Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone is not enough to produce widely shared prosperity.
Home Essential Documents Themes All Documents Authors Glossary Links Contact Us


Thomas Jefferson and Jeffersonian Ideals

Thomas Jefferson understood man's necessary connection to the land, and recognized that without access to land guaranteed, equality could not be maintained.
All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.
— Thomas Jefferson, letter to Roger C. Weightman, June 26, 1826,
before the celebration of the 50th anniversary
of the Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison, dated October 28, 1785:

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 commonstock 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 provided to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed.

It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment but who can find uncultivated land shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small land holders are the most precious part of a state.

Henry George: The Common Sense of Taxation (1881 article)

The true purposes of government are well stated in the preamble to the Constitution of the United States, as they are in the Declaration of Independence. To insure the general peace, to promote the general welfare, to secure to each individual the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — these are the proper ends of government, and are therefore the ends which in every scheme of taxation should be kept in mind.

As to amount of taxation, there is no principle which imposes any arbitrary limit. Heavy taxation is better for any community than light taxation, if the increased revenue be used in doing by public agencies things which could not be done, or could not be as well and economically done, by private agencies. Taxes could be lightened in the city of New York by dispensing with street-lamps and disbanding the police force. But would a reduction in taxation gained in this way be for the benefit of the people of New York and make New York a more desirable place to live in? Or if it should be found that heat and light could be conducted through the streets at public expense and supplied to each house at but a small fraction of the cost of supplying them by individual effort, or that the city railroads could be run at public expense so as to give every one transportation at very much less than it now costs the average resident, the increased taxation necessary for these purposes would not be increased burden, and in spite of the larger taxation required, New York would become a more desirable place to live in. It is a mistake to condemn taxation as bad merely because it is high; it is a mistake to impose by constitutional provision, as in many of our States has been advocated, and in some of our States has been done, any restriction upon the amount of taxation. A restriction upon the incurring of public indebtedness is another matter. In nothing is the far-reaching statesmanship of Jefferson more clearly shown than in his proposition that all public obligations should be deemed void after a certain brief term — a proposition which he grounds upon the self-evident truth that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living, and that the dead have no control over it, and can give no title to any part of it. But restriction upon public debts is a very different thing from restriction upon the power of taxation, and reasons which urge the one do not apply to the other. Nor is increased taxation necessarily proof of governmental extravagance. Increase in taxation is in the order of social development, for the reason that social development tends to the doing of things collectively that in a ruder state are done individually, to the giving to government of new functions and the imposing of new duties. Our public schools and libraries and parks, our signal service and fish commissions and agricultural bureaus and grasshopper investigations, are evidences of this. ... read the whole article

a synopsis of Robert V. Andelson and James M. Dawsey: From Wasteland to Promised land: Liberation Theology for a Post-Marxist World

Because George asserted, "We must make land common property," he is sometimes erroneously regarded as an advocate of land nationalization. But, as we have seen, he was nothing of the sort. The expropriation of land makes it practically impossible to fairly compensate people for the improvements to land, which are their legitimate property. George's system renders to the community what is due to the community, without doing any violence to the wealth that has been fairly earned by productive workers.

Common property in land is sometimes discredited by equation with what Garrett Hardin calls "The Tragedy of the Commons." Referring to the common lands that were a major English institution until the mid-nineteenth century, Hardin describes the tendency of individuals, each rationally pursuing self-interest, to overgraze, denude, and use the commons as a cesspool. That which belongs to everybody in this sense is, indeed, in danger of being valued and maintained by nobody.

The enclosure movement ultimately brought an end to this ecologically destructive process, but not without literally pushing people off the land, exacting a baneful price in human misery that might well be termed "The Tragedy of the Enclosures." George hit upon a way of securing the benefits of both commons and enclosures, while at the same time avoiding their evils. Land value taxation rectifies distribution so that all receive wealth in proportion to their contribution to its production. This liberates the economic system from exploiters who contribute little or nothing. Apportioning the wealth pie fairly increases the incentive to increase the size of the pie. The market becomes in practice what capitalist theory alleges it to be -- a profoundly cooperative process of voluntary exchange of goods and services. Paradoxical though it may seem, the only way the individual may be assured what properly belongs to him or her is for society to take what properly belongs to it: The ideal of Jeffersonian individualism requires for its actualization the socialization of rent.

