Happy Birthday, Charter of the Forest!

This is the birthday of an important historical document. Eight hundred years ago on this day, 6 November 1217, the Charter of the Forest was first issued. Along with the closely related Magna Carta (1215), it formally and legally established a precedent in the English-speaking world. It was one of the foundations of the English Commons and gave new standing to the commoner as a citizen. And it was one of the precursors for the Rights of Englishmen, Lockean land rights, and the United States Bill of Rights.

The Charter of the Forest didn’t only mean a defense of the rights of commoners for, in doing so, it was a challenge to the rights of rulers. This was a sign of weakening justification and privileges of monarchy. And such a challenge would feed into emerging republicanism during the Renaissance and Reformation, coming into bloom during the early modern era. This populist tradition helped to incite the Peasants’ Revolt, the English Civil War, and the American Revolution. The rights of the Commons inspired the Levellers to fight for popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law, and religious tolerance. And it took even more extreme form in the primitive communism of the Diggers.

Such a charter was one of the expressions of what would later develop into liberal and radical thought during the enlightenment age and the early modern revolutions. Democracy, as we know it, would form out of this. Through the American founders and revolutionary pamphleteers, these legacies and ideas would shape the new world that followed. The ideas would remain potent enough to divide the country during the American Civil War.

We should take seriously what it means that these core Anglo-American traditions have been eroded and their ancient origins largely forgotten. It’s a loss of freedom and a loss of identity.

Who owns the earth?
by Antonia Malchik, Adeon

The commons are just what they sound like: land, waterways, forests, air. The natural resources of our planet that make life possible. Societies throughout history have continually relied on varying systems of commons usage that strove to distribute essential resources equitably, like grazing and agricultural land, clean water for drinking and washing, foraged food, and wood for fuel and building. As far back as 555 CE the commons were written into Roman law, which stated outright that certain resources belonged to all, never owned by a few: ‘By the law of nature these things are common to mankind – the air, running water, the sea and consequently the shores of the sea.’

The power of this tradition is difficult to explain but even more difficult to overstate, and its practice echoes throughout Western history. The Magna Carta, agreed to in 1215 by England’s King John at the insistence of his barons, protected those nobles from losing their lands at the whim of whatever sovereign they were serving. It also laid down the right to a trial by one’s peers, among other individual rights, and is the document widely cited as the foundation of modern democracy.

What is less well-known is the Charter of the Forest, which was agreed to two years later by the regent for Henry III, King John having died in 1216. With the Charter, ‘management of common resources moves from the king’s arbitrary rule’, says Carolyn Harris, a Canadian scholar of the Magna Carta, ‘to the common good’. The Charter granted what are called subsistence rights, the right that ‘[e]very free man may henceforth without being prosecuted make in his wood or in land he has in the forest a mill, a preserve, a pond, a marl-pit, a ditch, or arable outside the covert in arable land, on condition that it does not harm any neighbour’. Included was the permission to graze animals and gather the food and fuel that one needed to live.

These rights went over to America intact and informed that country’s founding fathers as they developed their own system of laws, with a greater emphasis on the rights of commoners to own enough land to live independently. (That this land belonged to the native people who already lived there didn’t factor much into their reasoning.) For Thomas Jefferson, according to law professor Eric T Freyfogle in his 2003 book The Land We Share, ‘[t]he right of property chiefly had to do with a man’s ability to acquire land for subsistence living, at little or no cost: It was a right of opportunity, a right to gain land, not a right to hoard it or to resist public demands that owners act responsibly.’

Benjamin Franklin, too, believed that any property not required for subsistence was ‘the property of the public, who by their laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other laws dispose of it, whenever the welfare of the public shall demand such disposition’. The point was for an individual or family to gain the means for an independent life, not to grow rich from land ownership or to take the resources of the commons out of the public realm. This idea extended to limiting trespassing laws. Hunting on another’s unenclosed land was perfectly legal, as was – in keeping with the Charter of the Forest – foraging.

The land itself, not just the resources it contained, was part of the commons. Consider the implications of this thinking for our times: if access to the means for self-sustenance were truly the right of all, if both public resources and public land could never be taken away or sold, then how much power could the wealthy, a government, or corporations have over everyday human lives?

The idea of the commons isn’t exclusive to English and American history. In Russia, since at least the 1400s and continuing in various forms until the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, land was managed under the mir system, or ‘joint responsibility’, which ensured that everyone had land and resources enough – including tools – to support themselves and their families. Strips of land were broken up and redistributed every so often to reflect changing family needs. Land belonged to the mir as a whole. It couldn’t be taken away or sold. In Ireland from before the 7th century (when they were first written down) to the 17th, Brehon laws served a similar purpose, with entire septs or clans owning and distributing land until invading English landlords carved up the landscape, stripped its residents of ancestral systems and tenancy rights, and established their estates with suppression and violence. The Scottish historian Andro Linklater examines variations on these collective ownership systems in detail in his 2013 book, Owning the Earth: the adat in Iban, crofting in Scotland, the Maori ways of use in New Zealand, peasant systems in India and China and in several Islamic states, and of course on the North American continent before European invasion and settlement.

But the commons are not relics of dusty history. The Kyrgyz Republic once had a successful system of grazing that benefited both herdsmen and the land. Shattered during Soviet times in favour of intensive production, the grazing commons is slowly being reinstated after passage of a Pasture Law in 2009, replacing a system of private leases with public use rights that revolve around ecological knowledge and are determined by local communities. In Fiji, villages have responded to pressures from overfishing and climate change by adopting an older system of temporary bans on fishing called tabu. An article in the science magazine Nautilus describes the formation of locally managed Marine Protected Areas that use ancient traditions of the commons, and modern scientific understanding, to adapt these communal fishing rights and bans to the changing needs of the ecosystem.

Preservation of the commons has not, then, been completely forgotten. But it has come close. The commons are, essentially, antithetical both to capitalism and to limitless private profit, and have therefore been denigrated and abandoned in many parts of the world for nearly two centuries.

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The Communist Commons

There is a nexus of issues: property and ownership, land and Lockean rights, the Commons and enclosure, free range and fences. This has been a longtime interest of mine. It goes back to the enclosure movement in England. It led to tumultuous conflict in England and Ireland. This then set the stage for the issues in the American colonies that brought on revolution. The issues remain unsettled going into the 19th century.

There are many angles to this, but I would first offer some background. Traditional European society, as with other traditional societies, was built on various notions of shared land and shared rights. This was well established in the land known as the Commons and guaranteed as part of common law and the rights of commoners (what in the colonies came to be thought of as the rights of Englishmen), established by precedent which is to say centuries old tradition involving centuries of legal cases, going back to the early history of the “Charter of the Forest” and Quo Warranto.

In writing about Thomas Paine’s ‘radicalism’, I noted that it particularly “took shape with the Country Party, the “Country” referring to those areas where both the Commons survived the longest and radical politics began the earliest; the strongholds of the Diggers and Levellers, the Puritans and Quakers; the areas of the much older Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Scandinavian ancestries.” From another post that was even more scathing, it is made clear what are the consequences of the true radicalism of early capitalism in privatizing what was public: “The land enclosure movement shredded the social contract and upended the entire social order. It was the most brazen act of theft in English history. It was theft from the many to profit the few.”

This is how millions of English and Irish serfs were made landless and impoverished. In droves, they headed for the cities where many of them died of sickness and starvation. Others were imprisoned, hung, put into workhouses, or sent overseas as indentured servants. Yet more died along the way. Once they were inseparable from the land they lived on, but now their lives were cheapened and so their lives became brutal and short. The earliest indentured servants rarely lived long enough to see the end of their indenture. Those like Thomas Paine saw all of this firsthand and experienced some of it on a personal level.

This is the world out of which the American Revolution was fomented and a new nation founded. The issues themselves, however, remained unresolved. This should be unsurprising, considering Europeans had been fighting over these issues for millennia. Still, for most of history, there was a shared worldview. John Locke wrote about the right of land being based on who used it and improved upon it, but this was simply what most people took as common sense going back into the mists of the ancient world. Feudal serfs thought they had a right to the land that they and their ancestors had lived and worked on for centuries. Native Americans assumed the same thing. Yet Lockean land rights, without any sense of irony, was implemented as rhetoric to justify the theft of land.

Even so, the old worldview died slowly. The notion of private property is a modern invention. It remained a rather fuzzy social construct in the centuries immediately following the Enlightenment thinkers. This was particularly true in the American colonies and later on the frontier of the United States, as claims of land ownership were an endless point of contention. The same land might get sold multiple times. Plus, squatter’s rights had a Lockean basis. Use was the primary justification of ownership, not a legal document.

In early America, there was such vast tracts of uninhabited land. It was assumed that land was open to anyone’s use, unless clearly fenced in. Even if it was known who owned land, law initially made clear that others were free to hunt and forage on any land that wasn’t enclosed by a fence. Both humans and livestock ranged freely. It was the responsibility of owners to protect their property and crops from harm: “Livestock could range freely, and it was a farmer’s responsibility to fence in his crops and to fence out other people’s animals!” This was the origin of the open range for cattle that later on caused violent conflict in the Wild West when, like the wealthy elite back in England, ranchers enclosed public land with claims of private ownership. Barbed wire became the greatest weapon ever devised for use against the commons.

This struggle over land and rights was an issue early on. But the ancient context was already being forgotten. The traditional social order was meaningless in this modern liberal society where claims to rights were individualistic, not communal. Not long after the American Revolution, James Fenimore Cooper had inherited much family land. It apparently wasn’t being used by the property owner and, according to custom, the locals treated it as a public park. Cooper was offended at this act of trespass defended in the his neighbors making a Lockean-like claim of their use of the land. It wasn’t fenced in, as law required, to deny use by the public.

There was a simple reason for this early attitude toward land. It was an anti-aristocratic response to land accumulation. The purpose was to guarantee that no one could deny use of land that they weren’t using. This meant someone couldn’t buy up all the land in monopolistic fashion. Land had one purpose only in this worldview, in terms of its usefulness to humans. Basically, use it or lose it. And many people did lose their land according to such claims of use. That remains true to this day in US law. If a neighbor or the public uses your land for a certain period of time without your challenging their use, a legal claim can be made on it by those who have been using it. In many states, a squatter in a building can go through a legal process to make a claim of ownership.

The conflict involving Cooper and his neighbors was a minor skirmish in a larger battle. It only became a central concern with the large numbers of immigrants putting greater pressure on land ownership. This was exacerbated by conflicts with Native Americans, such as President Andrew Jackson’s forced removal of multiple tribes that had sought to gain legitimacy of legal rights to their land such as building houses and farming, along with assimilating to American culture. This act was the blatant betrayal of Lockean land rights and of the entire justification of law. These tribal members were free citizens of the United States who had both legal title and Lockean claim.

Tensions grew even worse after the Civil War. That was when settlers claiming land ownership came into conflict with both Native Americans and open range cowboys. Then as the railroads encroached, many squatters were kicked off their land, Lockean land rights be damned once again. Interestingly, Abraham Lincoln as a young lawyer worked for the railroad companies in kicking these poor people off their own land. As president, Lincoln wasn’t any kinder to the Native Americans, for the progress of capitalism superseded all quaint notions of rights and ownership.

