Born to Property

The earth in its natural, uncultivated state, was, and ever would have continued to be THE COMMON PROPERTY OF THE HUMAN RACE. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life-proprietor with the rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.

— Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice, (1793)

In this week’s Sift:

  • The Justice of the Public Sector. What about that idea that the government is “stealing your money” and spending it on “freeloaders”? New-fangled notions from John Locke and Thomas Paine explain the hole in that thinking.
  • Who’s Ready for Democracy? We can examine the obstacles to democracy in Libya (and elsewhere) without invoking religious, racial, or cultural stereotypes.
  • Short Notes. More soap opera in Wisconsin. Jon Stewart thinks “Gov hurts”. The ACA is a year old. Warrantless wiretapping is back in court. And my wife and I politely ask NOM to stop defending our marriage, which is doing fine on its own.
  • This Week’s Challenge. Let me know how the Sift gets from me to you.

The Justice of the Public Sector

Last week I argued that the current battles over state and federal budgets are part of a long-term conservative plan to destroy the public sector by “starving the beast“. Last September (in a review of Thomas Geoghegan’s Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?) I claimed that a society with a large public sector — public schools, public parks, public healthcare, public pensions — is a nicer place to live for the large majority of its citizens.

But even someone who granted me all those points might still say: “Yes, but the public sector is unjust. It relies on the government taking money from the people who earn it and spending it on people who didn’t earn it.”

Conservative rhetoric is the mirror image of Marxist rhetoric on this issue. To conservatives, you’re a parasite if you flip burgers for minimum wage, pay little-to-no tax, and nonetheless expect the government to spend somebody else’s taxes on your daughter’s chemotherapy. To Marxists, you’re a parasite if you expect burger-flippers to work for minimum wage so that dividends from your McDonalds stock can pay your country club membership.

Who’s right?

If you look at things on the small scale, the conservative argument looks compelling: There’s a big number at the top of your paycheck, and a considerably smaller number at the bottom that you get to take home. The idea that you “earned” the big number, but the government “stole” a chunk of it — it looks right.

If you pull back to a larger scale, though, the Marxists have a point (especially if you express their ideas in religious terms that Marx would have hated). Pre-tax earnings (both yours and Warren Buffett’s) reflect the outcome of a rigged game, because they’re based on a property system that is fundamentally unjust.

Think it through from the beginning: For whose benefit did God create the world? Everybody’s? Or just for the people who have their names on deeds? Babies are born into a world in which every object of value is already the property of someone else — how can that be just? What did those babies do to lose their share of the inheritance of the world?

As Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly argue in Unjust Desserts, and I’ve echoed on my religious blog, the same ideas apply more widely than just to land and other natural resources. Whether you’re a capitalist, a worker, or something in between, the bounty of the world economy has little to do with your efforts.

You can think of the economy as an enormous lever that magnifies the results of the effort we put into it. When we work, we pull that lever and move the world. But how did the lever get there? Why is our labor so much more productive than the efforts of our hunter-gatherer ancestors?

In a word, the answer is knowledge. Not just the insights reflected in patents and copyrights, but the deep knowledge that is embedded in the system as a whole: language, the wheel, metallurgy, and many subsequent advances made by people who are long dead. A huge slice of today’s economic pie is due to them, not to us. To us it may look like a wage, but it’s really an inheritance too.

So who should get the benefit of that inheritance? Lately we have been operating the American economy under the assumption that capital-owners are the sole heirs; the lever belongs to them, and they graciously let the rest of us use it. That’s reflected in the fact that wages have stagnated even as productivity increases. The lever of accumulated human knowledge continues to get longer and longer, but the benefit of its use no longer percolates down to everyone.

These observations are not new. The people who built the philosophical foundations of modern society knew that there was an original injustice at the root of the property system. When John Locke justified private property in his Second Treatise on Civil Government (1690), he set the stage like this:

The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being. And tho’ all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of nature; and no body has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state: yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man.

That means of “appropriation” — privatizing, in our language — was labor. If someone gathered acorns, the acorns became his or her private property through the effort of gathering. Similarly, land became property through the labor of cultivation:

God gave the world to men in common; but since he gave it them for their benefit, and the greatest conveniencies of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational, (and labour was to be his title to it;) not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious. He that had as good left for his improvement, as was already taken up, needed not complain, ought not to meddle with what was already improved by another’s labour: if he did, it is plain he desired the benefit of another’s pains, which he had no right to, and not the ground which God had given him in common with others to labour on, and whereof there was as good left, as that already possessed, and more than he knew what to do with, or his industry could reach to.

