Elizabeth Anderson: Tom Paine and Social Insurance: Bastille Day Weblogging
Elizabeth Anderson on Gracchus Babeuf:
Suppose one grants all these claims. Nevertheless, if one person, through sheer hard work, produces as much as four others performing identical labor, would he not deserve four times the pay? At this point, where a claim to unequal desert is virtually impossible to deny, Babeuf resorted to a pure egalitarian claim. Such people disturb the social equilibrium in claiming more than others. “Even a man who shows that he can do the work of four, and who consequently demands the wages of four, will still be an enemy of society . . . . we should curb a man of this type and drive him out as if he had the plague.” Alternatively, society should “reduce him to a state whereby he can do the work of only one man, so that he will be able to demand the recompense of only one man.”
This is the only case I know in the history of egalitarianism in which an egalitarian embraced the nightmare Harrison Bergeron scenario, in which equality is enforced by handicapping those with higher motivation or natural endowments.24 Such a policy makes no sense from a social contract perspective. No rational person would consent to a regime that barred them from exercising their superior talents. Nor would the less talented consent to such a regime, given the superior possibility of arranging social institutions so that people’s exercise of productive talents and efforts redound to everyone’s advantage.25 Babeuf drew his monstrous conclusion from a commitment to luck egalitarianism, the view that no one should be worse off than anyone else due to bad luck. “It is necessary to bind together everyone’s lot; to render the lot of each member of the association independent of chance, and of happy or unfavorable circumstance.” To my knowledge, this is the first assertion of luck egalitarianism in the history of politics. For Babeuf, the only way to ensure that risks of bad luck were equally shared was to share all goods and labor under a central administration, and to endure a radical leveling down of talents and motivations.
Elizabeth Anderson on Tom Paine's Agrarian Justice:
Poor Law reasoning supposed that poverty was due to either natural causes (illness, disability, orphanage, old age) or moral vice (idleness, drunkenness, and so forth). This was not true. Big landowners were idle, and many were drunken, ill, disabled, orphaned, or old, but these conditions did not make them poor. As Paine’s contemporary Nicolas Condorcet argued, the fundamental reason why some were poor and others not was neither vice nor nature but property inequality. The risk of poverty lay perpetually over the heads of those who had no external property but relied on labor alone for their subsistence. Once their family’s capacity to labor gave out (or, as later observers noted, once market shocks or recessions created involuntary unemployment), they would lose their only source of income and fall into poverty. A second reason for poverty applied to the able-bodied working poor: lack of education and tools limited their capacity to earn high enough wages to escape poverty even if they were steadily employed. In short, the fundamental causes of poverty were exposure to the risk of job loss or of the capacity to work, and a lack of human and financial capital.
Once the problem of poverty was conceived in those terms, the solution was evident. To cope with the risk of earnings loss, institute an insurance scheme whereby families pool their risks of illness, disability, unemployment, death of a family wage earner, and outliving the capacity to work. To overcome the low wages of the working poor, institute a system of grants for young adults so that they could augment their productivity with further education or tools.
Condorcet had no time to show how these institutions could be implemented or made consistent with property rights. He wrote up his ideas in a few pages of his last book, while hiding from arrest ordered by the Jacobin-led Convention. Shortly after completing it, he was captured and died of mysterious causes on his first night in prison.
Paine had the same idea as Condorcet, and was also imprisoned by the Jacobins for being allied with the Girondists. By a stroke of good luck, he escaped execution due to an oversight by prison officials. Robespierre was executed shortly thereafter, the Terror ended, and Paine won his release on the strength of his claim to American citizenship. This gave him the freedom to propose the outlines of a system of social insurance, calculating costs and revenues using English data to demonstrate its feasibility. More importantly, Paine showed how poverty was unjust and hence why workers were entitled to a system that would enable them to avoid poverty.
