The Love of Possession is a Disease With Them

Lakota giveaway ceremony, photo origin unknown

In my recent readings in the history of the Lakota and other native peoples of America’s Great Plains, I’ve been struck by descriptions of their giveaway ceremonies. They remind me of another practice I had learned of before, and I believe are more generally familiar: the potlatch, a related custom practiced by Native Americans of the Northwest. Potlatches generally came with strict expectations of giving the gifts away again promptly, and then some. These exchanges cemented power relations and were often aggressively competitive; they’re better understood as tactical, sociopolitical transactions rather than simple acts of generosity.

Lakota giveaway ceremonies, however, are much more altruistic in the sense that we commonly understand the term. The gifts are given freely with no expectation of payback; in fact, the resulting impoverishment is a badge of honor. That’s why I chose a quote by Sitting Bull, the great Hunkpapa Lakota chief, to introduce this essay. He once illustrated the contrast between Lakota and white attitudes towards property by telling how his poverty aroused the admiration of his people, rather than the disdain most white people feel toward such a state. To those who share Sitting Bull’s impression of the invaders of his homeland, the driving need to amass and own material goods can be a sign of spiritual poverty.

Today’s United States, like those nations most similar to her in culture and economy, is very much not characterized by that less-is-more spirit. This is nothing new. The United States and Canadian governments’ historical prohibitions on giveaway ceremonies in vanquished tribes indicate that Sitting Bull’s characterization of white culture describes something that’s been around for quite a while. These governments viewed giveaway ceremonies as a challenge to the enthusiasm for a market-driven type of productive cooperation they wished to instill in the nations they conquered. These and other Western societies (derived from Europe) had been centered around the production, acquisition, accumulation, and display of goods particularly since the industrial age. This is reflected in the values, mores, politics, language, cultural attitudes, holiday and major life event celebrations, even, increasingly, religious and spiritual practices dominant in the United States, Canada, Europe, and other parts of the world which adopted Western ways today.

The free market system, characterized by Adam Smith as the best kind of trade for improving lives most efficiently, has instilled many good practices and attitudes. For example, we’re less likely to see other nations and cultures as enemies when we cultivate relationships as trading partners; we see the effects of this change in international relations in the relative peacefulness of the modern world to those which practiced the old feudal and mercantilist systems. We also see that more people throughout the world now live longer, more comfortable lives than ever before, as the market incentivizes and drives innovation to respond more efficiently to demand. But there have always been serious, endemic defects in free markets systems contrary to the general welfare as well: real and de facto slavery; trade wars; colonialism; invasion and confiscation of indigenous lands; the immiseration of working people in squalid industrial towns and dismal factories; price- and wage-fixing by trusts and monopolies; and vast inequalities in wealth and chances of success are but a few examples. Such practices and inefficiencies are not merely excesses or abuses perpetrated by a few bad actors: they are regular and expected outcomes of a system whose purpose is to maximize profit and come out ahead of everyone else.

And now, we see that market values have pervaded all levels of our consciousness, our self-conception of who we are and how we should best inhabit our the world. As philosopher Michael Sandel describes it, we have gone from having a market economy to being a market society. The way we live, think, and feel is pervaded by consumerism. We’ve become buyers and sellers to the extent that we have become products ourselves, marketed and commodified, valued in work and in life insofar as we present ourselves the right way, are seen in the right places, wear the right brands and styles, drive the right cars, and use the right products.

And this has led us to a new problem, one unimaginable to John Locke, Adam Smith, and others who developed the theories about property rights and the benefits of open markets that we take for granted today. Human societies were relatively small then, and the uninhabited regions and untapped resources of the world seemed vast, even endless by comparison. It’s very different today. The population of the world has grown so large, our technological ability to produce goods from raw materials so varied, efficient, and prolific, and our ingrained habits of making, amassing, and consuming voraciously is leading us to a crisis of mass waste, pollution, and climate change.

The pollution problem can be viewed as the modern corollary of Thomas Malthus’ 1798 theory that human reproduction would inevitably outstrip food production and lead to mass impoverishment. Though Malthus’ ideas had long gone out of fashion with advancements in agricultural technology and the widespread use of birth control, he’s enjoying a bit of a comeback. However long technology can stave off many of the ill effects of exponential population growth, the earth’s habitable surface and ability to produce what we need to survive (let alone live well) is finite nonetheless. This is also true of our atmosphere’s ability to absorb the off-gassing of our industries without changing our biosphere’s ability to sustain the life it gave rise to. Over the centuries and decades, concerns about human impact on the natural world and its life-sustaining resources swing from optimism that we can and will create new technology and social practices that will solve everything, to worry that we won’t be sufficiently motivated or innovative in time to stave off the destruction of our own habitat.

