Alex Gourevitch on Thomas Paine


Over at The Junto:

It’s important to be clear about what private property meant to Paine. It meant the right to keep the full fruits of one’s labor—which is one meaning it still has today. Inequality was justifiable for him if it made everybody better off with respect to their fundamental interests.[1] But he saw that the current defense of private property created poverty, a poverty that had never before existed.[2] So it is possible, given the enormous productivity of a modern society, based on private property, for everyone to live better lives, not just secure from absolute poverty but for even the worst off to enjoy relative prosperity.

Paine took the communist challenge to heart, but in a way that aimed to defend private property. The introduction of Agrarian Justice names Babeuf directly, and the pamphlet itself makes an important change from the public works scheme in Rights of Man to a ‘National Fund’ that pays every adult enough money to be able to buy some land and tools. Paine accepted Babeuf’s argument that, in the natural state, it’s not just that nobody was poor but that everyone enjoyed a natural independence—and they should have a right to that independence under modern conditions as well.

Even though Paine says he is defending the principle of private property, he is driven to say, in Agrarian Justice, that “personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally… All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man’s own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.”

Why add gratitude to justice? I think it’s because Paine sees that private property is not just a matter of rights and legitimate coercion: it is a form of social relationship.

More here.