Another point of conflict was Emancipation (see Ballots and Fence Rails by William McKee Evans). All of the freed blacks became a major problem for the racial order, not unlike how feudal serfs had to be dealt with when feudalism ended. Emancipation also caused disarray in relation to land and property. The Civil War decimated the South. In the process, a large number of Southerners were killed or displaced. There was no one to tell blacks what to do and so they went about living their own lives, squatting wherever they so pleased as long as it wasn’t occupied by anyone else. There was plenty of land for the taking.

This was intolerable to the white ruling class, despite it being entirely within the law. Fraudulent charges were brought against blacks with accusations of trespass, theft, and poaching. It was assumed that anything a black had couldn’t rightfully be theirs and so everything was taken from them, even property they had bought with money made with their own labor. Blacks were often forced off their land and made to return to their former plantations, now as sharecroppers… or else made into forced prison labor, since the law only made private and not public slavery illegal.

All of this led to property laws becoming more narrow and legalistic. Over time, further restrictions were placed on the public use of lands. The Depression Era was the last time when large numbers of Americans were able to live off of the commons. My mother’s family survived the Depression by hunting and foraging on public land and on open private land, as did millions of other Americans at that time. Yet conflicts still happen, such as the Bundy standoff where ranchers thinking they were cowboys in the Wild West pointed guns at federal agents over a disagreement about grazing rights on public lands. It’s amusing that these right-wingers, however misguided in their understanding of the situation, were fighting for the public right to the commons.

On Infrastructure and Injustice

There is the issue of public infrastructure and who pays for it. My dad brought it up to me and it led to an argument. He couldn’t understand why there was a national discussion about fixing infrastructure. And he seemed to assume that it was citizens and local leaders demanding this. But I’m not sure why he made that assumption.

First, this ignores that it is being talked about because the Republican president made it a main point of his proclaimed agenda. Trump campaigned on progressive-sounding rhetoric, including a promise for a New New Deal program for rebuilding infrastructure. He and those representing him repeated this promise many times. So, considering Trump is now president, all of this is coming from a federal level. The kind of infrastructure being discussed is such things as bridges, the kind of thing that politicians like to focus on. But most people don’t sit around thinking about bridges.

That brings me to a second point. The kind of infrastructure that concerns people is much more basic. They want a paved road so that they can more easily get to work and more quickly get back home after work to take care of their family. They worry about affording basic healthcare for easily treatable diseases and having clean water so that their children don’t get brain damage from lead toxicity. They would like reliable access to electricity, phone lines, etc. These were the priorities of the New Deal and the War on Poverty. These are fairly basic things that we expect in a modern industrialized society, the prerequisite for a functioning social democracy for all citizens.

The people most effected with infrastructure problems are the poor. This leads to multiple problems in solving these problems. Many poor people live in poor communities, oftentimes because of a history of racial segregation. Poor communities have poorly funded governments. But more importantly, it’s not just poverty. It is how that poverty is created.

The government regularly gives away trillions of dollars of public wealth to corporations, not just subsidies and bailouts but even more through cheap access to natural resources on public lands, which is to say from the commons that belongs as much to future generations (not to mention the money spent help corporations on the international market, including using military force to ensure they also have cheap access to natural resources on foreign public lands). By the way, the infrastructure to access those publicly-owned natural resources is typically built by government for free, for the sole purpose of the benefit of wealthy private interests who just so happen to donate lots of money to key campaigns and political organizations. The poverty we have in the US is enforced by those in power, not natural or God-given.

People don’t have a right to demand that their government serves their interests, that is the argument my dad makes. It’s obviously an insincere argument. What he means is that he doesn’t believe a government should serve anyone’s interests but the privileged, the worthy and deserving, ya know, people like him. Everyone else should solve their own  problems or else suffer. But that is mind-boggling ignorance. Civil Rights leaders attempted to solve their own problems at a local level, but were met with resistance and oppression. Residents in poor communities dealing with lead toxicity have attempted to solve their own problems at a local level, but officials and governments have ignored them. It usually takes decades or generations of local struggle before higher levels of government ever take notice, assuming their is a large enough protest movement or legal case to force them to take notice.

The thing is my dad acts like we have a functioning democracy, even as he knows we don’t. Besides, the fact of the matter is that he doesn’t want a functioning democracy. His argument against federal government being involved in local affairs is an argument that the federal government should not be democratic, should not represent the public nor serve the public good, should not be of the people, by the people, for the people. But he can’t admit it, not even to himself, because his actual beliefs are so morally horrendous.

It isn’t just about federal government. The same argument applies at the state level and even further down. Why should state taxpayers help with the problems at the level of communities? As far as that goes, why should the taxpayers in urban areas of a county pay for the infrastructure of rural areas of the same county? Heck, why should the wealthy people in one neighborhood help the poor people in the same city have access to basic utilities? Why have public goods at all? Why not make every all infrastructure privately owned? Why have any government at all since, as the right-wingers claim, taxation is theft and government isn’t possible without such supposed theft? Why not instead have a world of individuals where it is a constant war of one against all? As Margaret Thatcher said, “there is no such thing as society.”

If you don’t have the money, then you shouldn’t be allowed to drive anywhere, drink clean water, or go on living — who is paying for that air you’re breathing, you pneumatic welfare queen! That is the principled libertarian solution. How dare those who suffer and struggle demand a basic response of human decency and compassion! It’s not the privileged controlling the government and the economy who are authoritarians. No, it’s the poor people crying out in desperation who are the real oppressors.

My dad (and people like him) don’t understand and don’t want to understand the very system he benefits from. But on some level, I know he understands. That is the thing that bothers me. My dad is not ignorant, even when he pretends to not know something. I know what he knows because of past discussions we’ve had. Yet each new discussion begins from a point of feigned ignorance, with a denial of what had been previously discussed. It’s frustrating.

If my dad didn’t have his privilege, if he and his family were being racially oppressed, economically segregated, and slowly poisoned by the only water they have access to, if he and his neighbors were politically suppressed and if the government refused to even acknowledge his existence other than to hire more police to keep him in his place, if there had been a long history of political failure at the local level, if wealthy and powerful interests almost always got their way no matter the harm to local residents, would my dad honestly resign himself with libertarian moral righteousness that it was all his fault and that he must be punished for his suffering because his poverty is proof of his inferiority? Would he watch his loved ones suffer and do nothing? Would he just lay down and die? No, he wouldn’t.

It’s not just conservatives such as my dad. I see the same thing with disconnected liberals, in their attitude toward poor people when they vote the wrong way or when a homeless camp appears in a nearby park, and then all the good liberal intentions quickly disappear. I see how easy people are turned against each other, no matter their ideology. And I see how easy ideology becomes rationalization. It reminds one of how quickly an authoritarian government can emerge.

As the desperate unsurprisingly act desperate, the upper classes will demand a response and it won’t be to help alleviate that desperation. It will be a demand for law and order, by violent force if necessary. Put them down and put them in their place. Put them in prisons, ghettos, internment camps, or maybe even concentration camps. Just make them go away or somehow make them invisible and silenced.

The line of thought my dad is following down can only lead to one place, increasing authoritarianism. Without a functioning democracy, there is nowhere else for our society to go. Either that or eventually revolution. So, apparently my dad is hoping for an authoritarian government so oppressive that it effectively stops both democracy and revolution, forcing local people to deal with their own problems in misery and despair. That is the world that good citizens and good Christians, the good people like my dad, are helping to create.

What happens when those who could have done something to stop the horror finally see the world they have chosen, their beliefs and values made manifest?

But Then It Was Too Late

They Thought They Were Free
by Milton Mayer
ch. 13

Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

What then? You must then shoot yourself. A few did. Or ‘adjust’ your principles. Many tried, and some, I suppose, succeeded; not I, however. Or learn to live the rest of your life with your shame. This last is the nearest there is, under the circumstances, to heroism: shame. Many Germans became this poor kind of hero, many more, I think, than the world knows or cares to know.

* * *

Later on, I was able to have a more fruitful conversation with my dad. That emphasizes what was so frustrating in that argument earlier. I know he is capable of understanding the point I was making. But something about it so often triggers him. It’s so easy for social conservatives to fall back on such things as Social Darwinism, as almost a default mode.

It’s not like I’m a great defender of big government. Most people aren’t for big government on principle. Few would turn to a government any larger than is necessary. The first response the average person has is to seek what solutions might be had nearby. They only turn elsewhere when all immediate possibilities are frustrated or denied. This isn’t about big versus small government. It’s simply about government that functions democratically, on any and all levels.

So, I finally found a way to communicate this to my dad. But it is always a struggle. If I don’t frame it in the exact right way, he reacts with right-wing ideology. I have to put it into conservative terms of community and social fabric.

I find that a shame because the framing I’d prefer is simple honest concern for other humans, as if they mattered. I don’t want to live in a society where I have to carefully frame every argument in order to not accidentally elicit knee-jerk prejudices. I wish we were beyond that point. I wish we could have discussions that went straight to the problems themselves, instead having to first somehow prove that those suffering are worthy of our compassion.

I did apologize to my dad for getting so upset with him and lashing out at him. It’s not what I want. But these debates aren’t academic. It’s real people suffering, millions of Americans. These people don’t care if it is local or national government that helps them solve problems. They just want a better life for themselves and their children. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for. I have no apology for caring.

Interestingly, one way I got my dad’s mind onto a new track of thinking is by sharing a passage from a book. It was something I had read yesterday, about old school progressives. For some reason, maybe because of the framing of religious moral reform, the following passage was able to shift our dialogue.

American Character
by Colin Woodard
pp. 134-135

When another terrible depression shook the country in 1893, reform movements sprang up across its northern tiers. Like the Massachusetts Brahmins, these turn-of-the-century Progressives weren’t opposed to free-market capitalism or Lockean individualism, but they did believe that laissez-faire was destroying both. Their philosophical mentor was the sociologist Lester Ward, the son of old New Englanders who had settled in the Yankee north of Illinois, and who became the greatest foe of Herbert Spencer and the social Darwinists. “How can . . . true individualism be secured and complete freedom of individual action be vouchsafed?” Ward asked in 1893. “Herein lies a social paradox . . . that individual freedom can only come through social regulation.” He elaborated a theory of collective action to maintain the conditions required to keep individuals free:

Such a powerful weapon as reason is unsafe in the hands of one individual when wielded against another. It is still more dangerous in the hands of corporations, which proverbially have no souls. It is most baneful of all in the hands of compound corporations which seek to control the wealth of the world. It is only safe when employed by the social ego, emanating from the collective brain of society, and directed toward securing the common interests of the social organism.

It was in essence the approach Massachusetts had been taking for decades, which would now be adopted by insurgents in other parts of Yankeedom (Jane Addams in northern Illinois, Charles Evans Hughes in upstate New York, and Robert LaFollette in Wisconsin), the Midlands (William Jennings Bryan in eastern Nebraska), and New Netherland (where Herbert Croly helped found the New Republic in 1914 and from whence came the movement’s greatest figures, Al Smith and Theodore Roosevelt).

Teddy Roosevelt, who served as president from 1901 to 1909, broke up Standard Oil, Northern Securities (which controlled both the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railways), the American Tobacco Company, and other great corporate trusts; intervened in a major mining strike to secure a solution beneficial to workers; and founded the National Park Service, national wildlife refuges, and the U.S. Forest Service. He presided over the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906, and the Hepburn Act, which regulated railroad fares. His goal, he told a rapt audience at the laying of the cornerstone of the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1907, was to restore the spirit of the early Puritans, who yoked the individualistic Protestant work ethic to communitarian goals and institutions. “The Puritan owed his extraordinary success in subduing this continent and making it the foundation for a social life of ordered liberty primarily to the fact that he combined in a very remarkable degree both the power of individual initiative, of individual self-help, and the power of acting in combination with his fellows,” he said. “He could combine with others whenever it became necessary to do a job which could not be as well done by any one man individually. . . . The spirit of the Puritan . . . never shrank from regulation of conduct if such regulation was necessary for the public weal; and it is this spirit which we must show today whenever it is necessary.”