In my years past working at a recycling and salvage operation, I observed a part of the massive flow of waste we generate, much of it perfectly good stuff we just throw away. The sheer volume of it all haunts me still. Photo of Amy Cools by Stephen Loewinsohn for the East Bay Express

Beginning with Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Springenvironmental consciousness is becoming more pervasive across the political spectrum. But it seems that ecological responsibility is still an ideal that has not yet changed our behavior except in a few token ways. Even progressive, self-consciously ‘green’ micro-cultures, such as that of the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, generally consume and discard on a very large scale. There’s a strong market here for innovations in green products such as compostable and reusable utensils and packaging, recycled fiber and bamboo clothing, energy-efficient technology, and more. Some of this technology replaces other arrays of products such as CDs, books, ledgers, pens and pencils, camera film, landline telephones, and so on, and could reduce the amount of stuff made. Yet new generations and styles of products replace the old ones almost as often and quickly as they are introduced, and the things which the new products replace in turn become trash. In the case of technology, particularly toxic trash. There are recycling programs, to be sure, but they don’t keep up with the volume of discards, and the recycling process itself can be toxic. And the compostable packaging which cocoons every fashionable new product and every new gadget adds to the deluge. Take-out meal services and ready-to-make meals in a box are ever-increasing in popularity, every breakfast, lunch, and dinner wrapped in a soon-to-be-wad-of-trash. Newly ubiquitous reusable shopping bags and thinly-walled plastic bottles do little in the face of this accelerating volume of throwaway goods and conveniently, disposably-packaged everything.

What does all this mean on a planet now so dominated by humans, materialistic, energetic, intelligent, creative, productive, and exponentially-reproductive?

It does seem that our love of possession is a disease with us, not just in the moral and spiritual sense that Sitting Bull refers to. It’s become something palpable, something we see before our eyes, that we walk on, that we breathe in, that we swim among. It shares many characteristics of that most varied and ubiquitous type of human disease: cancer, growing, proliferating, invading at an accelerating rate, which we still likewise seem powerless to stop. And the gases from the production and decay of all this stuff is changing the climate from the one that gave rise to the evolution of, and now sustains and nurtures, the plants and animals that give us life.

So what do we do? How do we divert or change this deeply ingrained cultural habit, this seemingly unstoppable force that we’ve unleashed?

I think about that other thing Sitting Bull said, about his people respecting him not because he owned many things in the way valued by white people, but because he kept little for himself. How, then, if we shift our values? How if we began to regard the need to compulsively and conspicuously consume stuff as crass, as burdensome, as uncool, as unenlightened, even as pitiable?

This isn’t necessarily unlikely or even unimaginable as it might seem. We often take for granted that our love and pursuit of stuff is an immutable trait of the human psyche. Yet, that’s not the case, as evidenced by cultural and spiritual mores that differ widely in their attitudes; we can look to the surprise and disgust of Sitting Bull and his people when encountering the white invaders’ greed for gold, land, and buffalo hides. There is an idea from Japanese culture, mottainai, which has deep roots and is growing again in popularity. This complex idea includes a reverence for objects and the value of frugality, both of which preclude the wasteful, polluting consumerist practices of modern market societies. And there are many more cultural and spiritual traditions of long standing in which the possession of more goods than needed is considered a negative.

Asceticism is an extreme variety of this less-is more value, an ancient tradition in which one seeks to reach the highest levels of spiritual perfection by divesting themselves of all or most material goods and comforts. There is the culture of the traveler and world citizen, those who own little since having too many things to haul around gets in the way of opportunities for adventure. There is also a modern fad, admittedly a rather niche conceit of those with higher incomes, of living in tiny, design-heavy, super-efficient homes, reducing one’s personal possessions to the most utilitarian minimum.

