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Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Common Sense Rights of Man and others Part I: Agrarian Justice
Let me get this out of the way. There is a famous conservative commentator who has a book on top of the best seller's list right now called Common Sense. My mother is a fan of said commentator so I'm very familiar with this commentator's views. After reading the writings of Thomas Paine I'm curious as to why this individual chose this title and seems to claim in the subtitle of his book that he is carrying on the traditions and views of Thomas Paine. It even includes a copy of the original work. Now to be fair I haven't read this modern version. I have read the two chapters that are provided on Amazon and several of the reviews there so I feel I have a fair view of the proceedings within this book however I don't have a direct knowledge of the contents. As I said before I'm also very familiar with this individual's other writings and show so I'm familiar with his viewpoints.
So just to be clear Thomas Paine was no conservative, not even by today's standard. He was Deist. He rejected Christianity outright, even going so far as to poke a sharp stick in it's eye. I'll go into that more in my next installment. Thomas Paine favored a large inheritance tax and wanted to fund a wealth transfer program with it, in fairness the wealth was being transferred from the dead to the living but still it was a liberal wealth transfer. Thomas Paine was also very anti war. He was very pro-revolution but partially because he believed that revolution against corrupt government prevented international conflict.
So now that I've actually read Thomas Paine I'm confused as to why he's become such a conservative touchstone. Being a liberal myself though I would say that anything that leads people to read this forgotten father of America is ultimately a good thing.
So Agrarian Justice, it's the shortest of Thomas Paine's major writings and probably the least thought through. Thomas Paine advocates establishing an inheritance tax and with the proceeds paying a pension to everyone over the age of 21 and a larger pension to everyone over 50. Now I've often thought of our capitalist system and wondered why there is no minimum standard of living. Why are there houses, especially now, lying empty while there are homeless people fishing by the river? Why are there meals going half eaten and supermarket food being thrown out yet there are also hungry people lining up at the food bank?
I'm not sure Mr. Paine had the math right however. I'm not sure that a modest to severe tax on estates would cover a pension like this. Now I am for an estate tax but for different reasons than this but I believe Mr. Paine's scheme of a generation transfer tax would not be nearly sufficient to promote a minimum standard of living among the living. I mean there are a few people living off of inheritances and all of us enjoy the blessings that the preceding generations left to us but work today must be done and it is a rare few that are able to have a minimum standard of living without it.
In our current system if you don't do a certain amount of work (and are unfortunate enough not to be loved by someone who does) you are unable to enjoy the lavish benefits that our large middle class enjoys. This is incredibly unfair to those that are unfortunate to not be able to do valuable work. The social choice we have made is that those who don't do this work for the most part go without property, fall victims to predatory practices both from corporations and individuals and in extreme cases to the elements. I know that often times those that fall victims to these risks are the young, the disabled and to people who for reasons of sanity or intellect or disorder just aren't able to do the work required. However it does do the trick of putting the whip to the lazy and the would be lazy, and since the world would be much less of a place without their work we are most likely better off altogether.
So Mr. Paine, yes the industrial and agricultural age has robbed us of our birthright of wandering free. Yes it has created a scheme where some have more than they can use and some have less, but as long as my birthright includes clean clothes, good food and Blu-Ray I'm willing to concede that things are working to some extent, but I am open to a better idea if one comes along.