 

Basic Income: Basic Solutions for Basic Problems

The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.

~ Martin Luther King Jr.

A basic income is an interesting proposition. For one, it is a fundamentally American idea.

In the form of a citizen’s dividend, it goes back to Thomas Paine through his recognition of the significance of the loss of the Commons to the average person. The founders understood the value of land and having access to it, and they realized it was upon land that economies and lives were built. The early government lacked an income tax for the reason the federal government was able to gain so much money from the sale and taxation of land. Paine’s insight was that financial gain from public resources, especially when given away and privatized, should be shared to some minimal degree with the citizens that the government constitutionally represents.

Later American thinkers such as the 19th century Henry George had related ideas. Like Paine, he supported free markets and the private use of land. Also, like Paine, he saw land taxes as a way of dealing with the social problems related to the loss of access to land and its value.

All wealth originates from land. The reason for this is because everything procured and made comes from natural resources, including human lives and communities (a close, entangled relationship existing between natural capital, economic capital, and social capital). All natural resources were public before they were private. All private gains made from natural resources is at least in part wealth removed not just from the public domain but also from future generations. This a touchy issue for Americans, as our country was founded on the notion of consent of the governed, which was understood by the founders to mean that one generation of citizens shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions for and force costs upon future generations of citizens. It’s the worst form of externalization, for those future generations don’t necessarily even get any of the benefits for what they end up paying.

Americans, in particular, have ignored these realities. We could do so, for in the early centuries of our country, Americans could fool themselves into thinking that land and natural resources were practically infinite. The government’s giving away of the Commons for free or below-market value seemed like a necessary incentive for growth, not a theft from the public good. In recent generations, this privatization of gains and externalization or rather socialization of costs has become more difficult to ignore.

The implementation of a basic income is a way of evening out of the playing field that has, through past political policies (along with plutocratic maneuverings), been intentionally or unintentionally made uneven. A basic income doesn’t eliminate the faux meritocracy and rigid socioeconomic hierarchy, but it does lessen the sting of the harshest consequences. The challenge posed becomes an ever more present problem as increases are seen with the mechanization of jobs and the related rates of unemployment and underemployment. Average wages have been stagnating, median wages have been decreasing, buying power for basic goods has taken a hit, economic mobility has fallen, the middle class is shrinking, economic inequality is growing, and on and on. An entire permanent underclass is forming in this new economy.

One solution made popular came from the Progressive Era. Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed everyone had the right to work, with government as the employer of last resort. This was understandable during a time of growing industrialization. It makes less sense under present conditions. Neither the job market or welfare is keeping up with the economic problems facing so many Americans. If real work isn’t available, creating pointless busy work doesn’t seem all that productive or inspiring of a solution, not to argue that public service can’t be a worthy form of work.

The point is: What end is work supposed to serve, if and when it no longer serves a market purpose? Real work or not, the government as an employer of last could end up being more expensive than present welfare and almost certainly would be more expensive than a basic income. How much would be willing to pay for employment for its own sake?

This line of thought could explain why a basic income has gained support from across the political spectrum. Even many libertarians are getting on board, as they see it as an attractive and viable alternative to a growing welfare state and the bureaucracy that goes along with it. Also, many people in general see as a failure such things as the call for raising the minimum wage, either a failure on practical grounds or a failure of imagination. A minimum wage just shifts the costs around, but it doesn’t alter the fundamental conditions and solve the fundamental problem. Sometimes shifting costs around is a necessary evil, as someone has to pay the costs (both financial and social), and at least the minimum wage is an acknowledgement of the problem itself, but maybe we should look to the systemic causes that go beyond any particular segment of the economy, even if one thinks raising the minimum wage is a partial or temporary solution. Basic income can exist with or without a minimum wage, for if the basic income is high enough a minimum wage simply becomes irrelevant and so would become useless as a political football.

A basic income obviously goes much further than present mainstream solutions. It turns a probing eye toward how public resources get allocated in the first place. It pushes the debate back to first principles and it questions upon what basis should our economy be built (not just the basis of politics and markets, but also that of the social values and moral vision). Also, it puts public costs and benefits squarely in the realm of public decisions to be made, not shifting the responsibility to private employers. A basic income could be designed in many ways, but it doesn’t even require an increase of taxes or any other form of altering the cost equation in the private sphere. It could be fully financed either through a redirecting of present welfare funds or through ensuring the economic value of natural resources is used toward this public good (or a combination of the two). I’m sure that diverse other funding possibilities are available as well.

As many realize, our present economic situation isn’t stable or necessarily even sustainable. We too often forget that this arrangement of capitalist employment is only a few centuries old, feudalism having had just come to an end as the US was being founded (and slavery extending feudal-like conditions well into the capitalist era). Traditional forms of economics existed for millennia prior to modern economics. Even within recent centuries, capitalism has changed drastically. Further changes are inevitable. We will have to deal with this, one way or another. The loss of jobs through better technology and more efficient markets could be seen as a sad fate, but it could also be seen as an opportunity to build a new kind of society.

Anyway, there is never a lack of work that could be done. Most of the work people already do is unofficial and unpaid, from raising children to community-building, from church activities to volunteerism, along with endless other wanted and unwanted activities that whittle away one’s time. Having more freedom and leisure could mean more time spent with family, community, and church; more time growing fresh fruits and vegetables and cooking healthy meals; more time building social capital, participating in democracy, and implementing social innovations; even more time to seek education and training to find better and more satisfying employment.

The problem for Americans has never been laziness. If anything, we’ve been obsessed with work to an unhealthy degree. America is the land of the Protestant work ethic. The question is how do we turn this drive to work toward ends that are economically sustainable, socially beneficial, personally satisfying, and politically liberating. How do we increase opportunities and access for people to have better lives, for themselves, their families, and their communities? Even during this time of increasing unemployment/underemployment and economic inequality, the economy is growing. The problem is obviously not a lack of resources and productivity. Rather, it is an issue of what kind of society we want to live in, not just for some of us but for all of us.

Don’t forget the alternative. We could always choose to live in a society with a mass population of a permanent underclass. Instead of something like a basic income, we could have increasing rates of poverty, welfare, ghettoization, crime, gangs, black markets, and imprisonment. That is the choice we are making at present by default. There is no indication that these problems are going to inevitably lessen through natural forces, market mechanisms, or somehow otherwise solve themselves.

Whether or not we do so consciously and intentionally, we are always making choices. Changing conditions means both new problems and new opportunities, and hence new potential choices.

* * * *

Related previous posts:

Bullshit Jobs

Governing Under the Influence

Our Bleak Future: Robots and Mass Incarceration

Worthless Non-Workers

Whose Work Counts? Who Gets Counted?

Working Hard, But For What?

Work Ethic: Denomination, Region, Ethnicity

No, The Poor Aren’t Undeserving Moral Reprobates

Structural Racism and Personal Responsibility

To Be Poor, To Be Black, To Be Poor and Black

Where Liberty and Freedom Converge

Every Freedom Comes At A Cost of Freedom

The Cultural Determinants of a Voluntary Society

Ask A Cow What It Is To Be Free

Neoliberalism: Dream & Reality

A Sign of Decline?

Morality-Punishment Link

Earthbound Capitalism and the Frontiers of Space

To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park

Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park

The Desperate Acting Desperately

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination

* * * *

Relevant articles:

Mincome: A Guaranteed Income for All Americans

However, in his book, author Charles Murray concedes that a mincome-like plan may not be realistic… yet. “I began this thought experiment by asking you to ignore that the Plan was politically impossible today,” he wrote. “I end proposing that something like the Plan is politically inevitable — not next year, but sometime.”

Guaranteed Annual Income – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Guaranteed minimum income – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Mincome – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Basic income – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Global basic income – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

List of basic income models – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Category:Basic income by country and region – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Citizen’s dividend – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Asset-based egalitarianism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Agrarian Justice – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Geolibertarianism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Georgism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Land value tax – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Rent-seeking – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Value capture – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Reserve army of labour – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Economic democracy – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Four Freedoms – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Right to an adequate standard of living – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Second Bill of Rights – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Why We Need Movement Of Free People

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and Thomas Spence (1750-1814) on land ownership, land taxes and the provision of citizens’ dividend

Debate Argument: Georgism Should be Implemented in the United States | Debate.org

Martin Luther King Jr. Where do we go from here

Martin Luther King’s Case for a Guaranteed Basic Income

Martin Luther King’s Economic Dream: A Guaranteed Income for All Americans

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Solution to Poverty

MLK’s Other Dream: Economic Justice and a Guaranteed Annual Income

Four ways Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to battle inequality

Guaranteed income’s moment in the sun | Remapping Debate

Should the government pay you to be alive? – The Boston Globe

A Brief History of Basic Income Ideas

15 quotes that show Basic Income is the way forward

Wealth and Want: Citizen Dividends

EmbraceUnity » The Basic Income is Dead

Negative Income Tax: How does it differ from basic income?

Universal Basic Income versus Unemployment Insurance- Working Papers – St. Louis Fed

Unconditional basic income + flat income tax = effectively progressive income tax

Universal Basic Income as the Social Vaccine of the 21st Century

The Basic Affordability of Basic Income

EconoMonitor : Ed Dolan’s Econ Blog » The Economic Case for a Universal Basic Income (Part 1 of a series)

EconoMonitor : Ed Dolan’s Econ Blog » Could We Afford a Universal Basic Income? (Part 2 of a Series)

EconoMonitor : Ed Dolan’s Econ Blog » A Universal Basic Income: Conservative, Progressive, and Libertarian Perspectives (Part 3 of a Series)

Funding Universal Basic Income by Creating Money, Not Taxes

The Pragmatic Case for a Universal Basic Income

Ten Reasons to Support Basic Income

Three Trends That Will Create Demand for an Unconditional Basic Income

If We No Longer Force People to Work to Meet Their Basic Needs, Won’t They Stop Working?

it’s all one thing: Four problems with work requirements for Basic Income

The Case For A Basic Income Guarantee

Krugman’s Argument In Favor Of A Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income gets mentioned to John Stossel on Fox News

Why the Tech Elite Is Getting Behind Universal Basic Income | VICE | United States

Vice on Universal Basic Income: A Response

Interview: Neil Jacobstein Discusses Future of Jobs, Universal Basic Income and the Ethical Dangers of AI – Singularity HUB

Afraid of Robots Taking Your Job? You Should Be

How to pay for such an outlandish idea? Tax the rich, particularly the truly rich. Our current tax brackets often fail to distinguish between someone who makes, say, $500,000 and $5 million. But this difference matters, as does the difference between $5 million and $50 million. To simplify things, let the Google and Nike and Narrative Sciences executives eliminate all the jobs they please, as long as their taxes support a guaranteed minimum income.

The Future Threat to Middle America No One Is Talking About

Why trucking matters: The country was built on transportation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1.6 million long-haul truckers and 2.8 million truckers are in the workforce. The American Trucking Association estimates an additional 5.2 million people are employed by the trucking industry who aren’t drivers. That includes operations managers, sales personnel, repair staff and instructors.