However, the latter three less-is-more practices as described above, admired and admirable as they can be, are not appropriate for most people. They are impractical and unaffordable for most people, and none of them work for those who have families to care for, or are elderly or disabled, and so on. What of the least wealthy among us, those who must opt for the cheaper products, whether or not they’ll wear out and become trash sooner? And what about just the joy of shopping for stuff, new and novel things that relieve the monotony and stress of an ordinary working life? Even in this realm of life, however, we do have an awareness that the short-term fun of buying stuff can lead to long-term unhappiness. For example, the extremes of material consumption, hoarding and compulsive shopping, are widely considered destructive and unhealthy, if not forms of mental illness. Expanding this sense of the unhealthiness of having too much stuff can be gradually extended to include things that we might sorta like at first but realize we won’t use much or care about for long. Over time, we can acculturate ourselves to less but higher quality things, and better yet, to value publicly owned goods more highly: parks, museums, public beaches, public buildings, and hopefully in the future, more community- and government- owned public amusement centers such as skating rinks, gyms, arcades, and so on.

Sitting Bull and his family, 1881

And while it might seem too difficult to inculcate that value of less-is-more, we can remember that many deeply-ingrained cultural values and habits have been purposely and quickly shifted. The right of gay people to marry and enjoy other equal benefits of society are now generally taken for granted when only two decades ago legal gay marriage was unimaginable to most. Smoking is widely considered unhealthy and a public nuisance, through just a few decades of education, public awareness campaigns, and taxation. Bullying, racist and sexist slurs, discriminatory practices, and many, many other bad habits are no longer respectable.

While shopping and owning a lot of stuff might not seem as a bad habit like any of the above, I believe that we’ll soon recognize that it might be. Now that there are so many of us in the world, we can no longer consider ourselves as morally responsible beings only as individuals when it comes to the health of our environment. With well over seven billion people on the earth increasing exponentially, we are now responsible to each other in the way our actions contribute to the aggregate effects. Let’s make the effects of our presence on the earth not resemble those of disease. Let’s instead make it more akin to mottainai by treating the earth as the most precious thing there is; more akin to the role of earth-steward as the God of Genesis called on his human creation to be; more akin to Sitting Bull and his generous less-is-more spirit. Our physical and spiritual health and our very lives depend upon it.

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Sources and Inspiration

Auxier, Randall. ‘Indian Givers‘, Nov 15th, 2013. Radically Empirical blog

Blaisdell. Robert (ed.) Great Speeches by Native Americans. NY: Dover, 2000.

Bruchac, Joseph. ‘Sacred Giving, Sacred Receiving‘, June 20, 2016, Parabola

Her Many Horses, Emil. ‘A Song for the Horse Nation: Remembering Lakota Ways‘. From A Song for the Horse Nation, edited by George P. Horse Capture (A’aninin) and Emil Her Many Horses

Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016.

Mottainai: a Philosophy of Waste‘. August, 2015. Interview and discussion with Kevin Taylor by Joe Gelonesi for The Philosopher’s Zone, a podcast of Radio National, Australia.

Pettipas, Katherine. Severing the Ties that Bind: Government Repression of Indigenous Religious Ceremonies on the Prairies. Winnepeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1994.

Rachel Carson, American Experience by PBS, April 18th, 2010

Roth, Christopher E. ‘Goods, Names, and Selves: Rethinking the Tsimshian Potlatch‘, American Ethnologist, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Feb., 2002), pp. 123-150

Sandel, Michael. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

Sitting Bull‘. Encyclopædia Britannica, April 21, 2017

Thomas Malthus‘. Encyclopædia Britannica.

Investing in People

I’ve been hearing this refrain for what seems like forever now: ‘We need to invest in our [insert demographic group here]!’ Pick some class of people (but not just any, as we shall see), plug that into that opening phrase, and do an internet search. We need to invest in our children, in our women, in our entrepreneurs, in our African-Americans, in our veterans, and in our students, political leaders and the media proclaim. This phrase has been enthusiastically adopted by liberals and progressives, despite its strong capitalist, and thus ostensibly conservative, overtones. Because the phrase is so often coupled with the name of some group we’d all like to help succeed, it sounds so nice, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we put more of our resources into helping others do well in life?

Of course we should. But remember what investment means: it’s putting resources into some venture in the hopes that it will pay off, and especially, that it will pay off for you. That, in itself, is not a bad thing. Investment, like capitalism generally, can lead to to all kinds of wonderful things: goods, technology, infrastructure, the arts, and other stuff which make other people’s lives better as well as your own, and more money with which fund more worthy projects. But think of the implication when it comes to investing in people. First, a good investment is one which has good results; so far, so good. But here’s what it also implies: putting our resources into bettering people’s lives is only worth doing if there’s something in it for someone else, and especially, for you. And that’s why I find the expression ‘investing in people’ irksome.