And there’s the rub: After your labor makes a bucket of acorns or a piece of land yours, there should still be “as good left” for other people to invest their labor in and make their own. Plainly, that no longer is true, and it was already false in England in Locke’s day.

So the basis of the property system was flawed from the beginning. But what can be done about it? Even if you could uproot the whole system without inciting a civil war, you would probably wreck productivity so badly that everyone would be poor for decades to come (as the Soviets proved in the 20th century).

In Agrarian Justice (1793), Thomas Paine provided a solution: Let the unjust-but-productive system run, but tax it to provide compensating benefits to those who have been disinherited from the legacy of God and our common ancestors. (Specifically, Paine proposed an inheritance tax to fund a grant of capital to the young and a pension to the old.)

And that’s the philosophical basis of the public sector we have today.

So the big number on your paycheck is your share of that original unjust system. It may seem like a lot, but for most people it is Esau’s porridge compared to the human birthright they have lost claim to.

Fortunately, though, those unjust desserts are taxed, and the taxes go to provide a public sector for the benefit of everyone. The public sector is our compensation for giving up our share of humanity’s common inheritance. Conservatives can argue that this compensation is too large. But when you appreciate the magnitude of the legacy, I think there’s a better case for claiming that the public sector is not big enough.

And that’s why the burger-flipper’s children are not freeloaders, even if their parents’ taxes don’t cover the cost of their education, or the use they get out of the parks or libraries or hospitals.

Mark Twain once responded to the charge that he was “low born” by pointing to his descent from Adam. The burger-flipper’s kids have a similar pedigree. It includes Og, who invented the wheel, and goes all the way back to God, who created the Earth.

Who’s Ready for Democracy?

Whenever we intervene in another country, we need to ask: What would count as success?

Obviously, our highest hope is that the country could become a prosperous democracy like Japan or Germany. But when is that a reasonable expectation?

Personally, I get a sinking feeling whenever I hear somebody wax optimistic about Afghan or Iraqi or Libyan democracy, but I don’t want to indulge in the racial, religious, or cultural stereotypes that so often get used to justify those feelings. You know what I’m talking about. There’s an longstanding argument about who is “ready for democracy”. Are Arabs ready for democracy? What about Muslims? Africans? Asians?

If you follow the thread of those questions back through history, you wind up listening to the self-justifications of 19th-century European imperialists, who carried the “white man’s burden” to bring civilization to the benighted parts of the world. In this telling of the story, the non-Western nations are like children, and we are the grown-ups. We need to nurture and discipline them until they’re “ready” to be Western nations themselves.

Yuck. Get the mental floss.

On the other hand, it still seems naive to expect Libya to be Germany. But why, exactly?

The problems that have kept democracy from taking hold in places like Afghanistan are hard to think about because they are inherently political and collective, not averages of individual attributes like intelligence or maturity or education. (That should be obvious: Individuals of every description come to America, and once they get here they do fine with democracy.) Almost all these problems boil down to one issue: As a nation, have we reached consensus on the issues that are worth killing people over?

Try this thought experiment: You and I belong to different tribes, and our tribes have a blood feud going. My people want to kill all of your people, and vice versa. Now imagine that some imperial bureaucrat draws a circle around our territories and wants our two tribes to be a democracy. Is that going to work? If the candidate from your tribe loses the election and my tribesman takes control of the army, are your people going to submit peacefully to the genocide?

Of course not. We’ll be in civil war before the inauguration. But it’s got nothing to do with you and me as individuals, or even with the “maturity” of our tribal cultures. Maybe your tribe could be a perfectly fine democracy, and so could mine. We just can’t be a democracy together, because we don’t have consensus on the issues worth killing over.

Look at the early United States. We had a run of really excellent statesmen, but all they could manage was to put the Civil War off for most of a century — because slavery was worth killing over, and we didn’t have consensus on it.

Around the world, vast wealth is considered worth killing for. Sometimes there are widely accepted ideas about who legitimately owns what, and in those cases the accepted ideas can be the basis for democratic laws. But a lot of the world’s wealth is what I sometimes call pirate treasure — it belongs just as legitimately to any person as to any other person. Unless a society comes up with some way to legitimize its ownership, pirate treasure will be controlled by force — and that’s bound to undermine a democracy.