Trucking creates an ecosystem of towns and businesses fed by the steady flow of human drivers who stop along their route for basic necessities. Scott Santens, a blogger about basic income and automation, wrote on Medium:

“Those working in these restaurants and motels along truck-driving routes are also consumers within their own local economies. Think about what a server spends her paycheck and tips on in her own community, and what a motel maid spends from her earnings into the same community. That spending creates other paychecks in turn. So now we’re not only talking about millions more who depend on those who depend on truck drivers, but we’re also talking about entire small town communities full of people who depend on all of the above in more rural areas. With any amount of reduced consumer spending, these local economies will shrink.”

Those truckers are like nutrients moving along the roots and outer branches of the middle American tree — and when robots don’t need to pull over to spend their money at rest stops, each of those secondary services loses its viability. According to independent research reports as recent as May, the truck stop and convenience store business alone is a $450 billion industry.

If self-driving trucks take over the roads, that puts 70% of the nation’s freight shipping in the hands of capable robots. That is, if the trucks of the future are all they’re cracked up to be.

Will self-driving trucks actually take over the industry? Detractors say the change toward automation will happen so gradually that the industry won’t be irreparably disrupted. Bloomberg economy columnist Megan McArdle argues:

“Overall, I think Santens is right that eventually, we’ll solve the problems and self-driving trucks will displace a lot of drivers. That will be good news, because truck accidents are extremely deadly. But I expect the number of jobs lost will be smaller than he thinks, and the change will be slower. So while eventually a set of former drivers will have to figure out what to do with their freed time, that’s likely to be a problem for the next generation of truckers, not this one.”

Martin Ford, author of a recent book on automation called Rise of the Robots, told Mic a number of other factors will prevent self-driving trucks from taking over. To start: They’re extraordinarily heavy objects to be moving around populated roads without drivers, and that any computer system is likely to have its security issues. “The technology might be there, but it’s going to take some time,” he said.

Another argument against the rapid loss of jobs is the concept that, like dozens of industrial transformations in human history, this change will create other kinds of jobs, like maintaining the automated trucks.

But Santens disagrees. “When we mechanized farming, we transitioned to services — but now we’ve hit this part where instead of automating muscle power, we’re automating brain power,” Santens told Mic. “Suddenly, all this work we’ve been shifted to is automatable. There’s a belief there will be all these new jobs. And yes, there will be some, but not the millions on millions that will be lost.”

Trucking in the U.S. was a stable, reliable source of income for millions of Americans. But now, as the sector explodes with new job opportunities in the short term, driver pay is also at a decadelong low.

But self-driving trucks are arriving soon. Even if, as McArdle argues, this is far enough off in the future that only the next generation of truckers will be affected, we’ll need to find many of those drivers new job opportunities. Jobs that can’t be immediately automated — a classification of career that’s becoming smaller and smaller in scope.

Basic income paid to the poor can transform lives

The main conclusion is that a basic income can be transformative. It had four effects, most accentuated by the presence of the collective body.

First, it had strong welfare, or “capability”, effects. There were improvements in child nutrition, child and adult health, schooling attendance and performance, sanitation, economic activity and earned incomes, and the socio-economic status of women, the elderly and the disabled.

Second, it had strong equity effects. It resulted in bigger improvements for scheduled caste and tribal households, and for all vulnerable groups, notably those with disabilities and frailties. This was partly because the basic income was paid to each individual, strengthening their bargaining position in the household and community.

Third, it had growth effects. Contrary to what sceptics predicted (including Sonia Gandhi), the basic incomes resulted in more economic activity and work.

Conventional labour statistics would have picked that up inadequately. There was a big increase in secondary economic activities, as well as a shift from casual wage labour to own-account farming and small-scale business. Growth in village economies is often ignored. It should not be.

Fourth, it had emancipatory effects. These are unappreciated by orthodox development thinkers. The poor’s liberty has no value. But the basic income resulted in some families buying themselves out of debt bondage, others paying down exorbitant debts incurring horrendous interest rates. For many, it provided liquidity with which to respond to shocks and hazards. In effect, the basic income responded to the fact that in such villages money is a scarce commodity, and as such that has driven up its price, locking most in a perpetual cycle of debt and deprivation.

A bipartisan proposal to make a universal basic income a reality in America

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

A Universal Basic Income Is The Bipartisan Solution To Poverty We’ve Been Waiting For

But would it actually work? The evidence from actual experiments is limited, though it’s more positive than not. A pilot in the 1970s in Manitoba, Canada, showed that a “Mincome” not only ended poverty but also reduced hospital visits and raised high-school completion rates. There seemed to be a community-affirming effect, which showed itself in people making use of free public services more responsibly.

Meanwhile, there were eight “negative income tax” trials in the U.S. in the ’70s, where people received payments and the government clawed back most of it in taxes based on your other income. The results for those trials was more mixed. They reduced poverty, but people also worked slightly less than normal. To some, this is the major drawback of basic income: it could make people lazier than they would otherwise be. That would certainly be a problem, though it’s questionable whether, in the future, there will be as much employment anyway. The age of robots and artificial intelligence seems likely to hollow out many jobs, perhaps changing how we view notions of laziness and productivity altogether.

Experiments outside the U.S. have been more encouraging. One in Namibia cut poverty from 76% to 37%, increased non-subsidized incomes, raised education and health standards, and cut crime levels. Another involving 6,000 people in India paid people $7 month—about a third of subsistence levels. It, too, proved successful.

“The important thing is to create a floor on which people can start building some security. If the economic situation allows, you can gradually increase the income to where it meets subsistence,” says Guy Standing, a professor of development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London, who was involved with the pilot. “Even that modest amount had incredible effects on people’s savings, economic status, health, in children going to school, in the acquisition of items like school shoes, so people felt in control of their lives. The amount of work people were doing increased as well.”

Given the gridlock in Congress, it’s unlikely we’ll see basic income here for a while. Though the idea has supporters in both left and right-leaning think-tanks, it’s doubtful actual politicians could agree to redesign much of the federal government if they can’t agree on much else. But the idea could take off in poorer countries that have more of a blank slate and suffer from less polarization. Perhaps we’ll re-import the concept one day once the developing world has perfected it?

From basic income to social dividends: sharing the value of common resources

Rethinking basic income in a sharing society

This model of economic sharing recognizes that all citizens have a right to income from the commons—such as land and other resources that are either inherited or co-created by society. Although this approach is rarely part of the popular discourse on implementing a citizen’s income scheme, the idea can be traced back to the work of the American revolutionary Thomas Paine, who stated that “the earth, in its natural, cultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race.”

As explained by Peter Barnes in his book With Liberty and Dividends for All, the majority of the wealth that’s inherited or created in society is captured and extracted by the rich, rather than distributed fairly among citizens. Meanwhile, the damaging social and environmental costs of this process are largely borne by the public or the biosphere. The simple idea at the heart of most proposals for a social dividend is therefore to charge user fees on shared resources, which can then be distributed to all citizens as a basic right.

Although an agency would initially have to be set up by governments to administer the program, it would operate independently of the private and public sector as a ‘commons trust’ that could conceivably manage a range of shared resources—from land, fossil fuels and atmospheric carbon storage, to the electromagnetic spectrum and intellectual property. According to calculations by Barnes based only on a specific selection of shared assets, the program could provide every American citizen with as much as $5,000 a year.

The real advantage of a social dividend from resource rents is that it would facilitate, rather than impede, the creation of a more equal society that embodies the ethic and practice of sharing. Unlike the standard basic income proposal, this alternative approach would not compete with existing welfare budgets, and it would therefore complement solidarity-based systems of social protection.

The social dividend also acknowledges that all citizens are entitled to a fair share of co-owned wealth and resources, which is a commonsense proposal with the potential to dramatically reform economic systems and enhance social cohesion. Since the value of common resources would be shared more equitably, social dividends present an important systemic solution to poverty that can counterbalance the injustice of a global economic model in which wealth predominantly flows to the richest one per cent of the world’s population.

In line with some of the common arguments made in favor of a basic income, social dividends would also increase our sense of personal freedom, since people would no longer feel forced to do menial or difficult jobs that they would otherwise undertake reluctantly or for reasons of survival. This would leave them free to devote more time to creative, cultural and caring pursuits, sparking a much-needed debate on the nature and purpose of work at a time when the escalating environmental crisis necessitates a radically new economic model that is no longer predicated on consumption-driven economic growth.

Furthermore, social dividends could have a transformative impact on individuals and communities, which could pave the way for more extensive changes across society. The additional income received by individuals could help sustain the indispensable unpaid activities that take place in the core economy by giving people the freedom to act on their inner desires to give or be of real service to others. This includes raising children and caring for the elderly, maintaining community relationships and mutual support networks, and participating in voluntary action and civil society organizations.

According to Edgar Cahn, the core economy produces “love and caring, coming to each other’s rescue, democracy and social justice”, which is why there is a clear imperative to rebuild and strengthen this fundamental aspect of society that is increasingly under assault. The profound relationship between genuine compassion and the creation of a more equal world was also vividly expressed by Martin Luther King, who once declared that “Standing beside love is always justice.”

Embodied in these insights is the hope that strengthening the bonds of love, empathy and reciprocity within communities could spark a cultural shift in favor of social justice, and that this could eventually find expression in democratic institutions and policy debates. By helping to resuscitate a rapidly diminishing core economy, a basic income derived from the value of collectively owned resources could therefore empower citizens to take a crucial first step in the co-creation of a truly sharing society.

The Aquarian Agrarian: Conservatives for Georgism and a Social Market Economy

The Conservative Case for a Guaranteed Basic Income

Why reform conservatives should embrace a universal basic income

While Ryan’s expansion of the EITC is a good idea, it can’t address the bargaining power issue because getting the EITC is dependent on getting a job. So, like much of the rest of America’s social safety net, it can’t be used as leverage against an employer. Only a non-market wage of some sort can. By providing a little financial breathing room, a UBI would combat labor market slack and let more workers say “no” to jobs that don’t come with decent pay and sane schedules.

Unfortunately, this is also what makes reformocons nervous about a UBI, since they rightly recognize the profound human damage that’s done — to both individuals and communities — when people detach from the work force. Jim Manzi and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry have pointed to U.S. experiments with a negative income tax (NTI) — a close policy cousin to the UBI — that showed a drop in work effort of roughly 13 percent. However, the reduction wasn’t from people giving up on finding work entirely, but from people simply waiting longer during spells before taking another job — a crucial distinction. Most of them were mothers who chose to spend more time caring for their children, or young people who spent more time accumulating an education. A similar experiment in Canada around the same time found the same result. People weren’t “listing away in socially destructive idleness” as Gobry put it; they were simply contributing to the social fabric in ways not recognized by the market.

And even when it’s not parents or teenagers waiting longer to get a job, these would-be workers could very well be holding out because they’re waiting for a better deal — enforcing exactly the kind of market discipline on employers that results in better wages and treatment. All unemployment is not created equal, and reformocons should not fear the UBI on this score.

In fact, reform conservatives should embrace the UBI’s modest reductions of work effort. One of the reformocons’ primary concerns is for the “mediating institutions” of civil society; the families, neighborhoods, churches, community groups, charities and so on that make up the fabric of American social life. Perceptive conservatives like Patrick Deneen have long realized that it’s not just the state — reformocons’ typical bête noire — that threatens civil society, but the market as well. Ross Douthat, another reformocon, recently worried that “both capitalism and the welfare state tend to weaken forms of solidarity that give meaning to life for many people, while offering nothing but money in their place.”