Of course, I realize that such expressions as ‘We need to invest in people’ are often shorthand for entirely benign sentiments such as ‘We need to invest in the projects and infrastructure that will provide opportunities and improve the lives of people because we care about their well-being’. Investment has become a buzzword that’s taken on more shades of meaning than it originally had, and political speeches and rallying cries are most effective when they’re short, punchy, catchy, and heavy on the use of buzzwords; I get it.  But I would be a more convinced of the humanitarian sense of purpose that investment rhetoric inspires if market interests were routinely subjugated to considerations of human rights and dignity and the health of our planet than the other way around. If it was used at least as often in the context of publicly supporting our elderly, our disabled, our homeless, our mentally ill, our artists, musicians, poets, volunteers, and others who don’t produce much of market value, it might not bother me much, and this essay wouldn’t exist.

As philosopher Michael Sandel worries, rightly to my mind, we seem to be transitioning from a market
economy to a market society, to the detriment of many. The rhetoric of investing in people is an emblem of a transition too far from from a humanistic, rights-based value system, and towards an acquisitive, incentive-based value system.

While personal gain has always figured heavily in market decisions, it seems to me that our behavior reveals less concern than ever about how our values should influence these choices. Despite what we find out about the low pay and awful working conditions of employees here and abroad compared to the wages of the company’s higher-ups, we keep gobbling their products up as fast as they’re churned out, and CEO’s continue to accept ever more lavish salaries without qualm. We know that children as well as adults are forced into labor mining rare earths, and that massive dumps of discarded electronics are rendering massive swaths of land and water in developing countries toxic, but we continue to invent, create, and gobble up new electronics without a murmur, and so on and so on. These are only two of the myriad ways in which we’re exhibiting a general loss of commitment to higher values in our market choices, and the noble working-class protests, strikes, and boycotts of the last century have disappeared and given way to complacent consumerism. We occasionally complain on the internet that higher-ups shouldn’t make quite so much when their workers are underpaid, and we sign petitions calling for a hike in the minimum wage, but we don’t do anything about it if our daily lives are made slightly less comfortable by doing so. As we can see from rising economic inequality, the plight of millions of unprotected workers who suffer and even die to produce cheap and plentiful goods, and the rate at which we’re causing mass extinctions, pollution (especially in poor countries), and climate change, they promise to undermine social cohesion and destroy our ability to sustain ourselves if we don’t start to seriously re-examine our behavior, re-commit to our values, and change our hyper-consumerist habits.

None of this is to say that we do wrong when we take into account how sharing our resources will impact our own lives. It’s actually quite an important consideration, especially given the fact that our own wellbeing is connected to the wellbeing of others, often closely. To clarify: I’m not a believer in so-called pure altruism. For example, I don’t believe, as did the great Immanuel Kant (at least according to some interpretations of his ethics) and as do some other philosophical and theological traditions, that an action is only fully morally praiseworthy if you don’t benefit from it in any way, even if only by feeling good about it. Kant thought that all actions that benefit the doer even a little are less morally good than they could be, because it means such actions are at least partly selfish. Only actions done purely out of duty, that are difficult or come at a cost to the doer, in this view, can be considered truly good.

But this extreme view of selfishness, which holds that doing anything that benefit’s one’s self is less than fully good, has a fatal flaw. It implies that there’s at least one human being in that’s less deserving of care than others, namely yourself.  So if you believe that all human beings have equal moral worth, or at least should be treated as if they do, then acting without concern for one’s own wellbeing offends justice just as much as acting without concern for others. The extreme view of selfishness also implies that human beings are atomistic, that the wellbeing of one is disconnected from the wellbeing of others, which we can easily recognize is untrue. It’s a demonstrable fact that the lives and fates of human beings are intimately intertwined in a way that’s unique among living creatures, due to our human nature as hypersocial creatures with highly developed, complex skills of communication. From the moment we’re born, we need human connection and human assistance to sustain life and enjoy happiness. As we saw earlier, the most pressing problems we face today, just as it’s been throughout history, concern the wider impact of individual human behavior and thought. I challenge the reader to think of any action or idea that doesn’t have consequences of any sort outside the life of an individual. Our own private thoughts habituate and instigate us to act in one way and not another, thereby manifesting themselves in the wider world. Even withdrawing ourselves from the human community, which gave us our being in the first place, is depriving it of our help and our participation, and therefore affecting it.

