"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Basis of American Aristocracy: Wealth & Property

In the constitutional convention of the United States in 1787, the property-interests were well-represented. Even so, a fear of a plutocracy was voiced by those property-protectors as well. While one might conclude at first glance that the wealthy delegates were duplicitous, their position is not self-contradictory, even if the bias toward wealth is discomforting for those of us who value representative democracy.

Governeur Morris, on July 5, asserted that property is “the main object of Society.” (1) Rutlidge, on July 5, concurred, maintaining, “Property was certainly the principal object of Society.” (2) Hamilton, on June 26, argued that the “inequality of property constituted the great & fundamental distinction in Society.” (3) King, on July 6 averred that “property was the primary object of Society.” (4) In Morris’ view, property is thus “the main object of [Government].” (5) Hamilton articulated this view in the Federalist by writing that the adoption of the Constitution will afford additional security “to the preservation of [republican] government, to liberty and to property.” (6) “I am convinced,” he writes, “that this is the safest course for your liberty, your dignity and your happiness.” (7) So his statement that “the vigour of government is essential to the security of liberty” can be read as a plea for a General Government primarily to protect property interests. (8) Butler, on July 11, claimed likewise that government is “instituted principally for the protection of property.” (9) At the very least, these remarks evince a reductionism wherein society and government were viewed in terms of wealth. Shouldering a minority view on this point, Wilson, on July 13 in the convention, “could not agree that property was the sole or the primary object of [Government] & society. The cultivation & improvement of the human mind was the most noble object.” (10) This object, he suggested, is a personal right. (11) As much as this object is laudatory, it is not the object of government, which I contend is to provide and ensure order, which goes beyond the protection of property. If there is a higher purpose, government can express and operationalize societal ideals, which can thus orient whatever order government provides.

The primary result of the delegates’ property-centric view was the formation of a General Government of the U. States to counter the risk that State legislatures would act democractically at odds with the interests of the wealthy. Just a year before the convention, the Massachusetts legislature had attempted to act in the interest of debtors (i.e., unpaid soldiers who were still expected to pay on their farm debts; the representatives sought to stop this injustice at the expense of the creditors). Shays’ Rebellion was the unhappy result. Govereur Morris, on July 2, alluded to this affront on property interests in stating, “Every man of observation had seen in the democratic branches of the State Legislatures, precipitation—in Congress changeableness, in every department excesses [against] personal liberty [,] private property & personal safety.” (12) However, what if private property is acquired unjustly at the expense of another’s liberty? In other words, liberty may run counter to the interests of the rich.

Madison, on June 26 in the convention, remarked that “we had not among us those hereditary distinctions, … nor those extremes of wealth or poverty which characterize [the modern States in Europe]… . An increase of population will of necessity increase the proportion of those who will labour under all the hardships of life, & secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings… . a leveling spirit… the future danger.” (13) Leveling would actually be in line with liberty if wealth has been acquired unjustly, as for example, under duress. Moreover, too great an inequality of wealth can threaten the viability of a republic. For example, in 1985, the top five percent in the U.S. held $8 trillion in wealth. By 2007, they had $40 trillion. Besides being in part from the dot.com and housing bubbles wherein asset values were overvalued, the concentration of wealth cannot but undermine representative democracy wherein each person has one vote. Interestingly, even as they sought to protect their wealth from being leveled via representative democracy, the delegates also feared that the U. States would end up as a plutocracy (i.e., ruled by the wealthy who would be our aristocracy). Governeur Morris, on July 2, expressed the following. “Let the rich mix with the poor and in a Commercial Country, they will establish an oligarchy. Take away commerce, and the democracy will triumph. Thus it has been all the world over. So it will be among us.” (14) Madison reports that Morris feared “the influence of the rich.” (15) That the U.S. was even then an extended republic on the scale of an empire was thought, at least by Morris, to strength the ability of the rich to rule.  “The schemes of the Rich,” he maintained, “will be favored by the extent of the Country. The people in such distant parts can not communicate & act in concert. They will be the dupes of those who have more knowledge & intercourse.” (16) Govereur Morris, on July 2, maintained that “The Rich will take advantage of their passions & make these the instruments for oppressing them. The Result of the Contest will be a violent aristocracy, or a more violent despotism.” (17)

Madison reports that Morris’ “creed was that there never was, nor ever will be a civilized Society without an aristocracy. His endeavor was to keep it as much as possible from doing mischief.” (18) To contain such mischief (and to protect property-rights), the delegates wanted the proposed U.S. Senate to represent the interests of the wealthy (as well as wisdom and the state governments—a combination they problematically assumed would play well together in the Senate). Govereur Morris, on July 2, claimed that “The Rich will strive to establish their dominion & enslave the rest. They always did. They always will. The proper security [against] them is to form them into a separate interest.” (19) Accordingly, Davy, on July 6, urged that “wealth or property ought to be represented in the [second] branch.” (20)

The Senate was to be a conservative institution, wherein the vested property interests must sign off on any reform.  This could partially explain why passing health-insurance reform in 2010 was so arduous (and why extant health-insurance companies were able to kill off a competing public option). It could also explain why the wealthy could insist that their tax cuts be extended even as the U.S. Government was facing another deficit over $1 trillion also in 2010.

In short, the delegates to the constitutional convention were concerned that a “leveling danger” not be allowed to redistribute wealth even as they feared the advent of a plutocracy as essentially aristocratic governance. Government should protect wealth but not be run by it. In modern terms, this position might seem familiar as: CEO’s like Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs should not run the government, but the latter should not be used by those without to take from the wealthy. Yet as the CEOs’ agents in government essentially operate in the interest of the corporations and the wealthy, does not the government’s orientation to property already evince a plutocracy by a moneyed aristocracy? If so, Jefferson and Adams, who were for a natural aristocracy of talent and virtue rather than money (the latter being an “artificial aristocracy,” which the two founders believed was taking hold in the U. States even in the early 1800s), would doubtless demur. It is telling for us that government protecting wealth is virtually taken for granted among the American people even as the fear of an impending plutocracy and moneyed aristocracy is nearly absent. Any balance from the delegates’ two fears has dissolved in favor of property. The bias is so engrained in American society and government that it has become invisible.

1. James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987, p. 244
2. James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987, pp. 245
3. James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987, p. 196
4. James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987, pp. 247
5. James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987, p. 244
6. Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #1, in Jacob E. Cooke, The Federalist, Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961, p. 7
7. Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #1, in Jacob E. Cooke, The Federalist, Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961, p. 6
8. Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #1, in Jacob E. Cooke, The Federalist, Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961, p. 5
9. James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987, p. 268
10. James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987, p. 287
11. James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987, p. 287
12. James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987, pp. 233
13. James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987, p. 194
14. James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987, pp. 233-34
15. James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987, pp. 235
16. James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987, pp. 235
17. James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987, p. 235
18. James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987, p. 251
19. James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987, p. 233
20. James Madison, Notes in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987, pp. 248