Oil in the ground is a prime example of pirate treasure. Why, for example, did Saddam control the oil of Iraq? Because he had the guns. When we came along with bigger guns, then we controlled the oil and could pass it on to whomever we chose. Nobody wastes their time worrying that some long-lost heir of Saddam will come along to claim legitimate ownership of the Iraqi oil, because there was no legitimate ownership in the first place. It’s pirate treasure; finders keepers.

So as we wonder whether Libya or Iraq or Afghanistan will come out of their current struggles with a democracy, let’s look in the right direction. It’s got nothing to do with their DNA or the sophistication of their culture or even with Islam. (Remember: Overall, Muslim Americans have proven to be fine citizens.) The right question is: Can these countries reach consensus on the issues worth killing over? In Libya and Iraq, that especially hangs on the question of legitimizing ownership of the oil.

It won’t be easy, because it’s not enough to wield a majority on these questions. The consensus has to be large enough that any dissenters can be characterized as criminals, not a rebel faction. Again, think of the U.S.: Some teen-ager may decide that he owns your car, but that’s not a threat to democracy in America. We can deal with it as a crime, not a revolution. Disputing the House of Saud’s right to the oil of Arabia, though, could only be a revolution.

University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan blogged a pessimistic view of Libya’s prospects on the NYT website. LIbya has numerous “characteristics that make democracy unlikely”, including oil and an “ethnically heterogeneous” population:

no amount of Allied help will change the country’s location or its basic economics. Nor would it change Libya’s demographics, though perhaps a post-Qaddafi Libya would consist of multiple countries, each more homogeneous than the unified Libya was.

The Allied intervention will not bring Libya peace in the short term, and will not bring democracy in the long term as long as Libya has valuable oil in the ground.

A separate NYT article raises the possibility that the Libyan revolt is a “tribal civil war”, but Juan Cole is more optimistic.

It’s important to understand why “heterogeneous population” is an obstacle to democracy, because otherwise you can find yourself justifying xenophobia and nativism.

The key insight comes from Walter Lippmann’s 1920 classic Public Opinion: Democracy is a way for the will of the people to manifest itself and rule a country. But drawing a circle on a map doesn’t automatically create a popular will among the people inside. Unless and until they form a national consciousness and develop a popular will, democracy will just be a tussle among the wills of various factions.

So homogeneity is useful when founding a democracy, but once a national consciousness has formed, people of all ethnicities can join it. In 1776, for example, the Founders benefited from a shared perspective as English Protestants. But if today’s Americans consider themselves Irish or Jewish or Hispanic in addition to being Americans, democracy isn’t harmed.

Here are some maps that deserve more attention than they’re getting: a tribal and ethnic map of Libya and the locations of the oil reserves.

Compare them with the battle lines. In general, the population is along the Mediterranean coast. Qaddafi holds the capital of Tripoli in the West, while the rebels hold the the cities of the eastern coast. The west is dominated by the El Magarha tribe, while the east is split among numerous other tribes.

Both east and west have oil reserves, a fact which lends itself to the idea that the country could be partitioned. The pipeline to Europe is in Tripoli.

Short Notes

The soap opera of Wisconsin’s union-killing bill just keeps getting soapier. In our last episode, a judge restrained the Secretary of State from publishing the bill (a technical step necessary for it to take effect). The injunction was supposed to provide time for the court to decide whether the rush-rush process Republicans used to pass the bill violated Wisconsin’s open meetings law.

Friday, in what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called “a stunning twist”, the Legislative Reference Bureau posted the bill to its website. The Walker administration says that’s publication enough — even though both the head of the LRB and the Secretary of State say no — so they will begin enforcing the bill as law.

Both of the Republicans’ latest moves are head-scratchers. The bill-passing maneuver didn’t have to be so rush-rush, and premature enforcement will only spawn new court cases. Why not just let the first case proceed to a conclusion? Ratings, I guess.

Gov. Walker’s budget slashes public funds available to finance elections to the state Supreme Court — because judges should have to pander to wealthy special interests just like everyone else.

In another classy move, Wisconsin Republicans are using a freedom-of-information law to examine the emails of a history professor who criticized Governor Walker. Paul Krugman comments.