Paine began with the premises common to all social contract arguments: that in the state of nature or anarchy, before positive laws are instituted, everyone is free and equal, no one is subject to anyone else’s authority, and the earth is held in common by everyone. They will agree to join a common legal regime only if it will promote their interests better than the state of nature. Paine followed Locke rather than Babeuf in claiming that in the state of nature, everyone has a property right in their own labor and hence in the fruits of their labor. Locke argued that individuals could acquire property in land by mixing their labor with it and thereby increasing its productivity, provided they left “enough and as good” for others. Since working 10 acres of land makes it yield at least as much as 100 acres in its natural state, in appropriating 10 acres, the landowner effectively gives back 90 acres to everyone else--far more than needed to meet the sufficiency proviso.
Paine disputed Locke’s claim that the private property regime left everyone with a higher standard of living than what people enjoyed in the state of nature. In the state of nature, no one was poor. Poverty arises only upon the institution of private property in land, which creates two unequal classes, the rich propertied class and the poor working class. Since the poor were worse off under the current system of property laws than people were in the state of nature, they have a just complaint against those laws.
Unlike Babeuf, however, Paine was no enemy of private property. On Paine’s diagnosis, the problem was not the existence of private property, but the fact that the property system abrogated a rightful property claim in the state of nature. People who had mixed their labor with the land were only entitled to the value added by their labor to the land. The underlying value of the land in its natural state had been unjustly taken from everyone else. The solution to this problem did not require communism, as Babeuf had argued. No could we return to the state of nature, because population growth since the advent of agriculture was too high to be sustained by the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of our ancestors.
Instead, to compensate everyone for their exclusion from privately appropriated land, landowners must pay a rent to society, which would be most conveniently paid in the form of an inheritance tax. This would be sufficient to fund the social insurance and stakeholder grant system that would end poverty in most cases. Individuals would receive their rents in this form, rather than in regular cash payments over their lifetime, to satisfy the proviso that any legal regime leave everyone better off than in the state of nature. This requires that the property regime secure all against falling into poverty over the course of their whole lives.
Paine’s more consistent version of Lockean property rights was to have a long career. Henry George used a variant of it to argue that all taxes should be abolished except a single tax on land, designed to collect unjustly appropriated ground rents owed by landowners to society.36 Herbert Spencer, a leading 19th c. advocate of laissez-faire capitalism, was so moved by the argument that he concluded that the state should be the sole landowner, with individuals only allowed leaseholds. His argument was even more radical than Paine’s, in objecting not only to distributive injustice but to the injustice of feudal domination by landlords who could require subjection to despotic rule as a condition for workers’ access to the land, or even expel people from inhabiting the Earth.38 He also denied that the original appropriation of land had been just, because most of it had been acquired by conquest and plunder.
In The Principles of Ethics Spencer retreated from his radical position. Granting that the original appropriation was unjust, it was impossible to sort out who owed what to whom. One could not suppose that the landless were all victims, since the ancestors of some had once owned land unjustly and may have lost it through their own bad conduct. Moreover, the poor had already been more than compensated for any unjust appropriations by the Poor Law. Spencer sided with Locke in supposing that the value of undeveloped land was vanishingly small--too small even to support meager Poor Law distributions, much less the generous social insurance/stakeholder distributions needed to end poverty. Finally, centralized state management of land would be far less efficient than letting private owners allocate land under the free market.
Paine rejected the terms in which Spencer cast his retreat. Spencer supposed that the question turned on what the landowners owed the landless--of what one class owed another…. Paine rejected this class-based notion of obligation, and any notions of fault that might be associated with it. “The fault is in the system” that permitted uncompensated private appropriation of land from the commons. It did not lie in any violence or theft that may have tainted particular acts of appropriation. Since all were denied the fruits of uninhibited access to nature in any act of appropriation, all were equally entitled to compensation. Even those who owned land were entitled to compensation for the fact that they were barred access to the natural fruits of tracts appropriated by others. Hence the social security/stakeholder system must be a universal entitlement owed to all, not a means-tested relief provided by a superior class to an inferior one.
By casting his system as a universal entitlement, Paine also avoided the stigma associated with poor relief…