An Ode to #OWS And IWW

“There are two kinds of property. Firstly, natural property, or that which comes to us from the Creator of the universe – such as the earth, air, water. Secondly, artificial or acquired property – the invention of men. In the natural property all individuals have legitimate birthrights. Men did not make the earth. It is the value of the improvement only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property…

I care not how affluent some may be, provided that none be miserable in consequence of it.”

– Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice (1797)

Henry George, in his 1879 book Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth: The Remedy (and the second most read book in America after the Bible), spoke of land as a common wealth and prescribed the elimination (or at least amelioration) of poverty through an economic ground-rent on land as a form of compensation for the loss of the natural inheritance that is due to all people. George’s economic philosophy was based on ideas expressed in Thomas Paine’s last pamphlet, Agrarian Justice (1797). That tract was the first proposal for a property estate tax to fund a universal social security program, and belies the insistence of political conservatives that all the Founders were private property rights supporters rather than supporters of social justice and economic equity.

Without saying it in such stark terms, Paine believed that private property was a form of theft from the working classes of society (the true producers of wealth) and, while wealth can be acceptable as long as it doesn’t impoverish others, the wealthy owe a debt to society in proportion to their property (wealth). In this light, Thomas Paine, the instigator of the American Revolution, was not just a liberal but an authentic radical.

“Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”

– Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1775)


Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln shared similar perspectives:

“Another means of silently lessening the inequality of [landed] 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. Whenever there are in a country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate the natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be provided for those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not, the fundamental right to labor the earth returns to the unemployed…”

– Thomas Jefferson in a 1787 letter to Rev. James Madison (president of the College of William & Mary, cousin to the “father of the Constitution”)

“The land, the earth God gave man for his home, sustenance, and support, should never be the possession of any man, corporation, society, or unfriendly government, any more than the air or water.”  – Abraham Lincoln

In 1797, Thomas Paine, responding to a priest who said that “God created rich and poor”, wrote an essay called “Agrarian Justice”, in which he said Nonsense! “God created male and female and gave them the earth for their inheritance … everyone who owns land owes ‘ground rent’ to the community … and from this revenue I propose to establish a fund that will pay everyone a sum.”

From Agrarian Justice:

To understand what the state of society ought to be, it is necessary to have some idea of the natural and primitive state of man; such as it is at this day among the Indians of North America. There is not, in that state, any of those spectacles of human misery which poverty and want present to our eyes in all the towns and streets in Europe.

Poverty, therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state…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…

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…

It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, uncultivated 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.

But the earth in its natural state, as before said, is capable of supporting but a small number of inhabitants compared with what it is capable of doing in a cultivated state. And as it is impossible to separate the improvement made by cultivation from the earth itself, upon which that improvement is made, the idea of landed property arose from that inseparable connection; but it is nevertheless true, that it is the value of the improvement, only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property.

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.

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…

The value of the improvement so far exceeded the value of the natural earth, at that time, as to absorb it; till, in the end, the common right of all became confounded into the cultivated right of the individual. But there are, nevertheless, distinct species of rights, and will continue to be, so long as the earth endures…

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.

In advocating the case of the persons thus dispossessed, it is a right, and not a charity, that I am pleading for…

I shall now proceed to the plan I have to propose, which is, 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…[For context, the average annual wage of an agricultural laborer was around £23, which is almost US$50,000 today. £10 would translate to about US$21,000 and £15 to nearly US$32,000.]

It is proposed that the payments, as already stated, be made to every person, rich or poor. It is best to make it so, to prevent invidious distinctions. It is also right it should be so, because it is in lieu of the natural inheritance, which, as a right, belongs to every man, over and above the property he may have created, or inherited from those who did. Such persons as do not choose to receive it can throw it into the common fund.

…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…

From this [value]…annually revolving, is to be subtracted the value of the natural inheritance absorbed in it, which, perhaps, in fair justice, cannot be taken at less, and ought not to be taken for more, than a tenth part [a 10% estate tax to nuclear family members]…

Considering, then, that man is always related to society…it is therefore consistent with civilization to say that where there are no direct heirs society shall be heir to a part over and above the tenth part due to society…(an addition of ten per cent more) [a 20% estate tax if there are no direct heirs]…

There are, in every country, a number of blind and lame persons totally incapable of earning a livelihood. But as it will always happen that the greater number of blind persons will be among those who are above the age of fifty years, they will be provided for in that class. The remaining [estate tax funds] will provide for the lame and blind under that age, at the same rate of £10 annually for each person…

It is not charity but a right, not bounty but justice, that I am pleading for…I care not how affluent some may be, provided that none be miserable in consequence of it…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.

The plan here proposed will reach the whole. It will immediately relieve and take out of view three classes of wretchedness – the blind, the lame, and the aged poor; and it will furnish the rising generation with means to prevent their becoming poor…The plan here proposed will benefit all, without injuring any. It will consolidate the interest of the republic with that of the individual…

I have made the calculations stated in this plan, upon what is called personal, as well as upon landed property. The reason for making it upon land is already explained; and the reason for taking personal property into the calculation is equally well founded though on a different principle. Land, as before said, is the free gift of the Creator in common to the human race. Personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally…All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man’s own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came…

…for if we examine the case minutely it will be found that the accumulation of personal property is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little for the labor that produced it; the consequence of which is that the working hand perishes in old age, and the employer abounds in affluence.

…when the ostentatious appearance [property] makes serves to call the right of it in question, the case of property becomes critical, and it is only in a system of justice that the possessor can contemplate security…

A revolution in the state of civilization is the necessary companion of revolutions in the system of government.

May the workers who create wealth and the #OWS participants who seek economic justice – today’s “winter soldiers” – take inspiration from the words of America’s first authentic radical, Thomas Paine.

