Monday, May 12, 2003

Thomas Paine: AGRARIAN JUSTICE (via DS). Facsimile of cover.
Phrased in terms of a scheme to provide a pension to aged persons, which admittedly is an idea 100 years ahead of its time, Paine's last great pamphlet (written in the winter of 1795-96) is perhaps even more significant for its articulation of the right of the people to the earth.

'The error contained in [Bishop Watson's] sermon determined me to publish my "Agrarian Justice." It is wrong to say God made rich and poor; He made only male and female, and He gave them the earth for their inheritance.'

'There is not, in that [primitive] 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.'

'[10] 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. [11] 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 parable connection; but it is nevertheless true, that it is the value of the improvement, only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property. [12] 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.'

This in a nutshell is identical with the georgist doctrine, and it could hardly be better or more concisely expressed. George has only added the sound economic concept that the ground rent raised be based on its market value; and that the ground rent is found on all sites above the margin, not merely agricultural ones. After the passage of 200 years however the message is still hidden from view. Both left and right are responsible for this suppression. Right, predictably to protect vested interests; left, more tragically and scandalously, sidelines the insight in its haste to develop more sophisticated so called 'scientific' doctrines. From this view the contest between 'capitalism' and 'socialism' has been a giant red herring. Re-invigoration of the left requires the systematic synthesis and sublation of all doctrines, particularly geoism and anarchism; with effective critique of the errors or state and revolutionary socialism.

It is curious that I do not recall Henry George referrring to Paine, although surely he would had he known of it. Perhaps he succumbed to the damaging prejudice that Paine was an 'atheist'.

'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.'

'[22] 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: [23] 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... [26] 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 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.'

The plan is similar of course to the pension, the Citizen's Dividend idea, or the guaranteed minimum income. An idea of merit, it is curious that this revolutionary concept of agrarian justice is subsumed under the pension plan. On the other hand, the positioning of reform in a wholly positive light, in terms of the expenditure rather than the revenue raising, is an idea that georgism could have absorbed for greater political effect.

'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.'

'The state of civilization that has prevailed throughout Europe, is as unjust in its principle, as it is horrid in its effects; and it is the consciousness of this, and the apprehension that such a state cannot continue when once investigation begins in any country, that makes the possessors of property dread every idea of a revolution... A revolution in the state of civilization is the necessary companion of revolutions in the system of government.'

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