This all means that there’s no such thing as pure altruism or pure selflessness for human beings since, as we’ve seen, what we do affects others as well as ourselves as a matter of course. Concern for ourselves is bound up in everything we do and think. We’re all aware of this: human beings generally behave in a cooperative and even generous way because we know, by instinct, reason, and observation, that if we behave badly, it’s likely to come back and hurt us. When we behave badly, we seek ways to minimize the harm to ourselves, knowing it’s an expected result. When we consume too much, pollute too much, are greedy with our money when so many others are in want, and so on, we undermine the human community that sustains us (yet, this even includes those far away). We don’t trust bad actors, we are prone to respond in kind, and we aren’t as willing to cooperate and share with them. But when humans routinely do good, everyone benefits, ourselves included.

Even actions that are generally classified as selfless, such as self-immolation or martyrdom, are not really selfless. When we choose to sacrifice at least some portion of our well-being for other people or for an idea, we are satisfying some need of our own, such as the satisfaction of being fully committed to a cause, or of believing we’re saving our own souls, often at a cost to the wellbeing of others, such as that of the friends and family we leave behind. (I have some serious problems with the idea of martyrdom too, which I’ll explore more fully in another piece.)

In sum, pure altruism and the extreme view of selfishness and pure altruism are useless concepts, the first because it’s impossible in a hypersocial species such as ourselves, and the second since it would apply to every thought we have and everything we do, and thereby rendered meaningless.

If I seem to digress, I do this for a good reason: this discussion of altruism and selfishness directly relates to an objection that may seem to undermine the project of this essay, which is to demonstrate why it’s important we don’t restrict sharing our resources only to those situations where we can recognize and identify the potential payoff. Returning from the consideration of altruism and selfishness back to the idea of investing in people, it seems that my critique of the first two undermines my critique of the latter. Since the wellbeing of everyone is linked, and everything that goes around comes around, doesn’t that indicate that we should only want to spend our resources in ways that might benefit ourselves as well as others?

Well, for one thing, the term investment doesn’t generally apply where the returns might be to indirect or too spread out to be readily identifiable as benefiting the investor. It also doesn’t generally apply where non-monetary or at least non-material returns are irrelevant, if we wish the term investment to include expectations of more noble returns, such as decreasing suffering or protecting the rights of others. But even if we extend the meaning of the term to include these, I still think that using the rhetoric of investment is not only unhelpful, it can instill a bad habit of thinking. In a democratic society that ostensibly protects the rights of all of its members equally, a rhetoric that originates with the monetary concerns of the the most wealthy, or at least only those with material wealth to invest, is a very poor fit with the more broadly humanitarian aims of the public endeavor it refers to. At best, it implies that we should apply a market mentality of only spending money in hopes of personal reward to situations where human rights and dignity should be of primary concern. At worst, it ends up crowding out the habit of thinking we would do better to instill in one another, that human beings are worth sharing our resources with for their own sake, and that anything we can do to make it more likely that human rights are protected is a worthy goal in and of itself.

Returning to Kant, investing in people sounds like a violation of his great categorical imperative, that every person should be treated as if they’re an end in themselves, never as if they’re just a means to an end. Human beings, in his view and in the context of a humanitarian, rights-based value system, are worthy of respect and of support for their own sake.

You may object, who cares what it sounds like? We should only care about what we really mean by ‘investing in people’. Well, in case this whole discussion leaves you wondering if this is really all just a case of nitpicking about verbiage, that I would do better just making a case for why we should do more for those who need our help, well, I think that words really can matter. While the theory that language itself influences our thoughts is controversial, what’s not controversial is the knowledge that the words we choose both directly convey and imply our ideas and our values. When we choose the language of investment rather than the language of virtue or of human rights and dignity to talk to each other about why we should share our resources, I think we imply that we place a higher value on the return than on the persons being helped. And when our political leaders and the media flood the internet and the airwaves with this rhetoric, I think they do a disservice by making people too comfortable with that implied idea through repetition. After all, the American people (though not alone, by any means) are bombarded right and left with the message that to be a happy person and a good citizen we should work tirelessly to get ahead, and that the measure of our success is to be as well-dressed, well-housed, well-fed, and possessed of as much money in the bank and as much stuff as possible, whatever the wider ramifications.

I think that it would be an excellent thing if our political rhetoric more regularly emphasized the idea that the human community, and the world that makes its possible, is worth our respect and our support for their own sake. ‘Investment in people’, to my mind, does nothing to emphasize that point. While it’s true that a public commitment to sharing our resources where needed does benefit ourselves as well as others, that’s the gravy. The meat is the commitment to protecting human rights and to making lives comfortable and happy as befits their human dignity, and to preserving the wonderful world we are so fortunate to find ourselves in and which makes our lives possible, just because we know it’s the right and the beautiful thing to do.

