Here we are in the middle of the controversy surrounding Donald Trump, and it is really depressing because the election year extremism is uncharacteristically way out of the stratosphere this year. It has brought out the hypocrite in many people that I’d have never expected it from. They point to Trump when says he’s going to follow the law and claim that it supports some perception of dictatorial tendencies, when I’d guess that the President not following the law is more in line with that kind of accusation.
It’s true. The Donald isn’t a likable man, at least not in my impression of him. And it isn’t clear that he knows what the laws are, especially where treatment of combatant detainees is concerned. But he is new to politics and is only one guy who opens his mouth and cannon balls fly out.
If I were to make some valid points against Trump, the first one would be regarding the story he tells about Carrier, where he claims he’d threaten them and likewise situated companies who pack up and leave with tariffs. It’s counterproductive to use a stick when they leave because of the sticks they are already beaten with domestically. A tariff won’t stop them from leaving, it will only shuffle their customer bases. And it isn’t like we’ve been through Reagan style deregulation lately and The Donald doesn’t promise that. Perhaps he should focus more on the great deals he claims he can make so that everyone can win rather than about the sticks he’ll beat people with. It leaves a really bad impression, to me at least.
The question is though, is that behavior authoritarian? In the strictest interpretation of the word, it probably is. But then there are all kinds of social engineering and other “incentives” in the tax code that one might also say is authoritarian – if one doesn’t do what the government wants, one pays through the nose. It doesn’t mean one can’t do what one desires – it’s just expensive.
But here’s an example of the same kind of thing that comes from an unimaginable source. Thomas Jefferson in a letter to James Madison that he wrote while he was in France witnessing the political turmoil that preceded the French Revolution suggested that a tax on land would be beneficial to prevent hoarding. He thought that a piece of land to subsist from was the essence of liberty and that government exists to secure our liberty, a notion that comes from the teachings of John Locke.
The property of this country is absolutely concentered in a very few hands, having revenues of from half a million of guineas a year downwards. These employ the flower of the country as servants, some of them having as many as 200 domestics, not labouring. They employ also a great number of manufacturers, and tradesmen, and lastly the class of labouring husbandmen. But after all these comes the most numerous of all the classes, that is, the poor who cannot find work. I asked myself what could be the reason that so many should be permitted to beg who are willing to work, in a country where there is a very considerable proportion of uncultivated lands? These lands are kept idle mostly for the aske of game. It should seem then that it must be because of the enormous wealth of the proprietors which places them above attention to the increase of their revenues by permitting these lands to be laboured. I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, 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 common stock 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 furnished 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 landholders are the most precious part of a state.
(Letter to Madison 1785)
In modern times, the essence of liberty is employment. And in Jefferson’s terms the government should do what it can to secure our liberty. Otherwise, there is no reason for it to exist. Now, just imagine a Hitler mustache on our old buddy Jefferson and Mr. Locke.
What we should be talking about instead of throwing around the authoritarian label, is what happened when, as President, Jefferson established the trade embargo with Britain. It was a net negative for the economy and Jefferson was wildly unpopular for it. We can’t do that kind of thing without hurting people here… like shooting ourselves in the foot. And, as is said, the shit rolls downhill.
PS: The book of Madison’s personal papers that I have or one like it cannot be found online. I, therefore, linked an accurate version of the letter from Jefferson that is in my book.