Governor Rick Scott’s plan to contract out Medicaid services may or may not save Florida money, but it will definitely benefit the health-services company Scott founded. No conflict of interest, though, because he got rid of all his stock in that company — by transferring it to his wife.

Rick Snyder, Rick Scott, Scott Walker — Jon Stewart skewers them all in a segment called “Gov hurts“.

The Affordable Care Act became law a year ago (though many of its features haven’t kicked in yet). Wendell Potter, the ex-health-insurance-executive who realized that his previous job was immoral, explains why we should be happy about the ACA.

Warrantless wiretapping is back in the news. A lawsuit challenging the practice was thrown out of district court in 2009 because the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue. But Monday an appeals court reversed that decision. Neither ruling touches the merits of the case, which may finally get a hearing.

The National Organization for Marriage has a new ad attacking President Obama’s decision to stop defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act in court. takes the ad apart point by point.

Having just celebrated our 27th anniversary, my wife and I have a message for NOM: Thanks, but we don’t need your help. Whatever you think you’re accomplishing, don’t do it on our account.

This Week’s Challenge

It’s not a challenge exactly, but I would like to hear from you: How do you get the Sift? Email? RSS feed? Somebody links to it or forwards it to you? You bookmark the website? Is there some way that would be more convenient, or easier to pass on to others? Comment on the blog, drop an email to WeeklySift at — whatever is convenient.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page.

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  • Michael Sky  On March 28, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Hi Doug,

    I've been reading your Monday morning messages for quite some time now, always find them valuable, love your politics and enjoy your writing. And have especially enjoyed your book reviews.

    I am an author of several non-fiction books and have just released my first novel: Jubilee Day. It's a page-turning political thriller taken straight from today's headlines. And it closely mirrors your writings, such as today's piece, on income inequality and the dominating force of the rich to get ever richer.

    If you'd care to take a look, I'd be happy to send you a copy: paperback, pdf, kindle or iPad.

    Or you can go here:

    a faithful reader,

    Michael Sky

  • Anonymous  On March 28, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    I love The Weekly Sift! I have it bookmarked in my favorites list. I appreciate your thoughtful analysis of the week's news. Please, keep up the good work.

  • Alan MacR.  On March 28, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    First Parish in Bedford discussion list.

  • David  On March 28, 2011 at 7:35 pm

    bookmarked, and read every Monday

  • Anonymous  On March 28, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    I have your blog bookmarked and visit it at least once a week, sometimes more if I'm too early on Monday.

  • Pat  On March 28, 2011 at 11:33 pm

    I first started reading the blog when it was posted to the UU community email list. It's helpful now to get the email reminders each Monday sending me to the Blogspot site, which I have bookmarked.

    I very much enjoy reading it and have recommended it widely. It helps to put events into perspective. Thanks!

    Pat Lamanna

  • Rich Daugherty  On March 29, 2011 at 10:45 am

    via First Parish
    Keeps me interesting and interested all week (of course, my opinion only)

  • Rowan  On March 29, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    I have it as an RSS feed in Google Reader (folder: People I Know), then typically view it on Séance (my iPad 2) using Reeder, which syncs with Google Reader.

  • Anonymous  On March 29, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Hi, truly enjoy your blog, keep up the excellent work!

    I receive it via RSS feed (“dynamic” bookmark in Firefox).


  • Jonah  On March 29, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    I read your blog on a weekly basis, via the website. Since it's in my browser history, It's easy to get to. Really appreciate your insights.

  • b0b  On March 30, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    I get it via RSS on my Google home page.

  • SM  On March 31, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    I have it bookmarked now, but originally came to it through a link at Chip Roush's

  • kimc  On April 2, 2011 at 11:28 am

    Democracy is a way for the will of the people to manifest itself and rule a country.

    This suggests, looking at our current situation in the USA, that we may soon be post-democracy. Perhaps it really is time for us to split into two, or several, countries.

    I often check Free and Responsible Search (it's on my favorites list) and click through from there. I often copy and send (attributed of course) to my email list of about 50 people who have subscribed.

  • j  On April 2, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    Thanks for “The Justice of the Public Sector.” If I understand it correctly, these ideas say that the economic conflict between liberals and conservatives comes down to how much we should let individuals and corporations leverage the rules– which we have set up to make the economy work well– to gain wealth. Nearly everyone underpays their debt to the human inheritance; what's hard to determine is how close to the right number can we get and still feel enriched by life.

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