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Sources and inspiration:

Rohlf, Michael, “Immanuel Kant”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2014/entries/kant/>

Sandel, Michael. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. https://books.google.com/books?id=06-54FCTQ9AC&printsec=frontcover&dq=

Thomas Paine on Basic Income, and Why Welfare is Compatible with an Individualist Theory of Human Rights

Thomas Paine, advocate of liberty par excellence, is an intellectual hero of all believers in democratic and accountable government. He’s also, especially, a hero of modern American conservatives and those of the libertarian persuasion.

But here’s a lesser known fact: he also argues in favor of what today we commonly call welfare.

Paine is, most famously, the author of Common Sense, The American Crisis, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. These pamphlets are, in turn, an argument in favor of the American colonies’ cause for independence, a series of pamphlets of encouragement and calls for support for the struggling revolution, a rebuttal to Edmund Burke’s harsh critique of the French Revolution (and founding work of modern conservatism), and deist critique of Christianity and organized religion in general.

In Common Sense, Paine calls government a ‘necessary evil’, which we need only because of our flawed human nature, and he considers it legitimate only if it functions to benefit the people as a whole. But to do so, it must remain fully accountable and therefore not too large, or else it would do as governments had always done throughout the history of Europe: it would oppress, enslave, overly tax, and otherwise use its people for its own ends, making them suffer for the inevitable territorial, political, and ideological wars that all monarchs, power-hungry aristocrats, and high-ranking clergy embroiled themselves and their nations in. He also writes that commerce was one of the great pacifiers of the world by rendering people ‘useful to each other’, and as such, should not be interfered with. Thus far, his thinking is closely aligned with the political principles of libertarianism and modern American conservatism.

Yet libertarians and conservatives misunderstand Paine when they stop there: Paine very definitively argues that government should play some very important roles in public life beyond defense of life and private property and the enforcement of contracts. After all, it’s not only governments that oppress and neglect its citizens in all kinds of ways: it’s also other people.

One of these roles that government should take on is economic support of all citizens when they are the most vulnerable, especially the young, the elderly, and the infirm. As Paine observes, neither governments nor individuals sufficiently protect the rights of working people nor of the people to support themselves when they can’t yet work or can no longer work. He himself suffers at the hands of the government when in their employ as a tax officer: they routinely underpay and overwork him and his fellow tax officers, fire him for insufficient cause, and punish him for petitioning the government to improve their treatment of public employees.

Paine thinks government can do better, and go beyond just paying fair wages to its own representatives. He argues in favor of publicly funded welfare for all citizens, especially at the beginning and at end of life, and he outlines a concrete plan for its implementation. As he sees it, taxation and redistribution of wealth, within certain bounds, are just as essential for liberty as are the franchise, education, free trade, a constitution, and a bill of rights. For every person to have the chance at sustaining their life in a way compatible with their rights, the young should, at the very least, receive a free and full education and a sum of money with which to start out on their chosen profession, and a stipend to sustain them in health, comfort, and dignity when they can no longer work.

How is this possible? How can Paine be in favor of accountable government and individual rights while supporting a welfare system, often portrayed today as an enemy of both? His argument is an innovative one, and shows how a system of welfare is, in fact, not only consistent with an individualist theory of liberty and human rights, but is a necessary consequence of it.

Like the writers of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the United States Constitution, Paine is influenced by John Locke, author of Two Treatises on Government and therefore, indirectly, of American political theory. Paine bases his argument on a Lockean theory of rights: all human beings are born into the world with identical natural rights, including that to life and liberty. Everyone is also born with equal rights of access to the land and to its resources, since the latter two are necessary to the former, not only for sustaining life but for making it a free and happy one. The right of individuals to own property, therefore, is not a pure natural right like the others, since it allows particular people access to particular land and resources while denying it to others. Purely natural rights, by contrast, are equal in kind and in degree from individual to individual. Yet giving people the right to claim property as their own is valuable to everyone, since it provides incentives for individuals to create wealth through labor, improving what nature left on its own cannot provide: agriculture, technology, housing, art, and so on, and this wealth is shared by all through trade. Unlike the right to life and liberty, Locke’s labor theory of property rights is contingent, valid only if its original acquisition is ‘mixed’ with the owner’s labor. and only if enough is left so that others have not only enough, but just as good. (When the United States government drove the Native Americans of their ancestral land, they routinely and conveniently forgot the second part of Locke’s property rights theory as they grabbed the most resource-rich and most conveniently located land for themselves, driving the tribes into ever smaller and ever poorer places.) Even if it sometimes interferes with the ability of some to enjoy their purely natural rights, such as when certain people grab all the wealth for themselves while leaving others to suffer in poverty and even starve, Locke thinks that the right to own property benefits society on the whole to such a degree that it’s justified.