When we are dependent solely on the job market for our income, a tyranny of need sets in: We must go where the job market dictates, when it dictates, and do as its vagaries determine. That’s why the closing of a factory can decimate a town, and why a layoff can ruin a marriage. The time and energy we pour into work is time and energy we cannot give to our children, our spouses, our community gardens, our church bible studies, our hobbies and talents, or to our bowling leagues. The job market can poison and rend the social fabric as easily as bolster it. But by rolling back the ubiquity of the market, while minimizing the government’s bureaucratic footprint (it requires minimal administrative overhead to send people checks), a UBI would thread the needle between the market and the state.

Pethokoukis has also worried that we’re headed toward a future where automation really does begin reducing the supply of jobs, or where the economy’s ability to deliver more corporate profits while employing fewer people becomes permanent. In that case, a UBI would also shift us away from the current situation, where total dependency on the job market means the most vulnerable Americans are the last to enjoy the benefits of increased productivity, but the first ones to be squeezed out of the labor force when another threshold of efficiency is reached. If the economy is learning to do more with less, then the ideal would be a world where attachment to the labor force remains high, but everyone just works fewer hours — essentially the opposite of what we have now. By equitably distributing some of those productivity gains, a UBI would make such a world a bit more likely.

By giving all Americans at least a little income that is not dependent on the whims of the market, a UBI would allow workers more pro-active control over when and why they do or do not engage with the job market. It would open up more time and space for people to participate in those mediating institutions, becoming a de facto investment in the health of America’s civil society. In fact, the investment could very well be literal; any UBI — but especially one financed by tax deduction closures and military spending cuts — would be a massive distribution of income down the income ladder, and most social data suggests the poor and working class contribute more of their income to their churches, communities, and local charities than do the rich.

Poverty: The argument for a basic income (Opinion) – CNN.com

This tidy, egalitarian concept isn’t new, and its support isn’t limited to the radical political left. Dig through the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s little discussed book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” published in 1967, the year before his assassination, and you’ll find an endorsement: “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective. The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” Milton Friedman, the Nobel-prize winning economist who was an adviser to conservatives Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, also supported a variation of the idea.

The basic income continues to have a diverse set of supporters — left, right and libertarian. They like the concept for different reasons, said Matt Bruenig, a writer and policy analyst for Demos. Those on the left tend to like it because it’s egalitarian. It helps give everyone an equal (or more equal) shot at success in our capitalist society. Some libertarians and right-wingers support the concept, meanwhile, because they see it as a way to whittle away at government bureaucracy. Some would have the basic income replace many existing social safety net programs. There’s also a conservative philosophy underlying all of this: Give people money and they, not the government, know best how to spend it. They know what they need. The feds do not.

Basic Income: From Paine to MLK; a solution to Welfare and Poverty?

Three Problems for Libertarian Supporters of a Basic Income

August 2014: The Basic Income and the Welfare State

Libertarians Debate Basic Income Guarantee

It might not be ideal—certainly “no libertarian would wish for a BIG as an addition to the currently existing welfare state,” writes Zwolinski. “But what about as a replacement for it?” He argues that the BIG would amount to less bureaucracy, less expense, “less rent-seeking”, and less paternalism.

Will a guaranteed basic income replace welfare? | Deseret News National

One of the strangest aspects of basic income proposals, which Matthews handles at length, is that there is substantial support for it from both ideological extremes.

On the conservative side, for example, libertarian political philosopher Matt Zwolinski joined the likes of economists Milton Friedman and John Kenneth Galbraith when he argued last year that such a policy could potentially simplify the current federal bureaucracy, lower costs and provide greater protections to individual privacy.

“In Libertarian Utopia, we might not have any welfare state all, no matter how limited or efficient,” he argued. But, he continued, “the question is not whether a GBI is a perfectly libertarian policy in every way, but whether it is more libertarian than the other realistically available policy alternatives.”

On the liberal side, many have noted that Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for similar measures, as did philosopher Bertrand Russell. “In a GBI (guaranteed basic income) world, an employer has to make work somehow appealing enough to get employees even though everyone’s guaranteed a basic minimum whether they work or not,” Matthew Yglesias wrote in Slate in 2013 (Yglesias is now an editor at Vox).

“But that ‘appealing’ factor could be high wages, could be valuable skills and training, could just be a pleasant work atmosphere,” Yglesias added. “Or (it) could be some combination of the three.”

Though there have been proposals in the past for some form of a basic income, most notably from the Nixon administration, most pundits, including Matthews, aren’t optimistic that such a major change to the American welfare system could come any time soon. Still, they argue, it’s at least worth a look.

Basic minimum income is a BRILLIANT idea. Small problem: it doesn’t work as planned

It should be fairly obvious that the other group of people who support this idea, us over on the very free market right, don’t necessarily support it for the same reasons. Yet it is true that this is where the other focus of support is. My own support comes from the incentives problem.

I’m pretty much convinced that incentives matter to people – there would be little to be said about economics if this were not true. What you get, after tax and benefits withdrawal for your labour, is obviously an incentive that affects your willingness to labour. As the Budget points out every year (it’s one of those things it is supposed to detail each year) there’s several million people who face marginal tax and benefit rates of 70 per cent or more. There’s even a couple of hundred thousand over 100 per cent.

By earning an extra pound or ten in a week they actually end up with less money in their pockets and have also had to work more to get less. You don’t have to entirely buy into a strict reading of Art Laffer’s famous Curve to believe that this is going to reduce the amount of extra work that these people are going to be willing to do. They’re thus stuck in a poverty trap; they work more and get less, therefore they won’t work harder and get over that hump into better territory.

Please note the implication of this: yes, us free market right w(h)ingers really do think that hugely high marginal tax rates affect the poor just as they do the rich and that therefore we shouldn’t have them.

So, from this point of view, just give everyone some amount of money per week, untaxed and not withdrawn as incomes rise and those poor will face hugely lower marginal tax rates. It’ll thus leave room for the incentives for people to slowly improve their situations through extra work, better work, experience, education and so on. We have, we hope, solved the poverty trap caused by the current tax and welfare system.

This is largely the argument that Charles Murray (yes, he of the Bell Curve) used in his book on the subject, “In Our Hands”. The collision between tax rates and benefit withdrawal rates is such that we’d be better off just giving everyone some cash and letting them get on with it. If that means they go to the beach all their lives so what? It’ll be a minority that do and we’ll all still be better off.

The problem really boils down to us asking, what is the definition of “basic” that we’re using here? There’s some who want to call for a universal income: something like the UK’s living wage of £15,000 a year or so. Without taxing the economy into oblivion, that’s just not going to happen. Murray’s worked out that the US, a much richer place, could afford about $10,000 a year per adult. But do note that that replaces everything else: the entire welfare state, including old age pensions (or Social Security as the colonials call it) disappears into that one $10,000 per adult payment.

The Green Party is talking about £75 a week or so, which is pretty minimalist for even the word “basic”. The assumption seems to be that we’ll all eat off our own potato patches. Despite how that they’re not very good at explaining where the money will come from, the answer is obvious: it’s folding large pieces of that welfare state into making that payment.

Dillow and I seem to think that something around the level of the pension guarantee could be done: £130 a week. But at that point you really have stripped absolutely everything out of the welfare state to pay for it. Pensions, tax credits, personal allowances for tax and so on all disappear into the gaping financial maw of said universal basic income. And we think that all would be better off in such a system.

Money for nothing: Mincome experiment could pay dividends 40 years on | Al Jazeera America

For those on the left, basic income represents a chance to strengthen the social safety net and more evenly redistribute wealth, while some American libertarians view it as a way to cut back on bureaucracy and provide individuals with greater personal choice. There’s disagreement, however, on whether there would be accompanying tax hikes and whether other social programs would remain in place.

Karl Widerquist, an academic and vocal supporter of basic income, suggested its rising popularity in the U.S. springs from concern over income inequality spurred by the Great Recession. “It’s really incredible how much it’s grown so fast, and there’s no telling where it will go,” he said.

The Dauphin experiment, like four others in the United States around the same time, was an attempt to measure if providing extra money directly to residents below a certain household income would be effective social policy.

Dauphin was unique among those studies in that all residents of the municipality and surrounding area, with a population of about 10,000, were eligible to participate if they met the criteria.

For those who didn’t qualify for support under traditional welfare schemes, such as those for the elderly and the working poor, Mincome meant a significant increase in income. Low-wage earners had their incomes topped up.

Richardson, for instance, recalls collecting about 30 Canadian dollars some months. That’s the equivalent of about CA$145 today (US$133).

The experiment produced a trove of data, but the results were never released. After changes at the federal and provincial government levels, the program was shut down without a final report or any analysis.

Decades after the program ended, sociology professor Evelyn Forget dug up records from the period and found there were far-reaching benefits in the education and health sectors.

In a 2011 study she reported an 8.5 percent drop in hospital visits, a decrease in emergency room visits from car accidents and fewer recorded instances of domestic abuse. There was also a reduction in the number of people who sought treatment for mental health issues. And a greater proportion of high school students continued to the 12th grade.

As with U.S. experiments during the same period, there was no evidence that it led people to withdraw from the labor market, according to her research. “It’s surprising to find that it actually works, that people don’t quit their jobs,” said Forget, a University of Manitoba professor. “There’s this fear that if we have too much freedom, we might misuse it.”

What happens to kids when you give families a universal basic income? | JSTOR Daily

In a 2010 paper, a team of researchers looked at how the payments, which started in 1997, affected children. They determined that the payments increased the likelihood that kids would graduate from high school and reduced the chances that they would get involved in criminal activity. That was particularly true for the town’s poorest children. For those kids, an extra $4,000 in annual household income added up to an additional year of education and a 22 percent reduction in the chance of committing a minor crime at ages 16 or 17.

How does giving families money help kids? The researchers found at least part of the explanation seems to be that adults who received the payments were able to be more effective parents. They were less likely to commit crimes and more likely to know where their kids were and what they were doing. Children in families receiving the payments also reported a higher number of positive interactions with their mothers (though there was no statistically significant effect here when it came to fathers).

The authors suggest that getting a bit more money reduces stress and other mental health problems related to poverty. (Parents receiving the payments didn’t work any less, so the change was not about simply spending more time with their kids.) The fact that a simple transfer of money could produce this kind of change provides an interesting corrective to the frequent focus on supposedly deep-seated cultural differences to explain class differences among children.

Lessons from Mincome: How a Basic Income Would Improve Health

A Canadian City Once Eliminated Poverty And Nearly Everyone Forgot

Two years before the Harper government shut down its operations, the National Council of Welfare released a damning report criticizing how welfare rules are trapping people in poverty.

“Canada’s welfare system is a box with a tight lid. Those in need must essentially first become destitute before they qualify for temporary assistance,” said TD Bank’s former chief economist Don Drummond after the social agency’s report was released in 2010.

“But the record shows once you become destitute you tend to stay in that state. You have no means to absorb setbacks in income or unexpected costs. You can’t afford to move to where jobs might be or upgrade your skills.”

Former Conservative senator Hugh Segal is a longtime proponent of a guaranteed annual income policy. He believes the program could save provinces millions in social assistance spending on programs like welfare.

Instead of being forced through the welfare system, people’s eligibility would be assessed and reassessed with every income tax filing. Those who don’t make above the low-income cut-off in their area would be automatically topped up, similar to Mincome in Dauphin.

