What the Founders Would Think of Occupy Wall Street

Economic liberty was not the top priority of Thomas Jefferson.

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If you haven't already checked out blogger Will Wilkinson's work at BigThink.com, do yourself the favor. His post this morning on John Rawls—the preeminent modern liberal philosopher of the 20th century—is worth a read.

Wilkinson responds to New York Times "opinionator" Steven Mazie, who says the Occupy Wall Street protestors should look to Rawls for moral guidance:

[See photos of the "Occupy" protests.]

Rawls's boldest claim—that inequality in society is only justified if its least well-off members fare better than they would under any other scheme—could provide a lodestar for the protests.

Wilkinson says that wasn't Rawls's "boldest claim," since anyone who subscribes to a basic notion of "common good" will accept that claim. Where Rawls was truly bold, argues Wilkinson, is when he gave short shrift to economic rights in the hierarchy of basic liberties:

Political liberty and its adjuncts are first among equals in Rawls scheme. The "right to hold (personal) property" is duly mentioned, but it tags along with "freedom of the person," and Rawls never explains exactly what does and doesn't count as personal property (t-shirts? wages? stock in Google?), though it eventually becomes clear that it's not a lot. The freedom to buy and sell, to enter into contracts, to start a business, to hire and be hired, to save and invest, to trade freely across borders—none of these are among the basic liberties to be established under the first principles.

I'm not as well-versed in these matters as Wilkinson is, but I think he's mistaken. If that is Rawls's boldest claim, then he never made a bold claim.

I think most people intuitively agree that personhood, and the rights attached thereto, precedes the litany of economic freedoms Wilkinson cites. This is true in a strict chronological sense: You must first be allowed the right to live—"to be born," I would argue—before you can avail yourself of any other rights.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Whether or not I'm correct about most people's intuition here, I would say it's extraordinarily difficult to believe that the Framers themselves gave pride of place to economic liberty—at least not in the way that Wilkinson would argue.

Look at the way Jefferson (via George Mason), in the Declaration of Independence, rank-ordered the unalienable rights with which we were endowed by our Creator: "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," with the last clause being broadly understood as synonymous with property.

If you're thinking to yourself that it doesn't matter in which order these rights were given, think again. Mr. Jefferson and co. were meticulous carpenters of sentences. The three branches of the federal government created by the Constitution are technically coequal and interdependent, but Congress famously got Article I—and so it's the "First Branch."

Consider also the context in which the founding documents were written. I'm not engaging in Dead White Man-bashing here. This is simply the ineluctable truth: Economic liberty, at the time, was enjoyed by a tiny subset of the American population. If economic liberty was considered by the Framers as fundamental as the right to life and political equality, then progressive historians like the late Charles Beard had a legitimate beef about the country being founded for the exclusive benefit of property-owning white men.

[Read about 7 groups with reason to protest.]

Jefferson wrote in an 1814 letter to John Adams:

The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts and government of society. And indeed, it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed men for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of society. May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government? ...

Every one by his property, or by his satisfactory situation, is interested in the support of law and order. And such men may safely and advantageously reserve to themselves wholesome control over their public affairs, and a degree of freedom, which in the hands of the canaille[roughly from the French: pack of dogs] of the cities of Europe, would be instantly perverted to the demolition and destruction of everything public.

Shorter Jefferson: "Right to life and liberty for thee—the right to property for me." In quite a different way than Rawls, the Framers, too, considered economic liberty apart from "basic liberties."

I suspect most of us are glad that both the franchise and economic liberty have, over the last 100 years, been more broadly extended to the whole population.

Does that make me a Rawlsian?

No.

It just makes me not a libertarian.

  • See a collection of political cartoons on the Tea Party.
  • See a collection of political cartoons on Occupy Wall Street
  • Read Debate Club "Is Occupy Wall Street the Next Tea Party?"