Paine, however, is not satisfied. He observes that property rights routinely benefit the few to a great degree and most relatively little. He looks not only at the world around him but at the whole of European history, seeing a world of immense wealth mostly enjoyed by a small number of people while most others earn just enough to sustain themselves, and the problem tends to grow worse over time. Paine tends to blame this state of affairs largely on a spoiled, despotic monarchy, aristocracy, and clergy, who use the law, assertions of ‘duty’, and enticements of salvation to wrangle most of the wealth out of the hands of people who actually create it. This leaves many of the young without the resources with which they could start creating wealth of their own for themselves and their families, and the impoverishment of the old who, after a lifetime of contribution through work, are left without resources when they can work no longer, having earned too little in their lives to save for their old age. So how can this be squared with Locke’s view that property rights should generally lead to the benefit of all, and that they are contingent on there generally being enough for everyone else to have what’s ‘just as good’?

He addresses this problem most thoroughly in his lesser known pamphlet Agrarian Justice, written in 1795 and ’96 after he’s observed the success of the American revolution (except for enslaved Americans, of course) and the turmoil of the French one. The French Revolution, after all, was mostly driven by popular anger and despair over the widespread privation and suffering of the French people, condemned to a life of hard work, few prospects for social mobility, and a strict hierarchical class system in which most of the nation’s wealth was gobbled up by a very few.

Paine doesn’t just base his argument on sympathy for the poor, the hapless young, and the elderly, though his work is clearly driven by that emotion, occasioned partly by his hard-working parents’ and his own struggles to get by. Instead, his argument centers on justice; specifically, the principle of just recompense. Since every person is born into society denied of their birthright, which is the right of equal access to all land on earth and its resources, everyone is responsible for paying damages for that loss. What we now call welfare is really reparations, due to everyone, by all members of a society that enforces landed property rights.

But wait a minute, one might object: isn’t the very fact that society as a whole benefits from property rights recompense enough? Even if Paine is right, wouldn’t justice only demand we make sure that everyone has the same liberties, the same protection under the law, and the same access to basic public goods such as infrastructure and education? That way, outcomes in wealth will generally apportion themselves fairly according to the hard work and ingenuity of individuals. This idea, commonly called equality of opportunity, is especially popular with those who fall into the modern conservative and libertarian portions of the political spectrum. Anything else looks like an injustice in this view. After all, is it really just to take away wealth from some, especially those who earned it through their own labor, and give it to those who have not earned it?

Remember that Paine offers the facts of history to show that fair wealth distribution just never seems to happen in societies that privatize land rights: the average person who works the hardest and does the most to benefit society very often does not accumulate even a fraction of the wealth as the relatively idle monarch, aristocrat, or member of the clergy. Well, then, how about today’s democratic market societies, where there is no monarch, aristocracy, or clergy empowered by the law to plunder most of the wealth from the working people for their personal use? We have only to pay attention to the news a short while to be aware that extreme inequality and unfairness of wealth distribution is as bad or nearly as bad as it’s ever been. The people doing the hardest and arguably most important jobs, such as teaching our children, manufacturing goods, cleaning up our cities, or harvesting the crops that sustain our lives earn anywhere from a pittance to a decent, but not stellar wage. Yet the CEO, the career politician, the idle children and grandchildren of millionaires, the trader and inventor of exotic financial products, and the tech whiz who invents the newest fad internet game often pile up money almost faster than they can stuff it into tax shelters.

Many like to say that unskilled, low-paid jobs are a stepping-stone to something else, but this is belied by the facts in the United States and around the world. While some do work their way up to more highly skilled and highly paid jobs, there are many, many more who never do. The fact that our economy depends on there being a certain number of those low-wage jobs in existence guarantees they will keep existing, at least until technology renders them obsolete. And when and if that happens, what will all those unemployed people do then? Even if every single one received an education and job training sufficient for employment as a skilled worker, there will only be a certain proportion of jobs that will be decently paid, leaving the rest in the same predicament. And there very well may be a lot less jobs in existence than there are people in this technological age. What then?

