Inequality and Justice – a Thomas Paine Remedy

Written by: Terry Link

Primary Source: Possibilitator

As I prepare to retire from the library profession after more than three decades I am taking it upon myself to leave my successors with more shelving space to add new titles. Therefore I am weeding material from the collection row by row. Since we are a research library, weeding does not mean just dumping anything that hasn’t circulated in the past ten or twenty years, for as the rest of this post should make clear, that is not sufficient reason to remove items from a research collection. Actually I am only removing underused second copies, or earlier editions that have been superseded by editions that simply add (but do not change) material from the first edition. There are a few other odd peculiarities we use.

So last week I was weeding an area with the writings of Thomas Paine. Paine wrote more than 300 years ago as you’ll surely remember and is considered one of the intellects upon which our democracy was built. His Common Sense spurred the revolutionary fervor and his American Crisis and Rights of Man furthered his reputation as a forward thinker of his time. So as I picked up a second copy of  volume one of his complete writings edited by noted Harvard historian Eric Foner in 1945, I was fascinated to see that his last published pamphlet was entitled Agrarian Justice. What a timely topic I thought.

Foner’s brief introduction that included a few juicy quotes, lured me to check this tome out for further exploration. Below are some of the quotes of Paine’s from this work published in the winter of 1795/96. They certainly pertain to our own times with accelerating inequality and poverty. Now before those of a conservative bent begin to call these ideas socialist or Marxist, please remember that Marx was born after this was written, and his most famous work, Das Kapital wasn’t written until 1848.

No, Paine’s thoughts were aimed at the poverty and inequality in France, England and the U.S. and this pamphlet was addressed most specifically to the democratic fervor alive in France at the moment. In reading it one can see his prescient notions of not only Social Security, but also of the current interest in what is referred to as a Basic Income.

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Poverty, therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state. On the other hand, the natural state is without those advantages which flow from agriculture, arts, science and manufactures. The life of an Indian is a continual holiday, compared with the poor of Europe; and, on the other hand it appears to be abject when compared to the rich. Civilization, therefore, or that which is so-called, has operated two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched,than would have been the lot of either in a natural state…

…In taking the matter upon this ground, the first principle of civilization ought to have been, and ought still to be, that the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if he had been born before that period. But the fact is that the condition of millions, in every country in Europe, is far worse than if they had been born before civilization begin, had been born among the Indians of North America at the present…

… In advocating the case of the persons thus dispossessed, it is a right, and not a charity, that I am pleading for. But it is that kind of right which, being neglected at first, could not be brought forward afterward still heaven had opened the way by a revolution in the system of government. Let us then do honor to revolutions by justice, and give currency to their principles by blessings…

...It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be, and it is necessary that a revolution should be made in it. The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together. Though I care as little about riches as any man, I am a friend to riches because they are capable of good. I care not how affluent some may be, provided that none be miserable in consequence of it. But it is impossible to enjoy affluence with the felicity it is capable of being enjoyed, while so much misery is mingled in the scene.The sight of the misery, and the unpleasant sensations it suggests, which, though they may be suffocated cannot be extinguished, are a greater drawback upon the felicity of affluence than the proposed ten percent upon property is worth. He that would not give the one to get rid of the other has no charity, even for himself…

But it is justice, and not charity, that is the principle of the plan. In all great cases it is necessary to have a principle more universally active than charity; and, with respect to justice, it ought not to be left to the choice of detached individuals whether they will do justice or not. Considering, then, the plan on the ground of justice, it ought to be the act of the whole growing spontaneously out of the principles of the revolution, and the reputation of it ought to be national and not individual…

… It is the practice of what has unjustly obtained the name of civilization (and the practice merits not to be called either charity or policy) to make some provision for persons becoming poor and wretched only at the time they become so. Would it not, even as a matter of economy, be far better to adopt means to prevent their becoming poor? This can best be done by making every person when arrived at the age of twenty-one years an inheritor of something to begin with.The rugged face of society, checkered with the extremes of affluence and want, proves that some extraordinary violence has been committed upon it,and calls on justice for redress…

… if we examine the case minutely it will be found that the accumulation of personal property is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little for the labor that produced it; the consequence of which is that the working hand perishes in old age, and the employer abounds in affluence…

…It is, perhaps, impossible to proportion exactly the price of labor to the profits it produces; and it will also be said, as an apology for the injustice, that were a workman to receive an increase of wages daily he would not save it against old age, nor be much better for it in the interim. Make, then, society the treasurer to guard it for him in a common fund; for it is no reason that, because he might not make a good use of it for himself, another should take it…

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Terry Link
Terry Link is a retired MSU librarian, former founding director of the MSU Office of Campus Sustainability, and co-founder and former chair of the American Library Association’s Task Force on the Environment. He recently served as associate editor for the two-volume encyclopedia, Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles, and Practices(Gale/Cengage 2014). He has also served as executive director of a regional food bank and as a county commissioner. Currently he is president of Starting Now, LLC, a sustainability consulting firm, a Senior Fellow for the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development and serves on numerous non-profit organization boards.
Terry Link

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