“These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”

– The American Crisis, 1776


2 Responses to “Thomas Paine’s Radicalism”

  1. Lin Cleveland said

    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.”

    The above paragraph inspires some mixed emotions. If the hotmail instructions apply here, you will see my bold efforts to highlight my areas of concern.

    (#1) I do agree that anthropocentric cultivation at one time brought improved quality of food and fiber production. Great! However, failure to observe and react responsibly to resulting nutrient depletion eats away those “tenfold value” gains for our species. Logic built on a false premise: “Humanity has been given by the gods themselves the awesome task to tame wild ‘uncivilized’ Nature” has little chance, as in an extraordinary stroke of luck, to arrive at valid conclusion. […] Okay, in mulling this over for a couple of days, I think that those founders who championed a system obedient to the Laws of Nature realized that intelligent human activity could and should bestow a richer and more diverse habitat from one generation to the next. After all, if the tiny worker bees can leave the orchard a better place, our species has that innate ability too.

    (#2) Paine speaks to the “greatest evil” in disposing inhabitants of our “Natural inheritance without providing” financial protection against poverty. Does he mean to imply it’s okay to forcefully rob a culture of its livelihood and dignity if we toss coins their way? I react much the same when a “progressive” desires only to tax the criminal element or if Ishmael’s “takers” would but “give us a job” in some grand capitalistic venture, we’ll thank you “for our daily bread” without another thought to repercussions born by our children and grandchildren down the road.

    p.s. I snipped the following to post in a social discussion and felt a thrill to see Paine’s words receive a plethora of thumbs up votes!

    * * *

    just found an apt quote from thomas paine’s agrarian justice. you likee?
    “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…
    A revolution in the state of civilization is the necessary companion of revolutions in the system of government.”

  2. Riversong said

    Cultivation of land has been a very mixed blessing, and Paine’s perspective, as broad as it was, didn’t have the horizon that’s available to thinkers like Daniel Quinn today. We must not forget that the first experiment with agriculture turned the great cedars of Lebanon into a wasteland and the fertile Nile valley into salty sand dunes.

    And, while it’s certainly vastly increased the productive and marketable value of untilled land, we too easily confuse price with value. That great agrarian philosopher, Wendell Berry, has long bemoaned the fact that generations of farmers in his home state of Kentucky (as elsewhere) have used and abused the land rather than cared for it.

    In his 1987 book, Home Economics, Berry wrote:

    “American agriculture is fantastically productive, and by now we all ought to know it. That American agriculture is also fantastically expensive is less known, but it is equally undeniable, even though the costs have not yet entered into the official accounting. The costs are in loss of soil, in loss of farms and farmers, in soil and water pollution, in food pollution, in the decay of country towns and communities, and in the increasing vulnerability of the food supply system. The statistics of productivity alone cannot show these costs. We are nevertheless approaching a ‘bottom line’ that is not on our books.”

    “If in the human economy, a squash in the field is worth more than a bushel of soil, that does not mean that food is more valuable than soil; it means simply that we do not know how to value the soil. In its complexity and its potential longevity, the soil exceeds our comprehension; we do not know how to place a just market value on it, and we will never learn how. Its value is inestimable; we must value it, beyond whatever price we put on it, by respecting it.”

    “The awareness that we are slowly growing into now is that the earthly wildness that we are so complexly dependent upon is at our mercy. It has become, in a sense, our artifact because it can only survive by a human understanding and forbearance that we now must make. The only thing we have to preserve nature with is culture; the only thing we have to preserve wildness with is domesticity.”

    “To me, this means simply that we are not safe in assuming that we can preserve wildness by making wilderness preserves. Those of us who see that wildness and wilderness need to be preserved are going to have to understand the dependence of these things upon our domestic economy and our domestic behavior. If we do not have an economy capable of valuing in particular terms the durable good of localities and communities, then we are not going to be able to preserve anything. We are going to have to see that, if we want our forests to last, then we must make wood products that last, for our forests are more threatened by shoddy workmanship than by clear-cutting or by fire. Good workmanship – that is, careful, considerate, and loving work – requires us to think considerately of the whole process, natural and cultural, involved in the making of wooden artifacts, because the good worker does not share the industrial contempt for ‘raw material.’ The good worker loves the board before it becomes a table, loves the tree before it yields the board, loves the forest before it gives up the tree. The good worker understands that a badly made artifact is both an insult to its user and a danger to its source. We could say, then, that good forestry begins with the respectful husbanding of the forest that we call stewardship and ends with well-made tables and chairs and houses, just as good agriculture begins with stewardship of the fields and ends with good meals.”

    Thomas Paine’s understanding of land as a natural inheritance of all was shared by John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. But that is true in the state of nature. In society, they all recognized that people have a civic right to exclusive use of the land they build their home upon and make productive with their labor. The issue, then, is how to balance that civic right with everybody’s natural right.

    The man who may have expressed this most eloquently was Henry George (1839-1897), who wrote Progress and Poverty in 1879, which sold over 3 million copies, was the second most read book in America after the bible, and influenced such diverse people as Leo Tolstoy, Clarence Darrow, Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Sun Yat-sen, Elizabeth Magie, Frank Lloyd Wright, Aldous Huxley, William F. Buckley, Jr., Ralph Nader, Joseph Stiglitz and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

    In it, he wrote, “We must make land common property”, and proposed that the “rent of land should be paid to the community, satisfying the equal rights of all other members of the community without disturbing individual title to land, fixity of tenure and undisturbed possession.”

    Because control of land is the basis for economic value in society, justice requires that if some have exclusive use of it they must compensate the rest of society for the public share of that value. This was also the basis for the Community Land Trust model of land tenure, which I discuss in great detail in the essay “Earth as a Sacred Trust”.

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