Agrarian Justice

Oscar B. Johannsen

[Reprinted from Fragments, October-December, 1967]

"IT is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race." So wrote Thomas Paine, the soul of the American Revolution, in a little known work entitled, Agrarian Justice, written in 1797 while staying with James Monroe, following Paine's release from Luxembourg prison in France.

In reading Agrarian Justice, one is reminded of Henry George's Progress and Poverty, for in discussing civilization, Paine points out, "on one side, the spectator is dazzled by splendid appearances; on the other, he is shocked by extremes of wretchedness; both of which it has erected. The most affluent and the most miserable of the human race are to be found in the countries that are called civilized. To understand what the state of society ought to be, it is necessary to have some idea of the natural and primitive state of man; such as it is this day among the Indians of North America. There is not, in that state, any of those spectacles of human misery which poverty and want present to our eyes in all the towns and streets in Europe.

"Poverty, therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state." Civilization brought with it the problems of property and land tenure, for, he stated, "as it is impossible to separate the improvement made by cultivation from the earth itself, upon which that improvement is made, the idea of land property arose from that inseparable connection, but it is nevertheless true, that it is the value of the improvement, only, and not the earth, itself, that is individual property." How many economists today recognize this simple truth that only wealth is ethically private property and not land?

In ringing terms he declared, "Man did not make the earth, and, though he had a natural right to occupy it, he had no right to locate as his property in perpetuity any part of it; neither did the Creator of the earth open a land-office, from whence the first title deeds should issue."

That he anticipated Henry George is obvious, for he said, "Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated lands, owes to the community a ground rent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds; and it is from this ground-rent that the fund proposed in this plan is to issue." Unfortunately, he did not follow up that concept by suggesting that the community collect this ground-rent by the simple expedient of charging the landowner the entire amount of this rent.

Instead, he advocated the creation of a fund to be established over a period of years, as the owners of landed property died, by taxing l/10th of their estates.

The fund was to be established in order to give to each individual attaining "the age of 21, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property." In addition, there was to be given "the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age."

Some, who have only glanced at Agrarian Justice, felt that he was proposing a welfare scheme to help the aged and to give the young a start in life. But he said he was advocating it, "in lieu of the natural inheritance (land) which, as a right, belongs to every man, over and above the property he may have created, or inherited from those who did."

Time and again Paine argued that in order to understand a problem, one had to revert to the simplest fundamentals. No doubt, when he looked at the condition of poverty then existing, he thought back to simple primitive living, and by logical analysis arrived at the same general concepts that Henry George had. After all, the truth of man's relationship to his fellow man and to the earth lies about him. If a man will think clearly and logically, he will arrive at the same answers.

The world is indebted to "Poor Tom." He was not afraid to accept whatever conclusions were the result of careful reasoning and to propagate them regardless of the cost to himself. That to this day only a relatively few appreciate his genius and his humanitarianism probably points up his genius all the more. Par too many of the really great men slide into the limbo of the forgotten while useless kings, dictators, and warriors clutter up the pages of history. Eventually, however, an era arises in which there is a re-evaluation of the great. When that time occurs, Thomas Paine will be accorded the veneration which is so justly due him.