Friday, July 20, 2012

Thomas Jefferson & James Madison on Equality

I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation.
Thomas Jefferson to James Madison
28 Oct. 1785 Papers 8:68-82
in The Founders' Constitution

19 June 1786  Papers 9:76--77
Volume 1, Chapter 15, Document 32

University of Chicago Press
The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Julian P. Boyd et al. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950
(h/t OccupyMarines)

Madison replied:
A certain degree of misery seems inseparable from a high degree of populousness. If the lands in Europe which are now dedicated to the amusement of the idle rich, were parcelled out among the idle poor, I readily conceive the happy revolution which would be experienced by a certain proportion of the latter. But still would there not remain a great proportion unrelieved? No problem in political Oeconomy has appeared to me more puzzling than that which relates to the most proper distribution of the inhabitants of a Country fully peopled. Let the lands be shared among them ever so wisely, & let them be supplied with labourers ever so plentifully; as there must be a great surplus of subsistence, there will also remain a great surplus of inhabitants, a greater by far than will be employed in cloathing both themselves & those who feed them, and in administering to both, every other necessary & even comfort of life. What is to be done with this surplus? Hitherto we have seen them distributed into Manufacturers of superfluities, idle proprietors of productive funds, domestics, soldiers, merchants, mariners, and a few other less numerous classes. All these classes notwithstanding have been found insufficient to absorb the redundant members of a populous society; and yet a reduction of most of those classes enters into the very reform which appears so necessary & desireable. From a more equal partition of property, must result a greater simplicity of manners, consequently a less consumption of manufactured superfluities, and a less proportion of idle proprietors & domestics. From a juster Government must result less need of soldiers either for defence agst. dangers from without or disturbances from within.
James Madison to Thomas Jefferson
The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 15, Document 33

University of Chicago Press
The Papers of James Madison. Edited by William T. Hutchinson et al. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1962--77 (vols. 1--10); Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977--(vols. 11--)


David said...

So, then, land tax, BIG, or JG. Now, was that so hard, Mr. Madison?

Matt Franko said...


It may be hard if your exclusive view is that 'money' is exogenous. Which looks like all of these founders did....


Anonymous said...

That's major freedom done for I guess.

David said...

That may be, but Jefferson was all but spelling out the basis for a land tax which had precedent in the Mosaic law. That's just rent theory and is what most of "micro" boils down to for me. The other side of the "coin" is understanding money, which is what "macro" is mostly about. The founders could have effected a more just distribution of goods if they had understood rent or money but not necessarily both. Madison's response to Jefferson's hints seemed curiously obtuse, suggesting he was, perhaps, a forerunner of the neo-classical economists.

Matt Franko said...

"Madison's response to Jefferson's hints seemed curiously obtuse, "

Right, looks like he was in over his head in this exchange, seems like they all were fixated on gold and silver during those times as many are still today...