The reason why the whole equality of opportunity idea never works out may be that it’s a mythical concept, incompatible with the laws of nature, or if it were at least theoretically possible, indemonstrable.

In the real world, competition among workers for jobs necessarily leaves a huge number of people out when it comes to the ability to earn decent or even any money whether or not they do work hard, whether or not they’re willing but don’t have the opportunity, or whether or not they can at all. There are countless reasons for this due to the variety inherent in human nature and in the human experience. Some never had access to a good education, or they lack the network of patrons and mentors that the offspring of successful people rely on to get their own start in life. Others are simply not as intelligent, or tall, or graceful, or otherwise good-looking enough according to the whimsical and capricious standards of society, or of the ‘right’ race, ethnicity, religion, or don’t have the ‘right’ accent, and so on. There are jobs that disappear from the market due to advances in technology, with suddenly unemployed middle-aged or older people with now useless job skills in a society that heavily favors youth. There are people who are born with medical problems that make it difficult or nearly impossible to get well-paying jobs in a competitive market: skin disorders, genetically-imposed obesity, missing limbs, compromised immune systems, cancers, heart conditions…. the list is very long. And there are countless numbers of people for whom the ‘rat race’ is painful or self-destructive, as they have personalities that are shy, contemplative, independent, gentle, non-competitive, ‘weird’, and otherwise totally unsuited to that whole competition thing, and therefore terrible at it. The list goes on and on.

And the reason why equality of opportunity is indemonstrable, at least as something that can be implemented through public policy, can be recognized when we compare it to the gold standard of demonstrating the truth or usefulness of a theory: the scientific experiment. Consider a group of scientists who say, we are sure this theory is true because of this, that, and the other thing. They have an assortment of facts, they have arguments to show why, given the facts, certain things should result, so they make a prediction. Then they run the experiment and… what do you know, the results of the experiment fail to support the hypothesis. They they say, oh yes, we see the flaws with the experiment and/or with the participants, they compose new arguments, they formulate a new hypothesis, they run a new experiment and… oops, it failed again! And again, and again. Now, consider every democratic market economy ever in existence and see if any of them actually achieved actual equality of outcome. These actual economies are analogous to the scientific experiments, and the equality of opportunity-based sets of policies are analogous to the hypotheses being tested. Even if, hypothetically, some system based on the ideal of equality of opportunity would actually achieve equality of outcome in a world of identical beings who are not born with or given extra advantages by others, we’ll never know. Asking us to ascribe to indemonstrable political strategies based on equality of opportunity is like asking us to believe the truth of hypotheses that are never proven by scientific experiment. That’s why I, for one, don’t buy it, and am more interested in focusing on equality of outcome, which Paine’s basic income idea seeks to resolve in a practical and just way.

Returning to the original point regarding the fairness of redistributing income from the wealthy to the un- or under-employed: Paine foresees this objection by calling for a universal basic income. In other words, he thinks that it should not be granted on the basis of need. That’s because, for one thing, he bases his whole argument on the equality of natural rights. All human beings alike are deprived of their natural right of free and full access to all of the land and its resource in societies that enforce landed property rights. Even those who own land are still deprived of the right of access to other land, so they are still owed the same damages. If they are wealthy enough to throw the money back into the public fund since they don’t need it, that’s up to them, and very much to their credit, but it’s still owed to them, same as anyone else.

For another thing, and perhaps most importantly for its being popularly acceptable enough for implementation, Paine recognizes that basic human psychology instinctively abhors unfairness. The whole idea of giving welfare to some and not others, even based on need, might seem charitable but still feels unfair, especially when the funds are taken away from people who earned it through their own labor and given to the un- or under-employed. Human beings simply do not need any more sources of strife and division than they already contend with: politics, ideology, and religion do enough mischief on that account already. Therefore, Paine says, basic income should be equally distributed regardless of need so that no-one is given, by society at least, an excuse to resent or look down on anyone else.

*This essay has also been published at the Thomas Paine National Historical Association website (under a different title)

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Sources and Inspiration:

“Labor Theory of Property.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 22 Sep. 2015. Web. 30 Sep. 2015.
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Labor_theory_of_property&oldid=682304595

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government, 1689
http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/locke/government.pdf

Paine, Thomas. Agrarian Justice, 1796.
http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/Paine1795.pdf

Paine, Thomas. The Rights of Man, 1791.
http://www.ucc.ie/archive/hdsp/Paine_Rights_of_Man.pdf