A few years ago, I posted an excerpt of a letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, written in 1785 while Jefferson was in France during the politically tumorous period leading up to the French Revolution. In the letter he remarked about the propensity of French aristocrats to hoard land, leaving very little left for average French citizens to subsist, especially during a period of high unemployment and famine, and suggested that a sliding scale land tax could free up land for wider use – the more land one owns, the higher the tax.
I have the excerpt here, and there is also nearly the same version of it included with the article in New York Magazine that compares Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Jefferson based on the letter, and even to Thomas Paine (I am sure where Paine fits in), with which I am about to quibble over the following point:
In a letter to James Madison, Jefferson wrote that the extremity of European inequality was not only morally suspect, but economically inefficient. Aristocrats had grown so wealthy, they were happy to leave their lands uncultivated, even as masses of idle workers were eager to improve it. Thus, these proto-billionaires undermined both the peasants’ ability to transcend mere subsistence, and their society’s capacity to develop economically…
I want to focus on a mistake in the last sentence that throws the entire train of logic in the article into chaos. It says:
“Thus, these proto-billionaires undermined both the peasants’ ability to transcend mere subsistence…”
But that isn’t correct. The point Jefferson made was that unemployment was very high and aristocrats had hoarded so much of the land in the country, with trespassing severely punished, that there was nowhere to go to be a subsistence farmer or even to hunt, and as an unemployed peasant, options for finding something to eat were extremely limited. The point was that land hoarding had become extreme to the degree that it was undermining the peasants’ ability to subsist – not ‘transcending subsistence.’ In the letter, Jefferson said nothing at all about doing more than providing a pathway so that average people could meet their own basic needs.
I think nearly everyone can agree that land hoarding supported by the state to the degree where there is simply no place to go for a member of the unwashed masses to get a bite to eat is utterly tyrannical. Here, I am thinking it’s on a Chairman Mao Zedong level of tyrannical, the ultimate state-sponsored humanitarian crisis. People starve to death, and then their family are raked over the coals for debt until they too succumb.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposals of Medicare for all, free housing, free college, etc.… are hardly the same things as saying stop hoarding land so that people can feed themselves, and it is absurd to make such a comparison. Also, considering that the U.S. government is the largest land hoarder in the country, among the imposition of atrocious economic and regulatory policies that place enough boots on each of our necks to outfit an army, it seems to me that the ire, wealth envy, and accusations of immorality vented toward American billionaires is somewhat misplaced.
My last remaining point here is that we really need to stop devising more and more ways to one-up the last generation government’s splendor in tearing people down, no matter who they are, and start doing more positive things to leave everyone better off. Lift people up. Stop tearing them down.
PS: Ask a person from Venezuela what it’s like to not know how good you have it until its gone.