Just as Marxists err in insisting that everything be socialized, extreme capitalists err in insisting that everything (even public parks and forests!) be privatized. The middle way is to recognize society's claim to what nature and society create -- the value of land and its rent -- so that working people, including entrepreneurs, may claim their full share of what they create. In this balanced approach can be found the authentic verities respectively inherent in socialism and individualism. Read the whole synopsis

Dan Sullivan: Are you a Real Libertarian, or a ROYAL Libertarian?
Classical liberals recognized that exclusive access to land, and especially to more land than one was using, was a privilege that should be paid for, thereby eliminating the need for taxes. It is not a fee for using land, but a fee for the state privilege of denying use of that land to everyone else.

Men did not make the earth.... It is the value of the improvement only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property.... Every proprietor owes to the community a ground rent for the land which he holds. --Tom Paine, "Agrarian Justice," paragraphs 11 to 15

Another means of silently lessening the inequality of [landed] property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions or property in geometrical progression as they rise. --Thomas Jefferson

Today's land value tax advocates consider graduated land value tax to be unnecessary and problematic, leading to artificial subdivision (and phony subdivision) of land. The point is that Jefferson, to whom libertarians pay homage, considered land monopoly a great evil and land value tax a remedy, as did many other classical liberals:

Ground rents are a species of revenue which the owner, in many cases, enjoys without any care or attention of his own. Ground rents are, therefore, perhaps a species of revenue which can best bear to have a peculiar tax imposed upon them. --Adam Smith

Landlords grow richer in their sleep, without working, risking, or economizing. The increase in the value of land, arising as it does from the efforts of an entire community, should belong to the community and not to the individual who might hold title. --John Stuart Mill ... Read the whole piece

Fred E. Foldvary — The Ultimate Tax Reform: Public Revenue from Land Rent

Thomas Jefferson believed “the Earth is given as a common stock for men to labour and live on.”15 In 1797, he suggested “a land tax supply the means by which the individual States were to contribute their quotas of revenue to the Federal Government.”16

From 1778 to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation. Article VII stated the expenses of the Confederation shall be defrayed out of a common treasury, which shall be supplied by the several states, in proportion to the value of all land within each state, granted to or surveyed for any person, as such land and the buildings and improvements thereon shall be estimated according to such mode as the United States in Congress assembled, shall from time to time direct and appoint. The taxes for paying that proportion shall be laid and levied by the authority and direction of the legislatures of the several states within the time agreed upon by the United States in Congress assembled.17

Thus, the states would levy taxes and each would pass on a share of the federal budget based on its land value. Individuals would pay taxes only to their state and local governments.18 ... read the whole document

Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0 — Chapter 7: Universal Birthrights (pages 101-116)

The Idea of Birthrights

John Locke’s response to royalty’s claim of divine right was the idea of everyone’s inherent right to life, liberty, and property. Thomas Jefferson, in drafting America’s Declaration of Independence, changed Locke’s trinity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These, Jefferson and his collaborators agreed, are gifts from the creator that can’t be taken away. Put slightly differently, they’re universal birthrights.

The Constitution and its amendments added meat to these elegant bones. They guaranteed such birthrights as free speech, due process, habeas corpus, speedy public trials, and secure homes and property. Wisely, the Ninth Amendment affirmed that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” In that spirit, others have since been added.

If we were to analyze the expansion of American birthrights, we’d see a series of waves. The first wave consisted of rights against the state. The second included rights against unequal treatment based on race, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation. The third wave — which, historically speaking, is just beginning — consists of rights not against things, but for things — free public education, collective bargaining for wages, security in old age. They can be thought of as rights necessary for the pursuit of happiness. ... read the whole chapter


To share this page with a friend: right click, choose "send," and add your comments.

Red links have not been visited; .
Green links are pages you've seen

Essential Documents pertinent to this theme:

Top of page
Essential Documents
to email this page to a friend: right click, choose "send"
Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper