Inequality and the Founders

jeffersonDuring the 2008 Presidential campaign, then candidate Barack Obama told plumber Joe Wurzelbacher (aka Joe the Plumber) that “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” In the aftermath of that comment, Obama’s political opponents attempted to paint him as an out of touch liberal with a socialist view of the world. What a difference seven years and one great recession make. In the build-up to the 2016 Presidential race, even conservative Republican candidate, Senator Ted Cruz, has raised the issue of income inequality, even if his spin on the matter is to place the blame for the widening income gap on Obama and big government. And Cruz is not alone, with Rand Paul and even Mitt Romney getting into the act and making comments on the need to reduce income inequality in America.

Battles over the issue of equality go all the way back to the founding of our nation. Thomas Jefferson embedded equality into the Declaration of Independence as one of those great propositions upon which American was dedicated to, along with liberty and self-government. For the founding generation, there were multiple meanings for equality. Historian Gordon S. Wood, first in a lecture delivered at the American Enterprise Institute in January 1995, and later in an expanded written version published by the Fordham Law Review in January 1996, provided an analysis of what equality meant in Jefferson’s time. The quotes attributed to Dr. Wood below are from the Fordham Law Review article.

The first element was social equality, based on the idea that people see each other as equals and expect to be treated as such. Wood uses a quote from Ronald Reagan to express what this means. ”Whether we come from poverty or wealth…we are all equal in the sight of God. But as Americans that is not enough — we must be equal in the eyes of each other.” In premodern times, certain people were viewed as being superior due to heredity. Wood argues that “people in the premodern world often assumed that a handsome child, though apparently a commoner, had to be the bastard offspring of an aristocrat.”

Jefferson and many of the other founders rejected the notion that some are born superior, and they believed that distinctions between people occurred because of their environment, not due to bloodlines. Wood admits that today we no longer accept this, since we know that people are born with different talents and abilities. John Adams’ view would more likely fit our modern conception: “Were there, or will there ever be a nation whose individuals were all equal, in natural or acquired qualities, in virtue, talents, and riches? The answer in mankind must be in the negative.” Still, Jefferson’s view fits not only our compassionate side, but also is the bridge to our view of the need for equality of opportunity. If all people have equal worth, then we each have some responsibility for each other, and we need to cultivate the talents among all of us. As Dr. Wood writes: “Once the liberally educated came to believe that they could control their environment and educate the vulgar and lowly to become something other than what the traditional society had presumed they were destined to be, then enlightened elites like Jefferson began to expand their sense of moral responsibility for the vice and ignorance they saw in others and to experience feelings of common humanity with them…many of the revolutionaries concluded with Jefferson that all men were basically alike, that they partook of the same common nature.” From this came our moral sense, our sympathetic instinct that made possible the natural compassion found in society.

Equality of opportunity means that people should be able to rise as far as their talents, abilities and penchant for hard work carry them. Talent was not based on heredity but rather was distributed throughout the population, and society should encourage that talent. Tied to this is the concept of social mobility, that people should be able to move up the economic ladder based on their skills, abilities, talent, and hard work. Jefferson, who often wrote about a natural aristocracy, was referring to an aristocracy of skills and talent and not of bloodlines, a core American ideal. With others of his generation, he thought that the natural aristocracy should govern, particularly at the state and national level of government.

Jefferson and many of the other leaders of the revolutionary period went beyond this and believed in a “rough equality of condition for a republican society — with every man an independent property owner.” This was not an attempt at social leveling, where everyone would have absolutely the same material conditions, but reflected a concern that too great a concentration of wealth and power would be inimical in a republican form of government. This would later prove a major source of division between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, since the latter had few concerns with great concentrations of wealth. In this, the writing of the radical Whigs, a group found in England during the 1700’s, may have influenced Jefferson, especially the libertarians Trenchard and Gordon, who feared that concentrations of wealth would lead to the use of power in arbitrary ways. Jefferson also proposed governmental policies to deal with the problem of wealth concentration, in part by the elimination of primogeniture, which focused on reducing inequality caused by passing wealth from one generation to another. By eliminating primogeniture, Jefferson was attempting to eliminate an aristocracy of inherited wealth. He also proposed as part of the rights contained in his draft of the Virginia Constitution of 1776 that 50 acres of land be distributed to “every person of full age,” which would include women as well as men. This proposal was never enacted, indicating that policies involving redistribution may have been as controversial during the revolutionary period as they are today.

Despite his support for limited government, Jefferson was not afraid to recommend policies to alleviate great inequalities of wealth when he saw those existed. While serving as part of the American delegation to the French court in 1785, Jefferson wrote to James Madison about the extremes of wealth he saw in pre-revolutionary France. He told about a conversation he’d had with a peasant woman who had difficulty finding work and often had no bread for her children. Jefferson lamented a situation in which “property is absolutely concentrated in a very few hands.” He went on to say, ”I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property…Another means of 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.” In 1785, Jefferson was anticipating the graduated income tax that was finally implemented in the United States in the twentieth century.

Jefferson believed in minimal government and that the federal government should limit itself to foreign affairs and the relations between the states. He mistrusted all government power. In his experience, government power and private wealth were one and the same in the Great Britain of his time. The aristocracy controlled both the wealth of the society and the instruments of government. He saw small government as a means to control the power of the wealthy elite, who in England used a strong central government to enhance their power. Lew Daly, in an article printed in Dissent Magazine in 2008, argues that “the ideal, simply, was a system (of limited government) that restricted the legal and political power of the wealthy, in order to prevent them from combining against independent smallholders and those without property.” Since both Jefferson and Madison wanted America to remain a nation of small, independent, yeoman farmers and were opposed to the development of cities and large scale industry, they may have expected that small government would suffice to achieve a roughly equal society.

The Jeffersonian view of government would, from the very beginning, compete with an alternative vision of the need for a robust central government in order to promote the development of industry. This would in part lead to the development of the first party system in the 1790’s, an issue we will take up in a later blog post.

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