Thomas Paine’s Agrarian Justice and John Locke
Both Locke and Paine sought to create a middle class.
July 3, 2015
As a liberal political philosopher during an era of absolute monarchies, John Locke sought to set limits on the power of government. A critical part of that project was articulating a theory of private property grounded in natural law.
Locke started from the Biblical premise that God gave the world to all mankind in common. Under what circumstance, Locke asked in his Second Treatise on Government, could one be justified in enclosing a piece of that common heritage and claiming exclusive ownership?
The answer he offers is that since one legitimately owns one’s own labor, one has a legitimate claim to whatever piece of the commons one mixes one’s labor with. In other words, a farmer could legitimately claim as much land as he could improve, and no more.
This could be read as a direct challenge to the feudal principle of aristocratic title to vast estates and dominion over the people who worked it, and also a moral justification for smallholders’ claims of legitimate title to their property. Locke’s was a solidly middle-class doctrine.
The doctrine was incomplete, however. Locke added a qualification, and dismissed it almost as quickly as he raised it: the taking of common land as private property is justifiable only when “enough and as good” is left over for others to use.
Nobody could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst. And the case of land and water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same.
Locke took it for granted that the supply of good land was virtually unlimited. There was, after all, an entire New World of supposedly “unimproved” land of good quality for the taking by hard-working pioneers.
Locke, like most contemporary Europeans, was ignorant, willfully or otherwise, of Native American agricultural traditions and land management practices.
“Enough and as good”
Of course, the amount of real estate on the planet, though large, is finite. And it was not necessary for English-speaking settlers to overrun the breadth of the North American continent before they got the sense that “enough and as good” was no longer available.
In particular, during the immediate pre-revolutionary period, the thirteen colonies felt penned in. They were bounded by British Canada in the north and Spanish Florida in the south. In the west, Britain limited colonial expansion at the Appalachians in order to keep the peace with the Natives.
In short, as European immigrants poured in to fill up the “back country” in Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas, there was a palpable sense of claustrophobia.
The resulting discontent was expressed in anger at the policies of the crown, but also in resentment at the way local coastal elites were hoarding the best land. This prompted a resuscitation and reexamination of Locke’s doctrine of private property. How could Locke’s basic principles be rescued when the condition of “enough and as good” no longer obtained?
Thomas Paine, who had participated in the immigrant tide swelling the discontented colonies, articulated his solution in a 1797 pamphlet called “Agrarian Justice.”
Since enclosure of a piece of God’s green Earth (the commons) for private use means excluding others from its use, Paine argued, one who encloses land owes one’s neighbors some compensation.
No stranger to bold gestures, Paine offered a concrete proposal for how such compensation could be arranged: In proportion to their holdings, landowners would pay a modest fee into a fund (via an inheritance tax).
Payments would be made out of this fund to support the elderly, on one hand, and on the other hand to provide seed money to young persons when they turned 21, so they could set themselves up in business and start families without fear of poverty.
The perennial proposal: Idealistic and impractical?
Paine’s proposals largely fell on deaf ears in all three of his homes, England (where he was persona non grata for his role in the War of Independence), France (where his English notions of limited government were out of step with the sans-culottes’ revolutionary agenda), as well as in the new United States (where he had fallen into disrepute for his francophile atheistic leanings).
The newly independent United States found it easier to relieve their discontent over land distribution with aggressive westward expansion rather than institutional reform.
It was inevitable, though: Sooner or later, English-speaking settlers would swallow up the whole space between the former colonies and the Pacific Ocean. In fact, that happened with speed that would have astonished the revolutionary generation.
Even the most knowledgeable Euro-Americans in the late 1700s, such as Thomas Jefferson, had only a vague idea of how big the continent was. Less than a century after Jefferson’s presidency, the frontier was officially closed.
As the in-between spaces filled up and as it became obvious that “enough and as good” would no longer be available to aspiring farmers, Paine’s solution was resuscitated in a new form. This time, the idea was presented as a land tax, championed by Henry George.
Locke was ignorant of Native American agricultural traditions and land management practices.
How could Locke’s basic principles be rescued when the condition of “enough and as good” no longer obtained?
Thomas Paine argued: one who encloses land owes one’s neighbors some compensation.
The US preferred to indulge in aggressive westward expansion rather than institutional reform.