[ . . . ]

“I would think it’s fair to say ideologically, the present government would eye the notion that this is some ‘kooky left-wing scheme’ without addressing the fact that really strong social and economic conservatives like Milton Friedman argued in favour of a negative income tax,” he said.

In Canada, the idea of an universal basic income was first presented at a Progressive Conservative policy convention in October of 1969. Then-leader Robert Stanfield argued the idea would consolidate overlapping security programs and reduce bureaucracy.

Where Liberty and Freedom Converge

Liberty has been on my mind, because of a book I’m reading, Beyond Liberty Alone by Howard Schwartz. I’m in the middle of the book at present. I wrote some preliminary thoughts in response. One thing is clear at this point. He has an atypical view of “liberty” (Kindle Locations 433-436):

There is something incredibly profound about this insight that liberty implies limitation and not just protection or privilege. This restrictive side of liberty is often overlooked, because the word “liberty” itself tends to be associated with the word “freedom.” Yet “liberty,” as is now evident, implies something more complex. It refers to both freedom and restriction, or, to put it another way, liberty refers to the freedoms that are made possible by living together under restrictions.

This is the second book by him that I’ve read. The earlier book is Liberty In America’s Founding Moment. I haven’t finished that book either, but I’ve been going back to it from time to time. In that book, he had his academic hat on. He was originally a religious studies professor, which gives him a grounding in dealing with historical texts and contexts.

His newer book feels more personal, although the notes in the back of the book show how thorough is his thought process. He says that Beyond Liberty Alone is a book he worked on for a long time. It is part of his own development as an individual, specifically in his career. The story of how he left academia is telling (Howard’s End by Jonathan Mahler):

A few days before Howard Eilberg-Schwartz was scheduled to launch the Jewish studies program at San Franisco State University, he was persuaded by the school’s director of human resources to attend an all-day seminar for select faculty members, students, and local Jewish leaders. It was to be Eilberg-Schwartz’s introduction to the school’s Jewish community, and, understandably, he was nervous. As part of the program, participants were asked to respond to a series of provocative questions by moving to a designated area of the room. When the question “How central is Israel to Judaism?” was posed, he self-consciously took a spot among the smallish group that answered “Not terribly.” And when attendees were asked if they thought the statement “Zionism is racism” was anti-semitic, Eilberg-Schwartz — who sees the movement to create a Jewish state within the broad context of European colonialism — shuffled over toward the corner designated “No.” This time he stood virtually alone.

“I remember people coming up to me afterwards and saying how disappointed they were that I had been named head of Jewish studies,” Eilberg-Schwartz realls now, more than two years later. “That’s when I knew i wasn’t in sync with the local Jewish community. From that moment on, I was branded.”

Indeed, that fateful morning in the summer of 1994 would set the stage for a year of conflict between Eilberg-Schwartz and the local Jewish community, one that would culminate in his preipitious departure from the university — and academia altogether — in the fall of 1995.

This offers some insight why liberty is a personal issue to him. He obviously is an advocate of liberty of conscience and liberty of free speech. He was willing to stand up for what he considered right, despite the very real costs.

I’ve interacted with Schwartz some this past year, including a recent discussion on his Facebook page. I was following his blog for quite a while and would comment there. I had forgotten that he was an author and that I owned one of his books, as I own more books than my memory can keep track of. He reminded me that I had written a comment to an Amazon review of his first book on liberty, a comment that I didn’t remember, as I leave more comments than my memory can keep track of. (There are many issues with my memory.)

It is an enjoyable experience to read a book while also interacting with the author. I did that while reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, as he has an interesting blog as well. Corey Robin is one of the many authors that complement Schwartz’s writings. It is Robin who can help explain why the political right has its limited view of liberty, whereas Schwartz in his new book dissects that limited view and offers an alternative.

The alternative view presented by Schwartz has to do with a balance of values, a balance of rights and responsibilities. He is making an argument grounded both in common sense and in the nuanced understanding of the founding generation of American thinkers and leaders. He demonstrates how shallow and downright dysfunctional is the view of liberty on the right side of the spectrum, what he calls the liberty-first position. That right-wing view has come to prominence in recent decades, but it fails on many accounts, including its lack of principled application. More importantly, in their ideological dogmatism, liberty-first advocates ignore basic facts of human nature and human society.

In reading Beyond Liberty Alone, I became curious about what the author might have to say about the commons. As I had the Kindle version, I did a search for the term and found some references to it. He only directly speaks of the commons in one paragraph and a note to that paragraph. Here is the relevant part of the paragraph (Kindle Locations 4190-4193):

The way to address this problem is to seriously treat the ocean, water, air, and wildlife as property in common, in the sense that we are all tenants in common. Tenants in common does not mean it is a free -for-all, which is the supposition of the so-called “tragedy of the commons.” 45 There can be ownership in common and regulations about the use of the commons.

And here is the note (Kindle Locations 5579-5585):

45 . I take this to be one of the original points of Garrett James Hardin in his original essay on “The Tragedy of the Commons,” and one point I agree with. In my reading of Hardin’s original essay, his point is that the commons becomes a tragedy only if it is not regulated and that regulation is needed to protect it. One example he gives is the national parks, which are owned in common (public property) but must be regulated to protect them. His point is that without regulation, things cannot be owned in common successfully. It is beyond the present context to discuss the extensive subsequent scholarship and popular discussion of whether the commons always ends in tragedy or not, and I do not agree with some of Hardin’s subsequent moral conclusions, such as his moral conclusions about preventing immigration in his metaphor of “Living on a Lifeboat.”

Even though his direct mention of the “commons” is limited to this, he writes extensively about that which is held in common and that which offers common usage and benefit. The word “common” comes up a lot in the text. Much of this talk is about social capital, although he doesn’t use that term at all. He does talk about externalities quite a bit, which is about the cost to the commons or the costs held in common, although in reality it is usually the poor and minorities who bear the brunt of those costs.

Schwartz makes a strong argument for the commons, not just as natural resources, but as the entire inheritance of the human species. He makes it clear how much society invests in every individual and how this implies a responsibility of the individual toward society. It is overwhelming all that we take for granted. Everyone of us is the product of immense resources and opportunities given to us. We earned and deserved none of it, except as our shared inheritance in having been born.

In thinking of the commons, my mind always wanders to Thomas Paine. He came of age during the time when the land enclosure movement was having a major impact in England. It was the ending of the last vestiges of feudalism and in its wake it left a mass population of landless peasants. A peasant without the commons to live on is a very desperate person. The population of the unemployed and homeless grew as the commons were privatized or, from the perspective of the commoners, stolen.

This impoverished population flooded into London. Food riots followed. So did the early organizing of labor unions, which happened around the time Paine was in London. The lower classes became concentrated in numbers never before seen and London was where all the action was. The poor weren’t just desperate, for they were also feeling optimistic about new opportunities. Even though they were banned from the universities, the poor took what spare money they had and hired lecturers to teach them about various subjects. Paine joined in this new movement of education and it would set him on his path. He got a taste for the power of learning, the potential in reading and writing.

Paine knew about the commons and what the loss of the commons meant for most people. You can hear the echoes of the commons in some of his later writings. In “Agrarian Justice”, Paine gives a good definition of the commons:

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.

He further on emphasizes the significance of public land being made private:

I have already established the principle, namely, that the earth, in its natural uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race; that in that state, every person would have been born to property; and that the system of landed property, by its inseparable connection with cultivation, and with what is called civilized life, has absorbed the property of all those whom it dispossessed, without providing, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss.

The argument Paine makes is for a land tax that would have funded an early version of Social Security. The privatizing of land was a direct causal factor for impoverishing those forced into a landless condition. The public should be compensated for what was taken from the public:

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.

This is the basic framework also being used by Schwartz to make his own argument. The difference is that Schwartz has a wider focus on what is held in common, but in essence he is carrying forward Paine’s vision of America. However, he doesn’t mention Paine at all in his most recent book and only makes brief mentions of Paine in his other book on liberty. In neither book does he mention “Agrarian Justice”. So, it seems that Schwartz came to this view independent of Paine’s writings.

When thinking of Paine, I then also think of John Dickinson. Both were raised with Quaker influence, although neither became Quakers. Still, they each maintained close ties to Quakers, specifically in Pennsylvania. Dickinson had ties to the Quaker elite and Paine had ties to the radical Free Quakers. They shared a commitment to Quaker-influenced abolitionism (Dickinson having gone so far as to free the slaves he inherited). Most interestingly, these two great thinkers were also the greatest and most inspiring of the revolutionary pamphleteers. Their Quaker-tinged visions helped shape two separate traditions of political philosophy, Federalism and Anti-Federalism, Dickinson and Paine respectively. These were two major voices in the early debates about liberty and rights.

Schwartz does have a fair amount to say about Dickinson. The main purpose that Dickinson serves is as a foil to Thomas Jefferson. Throughout Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, Dickinson is brought up mostly in reference to Jefferson, as they had two competing views of rights (Kindle Locations 3954-3967):

To summarize, we have seen that within a year of Jefferson’s writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and Dickinson offer their congressional colleagues two different versions of American rights. Neither of these versions of rights is what would be called a classical natural rights theory, like that adopted by the First Continental Congress and put forward by thinkers like James Wilson. Jefferson is still avoiding natural rights language and putting emphasis on the emigration of the ancestors as a justification for American rights. When he does allude to a broader conception of rights, which is buried in the body of his essay, he alludes to the “sacred deposit” provided by God and makes no allusion to reason or rights of nature. Dickinson’s language moves much closer to the natural rights tradition, though he evokes the religious and theological subtradition that places emphasis on God’s role in founding liberty. But Dickinson also appeals to common sense and reverence for the creator as justifications and foundation for liberty. It is arguable that Congress preferred Dickinson’s version not simply because it toned down the view of the colonies as “independent” entities, but also because it provided a broader justification of rights than did Jefferson’s, one closer to the Bill of Rights for which they had already fought so hard to achieve consensus in September 1774.

In any case, the point here is that while others were appealing to a classic version of a natural rights philosophy, Jefferson himself had not abandoned his argument based on emigration. Once again, Jefferson’s view was essentially rejected. Instead, the Congress endorsed a quasi-religious statement of rights, influenced by the natural rights thinking to be sure, but not quite Lockean in the way that some American writers including the First Congress would have articulated it.

It should be noted that Jefferson and Paine were close friends and political allies. They influenced each other’s thinking on many issues. To speak of the ideas of one is to speak of the ideas of the other. So, even though Schwartz speaks so little of Paine, he indirectly invokes Paine every time he mentions Jefferson. For example, the emigration view of rights fits into arguments Paine made. As he wrote in “Common Sense,” it was simply “absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island,” especially when “Not one third of the inhabitants, even of this province, [Pennsylvania], are of English descent.”

As such, the contrasts and conflicts between Dickinson and Jefferson were also those between Dickinson and Paine. More specifically, this is also about the Quaker elite that governed Pennsylvania and those who sought to challenge that power. But this was also about the Quakers larger history and the traditions that developed from that.

Schwartz, in Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, dedicates an entire section of several pages to Dickinson’s views, “John Dickinson and the Avoidance of Natural Rights Arguments”. I want to tackle this section because there is a context missing that would add greatly to the analysis.

