year. 10 pounds would amount to approximately $18,000 USD today, accounting for wage increases between the 18th century and today. By comparison, a full-time worker at US minimum wage today would earn $14,872, minus payroll taxes. Paine is also asking for a lump-sum payment of 15 pounds, which would amount to approximately $27,000 USD today, enough to go to school or start a small shop.
But how is a country expected to raise enough money to give every citizen that much money upon turning 21, and pay living expenses for the elderly and disabled? The answer is another boogeyman of the libertarian right--an estate tax:
Taking it then for granted that no person ought to be in a worse condition when born under what is called a state of civilization, than he would have been had he been born in a state of nature, and that civilization ought to have made, and ought still to make, provision for that purpose, it can only be done by subtracting from property a portion equal in value to the natural inheritance it has absorbed.
Various methods may be proposed for this purpose, but that which appears to be the best is at the moment that property is passing by the death of one person to the possession of another. In this case, the bequeather gives nothing: the receiver pays nothing. The only matter to him is that the monopoly of natural inheritance, to which there never was a right, begins to cease in his person. A generous man would not wish it to continue, and a just man will rejoice to see it abolished.
Paine, the libertarian hero, cleanly rejects the "natural right" of inheritance, and says that a just man would rejoice in its abolition.
A bit later, Paine covers what kind of "revolution" he would like to see. Beck should pay attention here:
It is not charity but a right, not bounty but justice, that I am pleading for. The present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust. It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be, and it is necessary that a revolution should be made in it. The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together. Though I care as little about riches as any man, I am a friend to riches because they are capable of good.
Paine says that it is fundamentally unjust that some are enjoying affluence while so many are miserable: "I care not how affluent some may be, provided that none be miserable in consequence of it. But it is impossible to enjoy affluence with the felicity it is capable of being enjoyed, while so much misery is mingled in the scene."
Paine also takes on the idea that simple charity can solve the problem, an idea frequently trotted out by libertarians:
There are, in every country, some magnificent charities established by individuals. It is, however, but little that any individual can do, when the whole extent of the misery to be relieved is considered. He may satisfy his conscience, but not his heart. He may give all that he has, and that all will relieve but little. It is only by organizing civilization upon such principles as to act like a system of pulleys, that the whole weight of misery can be removed.
In other words, government, through taxation, and proposals such as the one he's outlining here, are the only solution to the problem. In fact, he argues that a prime purpose of government is to resolve vast income inequality.
Again arguing for this plan as part of the French revolution, Paine points out that by helping the poor, France will be better off in the end:
A plan upon this principle would benefit the revolution by the energy that springs from the consciousness of justice. It would multiply also the national resources; for property, like vegetation, increases by offsets. When a young couple begin the world, the difference is exceedingly great whether they begin with nothing or with fifteen pounds apiece. With this aid they could buy a cow, and implements to cultivate a few acres of land; and instead of becoming burdens upon society, which is always the case where children are produced faster than they can be fed, would be put in the way of becoming useful and profitable citizens.
In other words, we can resolve the burden on society by vast poverty by simply making it easier for the impoverished to start life with something, instead of being trapped in the cycle of poverty. Almost sounds like a modern-day liberal, doesn't he? Further, he argues that it's not enough to help the poor once they become poor--we must fundamentally alter the conditions that unjustly produce poverty:
It is the practice of what has unjustly obtained the name of civilization (and the practice merits not to be called either charity or policy) to make some provision for persons becoming poor and wretched only at the time they become so. Would it not, even as a matter of economy, be far better to adopt means to prevent their becoming poor? This can best be done by making every person when arrived at the age of twenty-one years an inheritor of something to begin with.
It is cheaper to fix the larger problem of poverty than it is to apply failing band-aids on top of the problems of the impoverished.
And perhaps my favorite line of all:
It is from the overgrown acquisition of property that the fund will support itself; and I know that the possessors of such property in England, though they would eventually be benefitted by the protection of nine-tenths of it, will exclaim against the plan. But without entering any inquiry how they came by that property, let them recollect that they have been the advocates of this war, and that Mr. Pitt has already laid on more new taxes to be raised annually upon the people of England, and that for supporting the despotism of Austria and the Bourbons against the liberties of France, than would pay annually all the sums proposed in this plan.
I think he's talking to Beck here. He responds, in advance, to the wealthy who will attack him for his "socialist" plan by telling them that they were in favor of war, which costs more in taxes than the social security, disability payments, and inheritance that he is proposing. It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.