Agrarian Justice / Tom Paine
[The following is an organized series of excerpts from Tom Paine’s essay “Agrarian Justice”. A better understanding of his argument is gained from reading the essay in its entirety. I thought that this piece would be of special interest to those political Conservatives who have of late been claiming Tom Paine as one of their own.]
By Richard E. Noble
“It is wrong to say that God made rich and poor; he made only male and female; and he gave them the earth for their inheritance.”
Argument for improving the condition of the unpropertied
“To preserve the benefits of what is called civilized life, and to remedy, at the same time, the evil it has produced, ought to be considered as one of the first objects of reformed legislation ... The most affluent and the most miserable of the human race are to be found in the countries that are called civilized.
“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 this day among the Indians of North America. There is not, in that state, any of those spectacles of human misery which property and want present to our eyes in all the towns and streets of Europe. Poverty, therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life ... Civilization, therefore, or that which is so called, has operated two ways, to make one part of society more affluent and the other part more wretched than would have been the lot of either in a natural state.
“The thing, therefore, now to be done is to remedy the evils and preserve the benefits that have arisen to society by passing from the natural to that which is called the civilized state.
“Taking the matter then 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. But the fact is that the condition of millions in every country ... is far worse than if they had been born before civilization began, or had been born among the Indians of North America of the present day. I will show how this fact has happened.
“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 ... 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 land owes to the community a ground rent...
“... neither Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Job, so far as the history of the Bible may be credited in probable things, were owners of the land. Their property consisted, as is always enumerated, in flocks and herds and they traveled with them from place to place.
“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 ... when cultivation began, the idea of landed property began with it ... It is only by tracing things to their origin that we can gain rightful ideas of them …The additional value made by cultivation, after the system was submitted, became the property of those who did it, or who inherited from them, or who purchased it. I advocate the right, and interest myself in the hard case of all those who have been thrown out of their natural inheritance by the introduction of the system of landed property, I equally defend the right of the possessor to the part which is his ... it is a right and not a charity that I am pleading for.
“To create a National fund out of which there shall be paid to every person, who arrived at the age of twenty-one, 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.
“The fault is in the system, and it had stolen imperceptibly upon the world, aided afterwards by the Agrarian law of the sword … It is proposed that the payments, as already stated, be paid to every person, rich or poor such persons as do not choose to receive it can throw it into the common fund.
“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 ... it will be the least troublesome and the most effectual, and also because the subtraction will be made at a time that best admits it, which 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 wish it not to continue, and a just man will rejoice to see it abolished.
“It will always happen that the property thus revolving by death every year, part will descend in a direct line to sons and daughters, and the other part collaterally, and the proportion will be found to be about three to one; that is, about thirty millions of the above sum will descend to direct heirs, and the remaining sum ... to more distant relations and part to strangers.
“It is not charity but a right - not bounty but justice, that I am pleading for ... though I care as little about riches as any man, I am a friend to riches, because they are capable of good. 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, whilst so much misery is mingled in the scene.
“There are in every country some magnificent charities established by individuals ... 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 ... (It) will immediately relieve and take out of view three classes of wretchedness: the blind, the lame, and the aged poor.
“When a young couple begin in 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, they would be put in the way of becoming useful and profitable citizens.
“The great mass of the poor in all countries are become an hereditary race, and it is next to impossible for them to get out of that state of themselves. It ought also to be observed that this mass increases in all the countries that are called civilized. More persons fall annually into it than get out of it.
“It is from the overgrown acquisition of property that the fund will support itself ... War ... has already laid on more new taxes to be raised annually upon the people ... than would annually pay all the sums proposed in this plan.
“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 aid of society as it is for him to make land originally. Separate the individual from society, and give him an island or a continent to possess, and he can not acquire personal property. He can not become rich ... All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man’s own hands can 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 ... if we examine the case minutely, it will be found that the accumulation of personal property is, in many instances, the effects of paying too little for the labor that produced it.
“It is, perhaps, impossible to proportion exactly the price of labor to the profits it produces; and it will also be said, as an apology for injustice, that were a working man to receive an increase of wages daily, he would not save it against old age nor be much the better for it in the interim. Make then society the treasurer to guard it for him in a common fund; for it is no reason that because he might not make a good use of it for himself, that another shall take it.
“When wealth and splendor, instead of fascinating the multitude, excite emotions of disgust; when instead of drawing forth admiration, it is beheld as an insult upon wretchedness; when the ostentatious appearance it 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. When the more riches a man acquires, the better it will be for the general mass; it is then that the antipathies will cease and property be placed on the permanent basis of natural interest and protection.”