That missing context is of the Quakers. In neither book does he mention the Quakers. He also makes no mention of the Middle Colonies, at least not in those terms. The Middle Colonies had a different place and played a different role in the colonial scheme of the British territory in America, different that is from New England and the South, as I previously explained (The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty):

The Middle Colonies in general were what held together British Power on this side of the pond. This is why, during the French and Indian War, the British government spent so much money and effort defending the Middle Colonies. It is maybe understandable that those up in New England didn’t appreciate why they were paying higher taxes for the defense of the colonies when their region was never the focal point of that defense. Those New Englanders couldn’t appreciate that the defense of the Middle Colonies was the defense of all the colonies. They also couldn’t appreciate what it felt like to be in the Middle Colonies which had been the target of foreign empires.

Those in the Middle Colonies fully appreciated this which is why they were so reluctant to revolt. Plus, the Middle Colonies were filled with non-Englishmen who had no history with the British government and monarchy, no history of the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution. Even the Englishmen of the Middle Colonies who did have such history nonetheless had a very different view of it. I speak of the Quakers who had in some ways been given the greatest freedom for self-governance. The Monarchy was at times a better friend to the Quakers than their fellow colonial elites ever had been.

This is the world that Dickinson was born into. It was also the place that Paine. like Franklin before him, would adopt as his home. To understand Pennsylvania is to understand Dickinson and to understand why he came into conflict with the likes of Paine (and Franklin). The Quakers always found themselves in a precarious position, both back in England and in the colonies. Having experienced persecution and oppression as religious dissenters, they came to highly prize security and moderation, which they saw as the foundation of any genuine freedom.

I point to the word ‘freedom’ in contradistinction to ‘liberty’, the latter being the focus of Schwartz’s writings. This is important, as I noted in another post of mine (The Radicalism of The Articles of Confederation):

There were many contested understandings for all these terms. Liberty, in particular, always was a vague term with its origins in Roman slave society. As I’ve mentioned before, Jefferson’s Virginia was shaped by the Cavalier heritage of Roman values. The Declaration and the Constitution refer to liberty and freedom, often seemingly interchangeably, sometimes using freedom as the opposite of enslaved which is the Roman conception of liberty. Quite uniquely, the Articles use freedom as a touchstone while never mentioning liberty even once. That demonstrates a major difference, the Declaration having been written by a slave-owning, liberty-loving aristocrat from Cavalier Virginia and the Articles having been written by a Quaker-raised Pennsylvanian who freed the slaves he inherited.

As far as I know, Schwartz does not explore the origins of these terms. He discusses Dickinson without pointing out that word ‘liberty’ was not included in the Articles, the original constitution. That seems like a key detail to my mind. It signifies the importance of Quakerism to Dickinson. It was freedom, not liberty, that was the core value to be defended. The argument Schwartz makes, in Beyond Liberty Alone, by broadening liberty to include responsibility is actually more resonant with the Quaker worldview of freedom. It is interesting that he comes to this understanding, despite his primary focus on Jefferson.

In the specific section on Dickinson, Schwartz writes (Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, Kindle Locations 2352-2355),

Is it everywhere assumed or is Dickinson hedging his bets and avoiding the question of government’s origin and the validity of the social contract? That seems possible especially given Dickinson’s appeal to the ideas of philosopher David Hume in the above citation. Hume was a critic of Lockean natural rights theory and argued that Locke’s natural rights arguments were as much a political ideology as the divine right theory that justified kingship.

This is where knowing Dickinson’s Quaker background would have offered insight. Dickinson didn’t need Hume’s writings to be critical of natural rights. Quaker tradition itself was based on a mistrust of natural rights, and so this probably is the more fundamental influence. Hume’s ideas simply corresponded with the worldview Dickinson was raised in. Also, Hume’s criticisms of natural rights allowed for a non-religious formulation of that aspect of the Quaker tradition. Quakers had no use of Lockean social contracts and so that wasn’t an issue for Dickinson. Quaker constitutionalism was based on the belief in a personal relationship to God, a divine spark that existed within (see a fuller discussion in my post The Radicalism of The Articles of Confederation, in which I note that the historian Joseph Ellis also seems unaware of the Quaker position). A constitution was, as Quaker-influenced Paine described, “a compact between God and man” (from a footnote to Observations on the Declaration of Rights).

Let me continue with some more of Schwartz commentary from the section on Dickinson (Kindle Locations 2369-2384):

The only time that Dickinson offers a justification of colonial rights is when he quotes the resolves of the Stamp Act Congress, which he had earlier drafted but which avoided the use of natural rights. Quoting the third resolve of the Stamp Act Congress, and referring to these resolves as the “American Bill of Rights,” this is as close as Dickinson gets to offering a philosophical basis of liberty.

III. “That it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that No Tax‡ be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.”13

We have no way of knowing in these letters how Dickinson grounded “the essential freedom of a people” and “undoubted right of Englishmen.” Only on one occasion (Letter Seven) does Dickinson quote Locke: “If they have any right to tax us—then, whether our own money shall continue in our own pockets or not, depends no longer on us, but on them. ‘There is nothing which’ we ‘can call our own; or, to use the words of Mr. Locke—what property have’ we ‘in that, which another may, by right, take, when he pleases, to himself?’”14 This quote from Locke is apropos. Locke here is talking about the duty of people to support government with taxes. Locke makes clear in this passage that paying taxes must be with their consent, as defined by the vote of the majority. While Dickinson brings Locke’s authority to bear in supporting the idea that there should be “no taxation without consent,” he does not invoke Locke’s notions of social contract or natural rights.

At least at one point Dickinson seems to assume a very different source of colonial rights than his colleagues. Specifically, he assumes that the rights of the colonies were granted by Great Britain in exchange for the benefits that the colonies brought the mother country. Strikingly, Dickinson includes the right of property as a privilege conferred by Great Britain on the colonies, rather than an inherent right.

Schwartz struggles here to pinpoint exactly where Dickinson is coming from. He is able to discern bits and pieces from Dickinson’s words, but the motivating vision behind those words eludes him. Further on, Schwartz does show he realizes the importance of the religious angle, even though not specifically in the context of Quakerism (Kindle Locations 2390-2394):

It is striking that the colonial right to property is here described not as a natural right, but as a “recompense” or payback from Great Britain to America for the benefits that accrued to the mother country. The colonies’ rights were the result of a trade or contract. No one arguing strictly from natural rights directly would ground the American right of property this way. Moreover, the religious overtones in Dickinson’s essays, though not frequent, are obvious here when he invokes scripture rather than Locke or reason to prove his point.

He then clarifies the importance of religion (Kindle Locations 2399-2405):

Quoting the New Testament, Dickinson appeals to freedom as a grant from God. The absence of natural rights language or at least a fully articulated rights theory in Dickinson would seem consistent with his ongoing commitment that the colonies remain part of Great Britain. Dickinson rejects any talk of the colonies as “independent states” which are part of a larger federated empire. “But if once we are separated from our mother country, what new form of government shall we adopt, or where shall we find another Britain to supply our loss? Torn from the body, to which we are united by religion, liberty, laws, affections, relation, language and commerce, we must bleed at every vein.”18 Dickinson, as is well known, would later refuse to sign the Declaration of Independence, believing in July 1776 that there was still some hope for reconciliation between the colonies and Great Britain.

Schwartz is touching upon so much here, but he can’t quite bring it together. The Quakerism piece is missing. All of this makes sense, though, when that Quaker piece is put into place. To the Quaker worldview, a constitution is a living agreement and expression of the Divine, a covenant of a collective people as a community. It is not a piece of paper or the words on them. To be separated from their mother country was quite the challenge to that worldview. The community needed to be redefined and the covenant needed to take new form.

Jane E. Calvert, in Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson, details what this means for Dickinson and how this differs from Jefferson (Kindle Locations 9708-9742):

For Dickinson, a polity must be and, in the case of America, was constituted otherwise than merely on paper. And his understanding of how man entered political society was largely the same as the way most Americans understood it, but with subtle differences in process and emphases. While most political thinkers of the day agreed that joining society, forming a union, was “primarily a matter of reason,”13 Dickinson believed that to unite was to obey a divine command, a “sacred law.”14 Like Locke, he held that society was first occasioned “by the command of our Creator.”15 God, said Dickinson, “designed men for society, because otherwise they cannot be happy.”16 But more than that, God “demands that we should seek for happiness in his way, and not our own,” which meant joining one another on specific terms and with a particular mode of engagement.17 Moreover, reason was not man’s primary impetus for joining; the “common sense of mankind,” Dickinson explained, merely “agrees.”18 This original constitution ordained by God was prior to and independent of any written documents codifying that union. “[T]hose corner stones of liberty,” he wrote, “were not obtained by a bill of rights, or any other records, and have not been made and cannot be preserved by them.”19 Rather, ten years before Jefferson wrote that “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” Dickinson asserted that “Rights are created in us by the decrees of Providence.”20

On the surface, Jefferson and Dickinson seem to agree, but as we have seen from our earlier discussion, Quaker thinkers did not usually speak of natural rights. While many thinkers of all persuasions, including Penn and Dickinson on occasion, conflated the languages of rights and referred interchangeably to natural or God-given rights, for Quakers, who more often spoke in terms of providence, there was ultimately a difference. If the divine and the natural were the same (an idea many Quakers rejected outright), they were much more closely related in Quaker thought than in Jefferson’s, with nature not overshadowing divinity. Dickinson clearly did not subscribe to the deist theology of other Founders. He explained that “[w]e claim [rights] from a higher source, from the King of kings, and Lord of all the earth…They are born within us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power, without taking our lives.”21 Because they came from God rather than nature, man, or his history of established institutions, “rights must be preserved by soundness of sense and honesty of heart. Compared with these, what are a bill of rights, or any characters drawn upon parchment, those frail rememberances?”22 If this seems to us an overly fine distinction, that Dickinson made it was in keeping with Quaker thinking about rights. Such subtleties caused contemporary and historical criticism that his work consisted of “fine-spun theories and hair-splitting distinctions”23 and that he had the “Vice of Refining too much.”24 But if his thought has been misunderstood, it is because his critics did not care to understand these distinctions or the complex theories and arrangement to which they gave rise. It is mainly this difference between the natural or human and the divine that distinguished the Quaker theory of government and their process of legal discernment from others.

From my perspective, this additional insight strengthens the case Schwartz is making.

The Quakers, more than any other early Americans, embodied the balance between rights and responsibilities, between freedom and obligation. Schwartz wants to place the emphasis on the social reality. Quaker constitutionalism could have given him an alternative view to throw light on what it means to have rights in a community. Also, to return to Paine, the pamphlet “Agrarian Justice” could have given Schwartz a stronger foundation in American tradition for a progressive understanding of the commons.

When put together, all of these pieces form a greater vision of what America has been and could be. Schwartz’s writings are part of a larger conversation. No single voice can capture every aspect and nuance. What matters is the broadening of debate. It is an exciting time to add one’s voice to the chorus, even if at times it sounds more like cacophany, something the founders could sympathize with.

The historical context is important for a deeper understanding. Even so, any given fact and detail isn’t what matters most. Studying such things should serve the purpose of helping to see what was hidden, to remember what has been forgotten, to revive the senses that became numb. The disappearance of the commons is a profound loss. It isn’t just the loss of public land and their resources. As Schwartz makes clear, it is a loss of shared identity and meaning, loss of a unifying set of values. We are made small as our vision of rights narrows. We are made weaker.

When we lose the knowledge of what we lost, we lose the knowledge that something is lost. That is not a good place for a people to find themselves. It is to be lost without a map. Fortunately, those who came before us left markers for the path we are on and the paths we might take.

Every Freedom Comes At A Cost of Freedom

We like to think we are a free people in a free society. But our freedoms are social and political freedoms.

