Monday, August 12, 2013

Income Redistribution & the Agrarian Law

And to conclude my riff on how the civil republican ideological sources influences the vision of today's politics, here is this post by Daniel Clinkman, "a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh writing a dissertation on the issue of feudal law and constitutionalism during the American Revolution." A taste:
... Throughout the history of western republicanism, from the Gracchi brothers of Rome, through Machiavelli, James Harrington, and Thomas Jefferson, theorists have agreed that unlimited wealth is distorting to politics and proposed an “agrarian law” to reduce the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few. In the pre-industrial age, land was a far more important component of wealth than was liquid capital, and proponents of agrarian laws sought to break up large estates while distributing lands to commoners. The most radical agrarian law, proposed by Harrington in his Commonwealth of Oceana, would have broken up large estates by capping all inheritances at the value of £2,000. Harrington estimated the aggregate value of English estates at £10 million, meaning that wealth could theoretically never be concentrated in the hands of fewer than five thousand equal land holders, and in practice would be even more widely distributed through the functioning of the actual economy. 
Agrarian laws were intended for an agricultural society; capital redistribution through progressive income taxation and estate “death” taxes are their modern equivalent. Therefore, it makes sense that a republic practicing both democracy and capitalism would redistribute wealth. There is nothing un-American or threatening to the established order in a tactically redistributionist regime that does not dissent from the underlying logic of private property. Indeed, redistribution has typically been proposed as a means of ensuring the stability of the existing political and economic regime, not undermining or overthrowing it.
I choose this post because as per Eric Nelson's thesis, the significance of the "Agrarian" laws (now a relic of the past) to today's day in age is the principle that it is valid for government, in democratic capitalist regimes, to use its coercive power to redistribute wealth for "balance." This is what governments in Western liberal democracies, including the United States currently do. It's a modern thing. Dr. Nelson argues the Hebrew Republic is responsible for this particular facet of modernity.

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