They are freedoms of the system we find ourselves in. We didn’t freely choose to be born into the system. We signed no social contract. There is no escape from the system itself. Our freedom is only how we play the game, not whether we play. We didn’t write the rules,  and yet we must obey them.

That is what society is. We do not exist in a state of nature. Natural rights and natural liberty is what someone has who lives alone on a desert island. They are free in a way few people could ever imagine. Most people in that situation, though, would gladly sacrifice the freedom of their isolation for the costs of being a member of society.

Society makes dependents of us all, for good or ill. This is increasingly true as civilization develops.

Even as late as the Great Depression, people still could support themselves through subsistence farming/gardening and living off the land. There was still a lot of land freely open to hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering. Restrictions were few and the population was smaller.

That is no longer the case.

Those on the right like to complain about all the minorities and poor who are dependent on the system. But that is unfair. They were made dependent, as we’ve all been made dependent. This is to say, at this point, we are all interdependent. That is what society means.

No one is self-made in our society. Those born into privilege, whether class or race privilege, are the least self-made of us all, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Only those disconnected from and clueless about their own dependent state can talk bullshit about being self-made and rant about libertarian rhetoric.

Civilization brings many benefits. But it comes at great costs. Those who benefit the most are those at the top of society. And those who pay most of the costs are those on the bottom of society.

The predicament of modern civilization wasn’t lost on the American revolutionaries, most especially the founders. Living in the colonies, they found themselves on the edge of modern civilization. Founders like Thomas Jefferson could see in the Native Americans the past of his own people, the English, who were once a free tribal people. Many took inspiration from the Native Americans because it reminded them where they came from and reminded them that other alternatives existed.

Native Americans not only had more freedom than the colonists had, but also less inequality. Thomas Paine recognized that the two went hand in hand, and that they were based on the lack of privately owned land. To privatize the Commons was to destroy the ancient right to the Commons (as described in the English Charter of the Forest, although going back to Northern European common law) and so was to sacrifice one of the most basic freedoms.

There was a reason the colonists were obsessed with the rights of Englishmen. They were ancient rights, often having preceded the British Empire and even preceded the establishment of an English monarchy by the Norman Conquest. It was what all of English and Anglo-American society was built on.

The land enclosure movement shredded the social contract and upended the entire social order. It was the most brazen act of theft in English history. It was theft from the many to profit the few. In England, it meant theft from the working class (making them into landless peasants). Similarly, in the colonies, it meant theft from the Native Americans (accompanied with genocide, ethnic cleansing, and reservations that made them wards/prisoners of the state). In both cases, that theft has yet to be compensated. The descendents of the robbers still profit from that theft. The injustice goes on, generation after generation. The theft didn’t happen just once, but is an ongoing process. The theft wasn’t justified then and remains unjustified.

Paine accepted that the loss of the Commons was maybe inevitable. But he didn’t think the act of theft was inevitable. He demanded the public be compensated, and that compensation should be for every generation. It was morally wrong to impose theft of the Commons onto future generations by privatizing land without compensating those future generations for what was taken from them before they were born.

It wasn’t just about compensating wealth as if it were just an economic transaction. No, it was more about offsetting the loss of freedoms with the gain of other freedoms, and it was about how forcing sacrifice onto people who didn’t choose it morally demanded society accept the social responsibility this entails. When people are forced into a state of dependence by the ruling elite of a society, the ruling elite and their descendent beneficiaries lose all rights to complain about those people being in a state of dependence.

In losing the Commons, people lost their independence. They were made dependents against their will, forced into laboring for others or else forced into unemployed poverty. That is the price of civilization. The fair and just thing would be to ensure that the costs and benefits of that act are evenly shared by all.

Ask A Cow What It Is To Be Free

Capitalism has its origins in a word meaning “head”. It is the same origin as for cattle and chattel.

Cattle was the earliest major form of movable property. This is the precedent for capital as fungible wealth, that which can be transferred elsewhere, removed and reinvested.

This is also why capitalism and chattel slavery have the same basic starting point. Feudal peasants in essence belonged to the land as part of the an unmovable property, whereas chattel slaves were like cattle that could be moved and/or sold independent of anything else.

In a capitalist society, the opposite of the capitalist is the slave. This is why the original offer in freeing slaves was supposed to be to give them forty acres and a mule. This simultaneously would have made them propertied citizens and capitalists. This is also why, in the end, it didn’t happen. It was one thing to end their overt slavery, but to make them genuine equals in this capitalist society was going too far.

Capitalism isn’t fundamentally about economics. It is about power. Cattle is a cow whose wild ancestors were once free to roam. The same goes for a chattel slave or a wage slave, workers whose ancestors were once free to roam, once free to work for themselves.

No one is free to roam in capitalism, though. And working for oneself is becoming ever more meaningless in an age of globalization. The Commons was privatized centuries ago. There is no where to be free for the system of control is now complete. There is no escape, no undiscovered and unclaimed place to seek out.

That was the first step in creating capitalism as we know it. Before capitalism, the Commons belonged to the People and the People belonged to the Commons. It isn’t accidental that the idea of privately owning land evolved as a legal concept in accordance with ownership of humans as slaves.

The US was founded on the ideal of an enlightened aristocracy and a paternalistic plutocracy, the expectation that the country would be literally be ruled by the owners, i.e., the propertied class. Those who own themselves and own the land they live on are entitled to own the government and hence to own all who are governed. To be a capitalist isn’t merely to have fungible wealth, for more importantly it means to be an owner and to play the role of owner.

We live in a world where everything is owned, where everything (and everyone) has a price to be sold. To be employed is to sell ourselves into indentured servitude, even if only temporarily during specified periods of time. While working as wage slaves, we don’t own ourselves while on the clock. It isn’t just a legal agreement of selling part of our life by selling our time and body for someone else’s purposes. It is a profound psychological transaction, a giving up of freedom, an act that becomes a mindless habit, until we forget what freedom ever meant.

Capitalism is a particular form of social control. Capitalists are those with the capital and so those with the power to control. We the People are those being controlled, the cattle, the chattel.

The system allows us to sell our freedom, but offers no way to buy it back. We are born citizen-consumers, never having been given a choice. We are property of the corporatist state. To demand our freedom would mean theft. If enough people made this demand, it would be a revolt. And if that revolt were successful, it would be called a revolution.

A Sign of Decline?

Considering the fall of early civilizations, decentralization and privatization come into focus as important for understanding. They have, in at least some major examples, been closely associated with periods of decline. That doesn’t necessarily imply they are the cause. Instead, it may simply be a sign. Decline just means change. An old order changing will always be perceived of as a decline.

The creation of centralized government is at the heart of the civilization project. Prior to the city-states and empires of ‘civilization’, people governed themselves in many ways without any need of centralization for most everything had been local. It required the centralization (i.e., concentration) of growing populations to create the possibility and necessity of centralized governance. A public had to be formed in opposition to a private in order for a public good to be spoken of. Privacy becomes more valued in crowded cities.

Early hunter-gatherers seemed to have thought a lot less about privacy, if they had any concept of it at all, certainly not in terms of sound-dampening walls and locked doors. In that simpler lifestyle, most everything was held in common. There was no place that was the Commons for all of the world was considered the commons, for the specific people in question. Personal items would have been the exception, rather than the rule. Before the modern condition of extreme scarcity and overpopulation, there would have been less motivation to fight over private property.

It should be no surprise that periods of decentralization and privatization coincided with periods of population dispersal and loss. The decline of civilizations often meant mass death or migration.

We live in different times, of course. But is it really any different now?

When people today advocate decentralization and privatization, what does that mean in the larger sense? When some fantasize about the decline of our present social order, what do they hope will result? What is motivating all this talk?

If it is a sign, what is a sign of? What changes are in the air?

* * * *

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed
Eric H. Cline
pp. 152-4

DECENTRALIZATION AND THE RISE OF THE PRIVATE MERCHANT There is one other point to be considered, which has been suggested relatively recently and may well be a reflection of current thinking about the role of decentralization in today’s world.

In an article published in 1998, Susan Sherratt, now at the University of Sheffield, concluded that the Sea Peoples represent the final step in the replacement of the old centralized politico-economic systems present in the Bronze Age with the new decentralized economic systems of the Iron Age— that is, the change from kingdoms and empires that controlled the international trade to smaller city-states and individual entrepreneurs who were in business for themselves. She suggested that the Sea Peoples can “usefully be seen as a structural phenomenon, a product of the natural evolution and expansion of international trade in the 3rd and early 2nd millennium, which carried within it the seeds of the subversion of the palace-based command economies which had initiated such trade in the first place.” 57

Thus, while she concedes that the international trade routes might have collapsed, and that at least some of the Sea Peoples may have been migratory invaders, she ultimately concludes that it does not really matter where the Sea Peoples came from, or even who they were or what they did. Far more important is the sociopolitical and economic change that they represent, from a predominantly palatial-controlled economy to one in which private merchants and smaller entities had considerably more economic freedom. 58

Although Sherratt’s argument is elegantly stated, other scholars had earlier made similar suggestions. For example, Klaus Kilian, excavator of Tiryns, once wrote: “After the fall of the Mycenaean palaces, when ‘private’ economy had been established in Greece, contacts continued with foreign countries. The well-organized palatial system was succeeded by smaller local reigns, certainly less powerful in their economic expansion.” 59

Michal Artzy, of the University of Haifa, even gave a name to some of the private merchants envisioned by Sherratt, dubbing them “Nomads of the Sea.” She suggested that they had been active as intermediaries who carried out much of the maritime trade during the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BC. 60

However, more recent studies have taken issue with the type of transitional worldview proposed by Sherratt. Carol Bell, for instance, respectfully disagrees, saying: “It is simplistic … to view the change between the LBA and the Iron Age as the replacement of palace administered exchange with entrepreneurial trade. A wholesale replacement of one paradigm for another is not a good explanation for this change and restructuring.” 61

While there is no question that privatization may have begun as a by-product of palatial trade, it is not at all clear that this privatization then ultimately undermined the very economy from which it had come. 62 At Ugarit, for example, scholars have pointed out that even though the city was clearly burned and abandoned, there is no evidence either in the texts found at the site or in the remains themselves that the destruction and collapse had been caused by decentralized entrepreneurs undermining the state and its control of international trade. 63

In fact, combining textual observations with the fact that Ugarit was clearly destroyed by fire, and that there are weapons in the debris, we may safely reiterate that although there may have been the seeds of decentralization at Ugarit, warfare and fighting almost certainly caused the final destruction, with external invaders as the likely culprits. This is a far different scenario from that envisioned by Sherratt and her like-minded colleagues. Whether these invaders were the Sea Peoples is uncertain, however, although it is intriguing that one of the texts at Ugarit specifically mentions the Shikila/ Shekelesh, known from the Sea Peoples inscriptions of Merneptah and Ramses III.

In any event, even if decentralization and private individual merchants were an issue, it seems unlikely that they caused the collapse of the Late Bronze Age, at least on their own. Instead of accepting the idea that private merchants and their enterprises undermined the Bronze Age economy, perhaps we should consider the alternative suggestion that they simply emerged out of the chaos of the collapse, as was suggested by James Muhly of the University of Pennsylvania twenty years ago. He saw the twelfth century BC not as a world dominated by “sea raiders, pirates, and freebooting mercenaries,” but rather as a world of “enterprising merchants and traders, exploiting new economic opportunities, new markets, and new sources of raw materials.” 64 Out of chaos comes opportunity, at least for a lucky few, as always.