Saturday, February 8, 2014

Is Inequality a Legitimate Concern? Did the Framers Think So?

Is inequality a legitimate concern in a democracy?

There might be a moral obligation for them what has to help them what has not.  Moral egalitarianism, in other words.  Still, if that is YOUR religion, how can you avoid imposing it on others without violating the "Establishment Clause" of the 1st Amendment?

Or is it just a consequentialist problem, steam control to prevent revolution or redistribution by force?  Jefferson really did seem to be concerned about the level of prosperity of the "smallest landholders."

Here is what Madison said that he said at the Convention:

The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa, or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge of the wants or feelings of the day laborer. The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevalent; but in process of time, when we approximate to the states and kingdoms of Europe; when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small, through the various means of trade and manufactures, will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections, and unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of the landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. 

The first sentence is quite striking, and appears to contain a moral condemnation.  But the rest of the statement is pure consequentialist.  Here is the source; the statement above comes from June 26, 1787.


  1. I'm not a constitutional scholar, but this appears to be a fair and accurate rendering of Founders' thinking regarding a safety net:
    "Our nation’s founders recognized the need to take care of the sick and indigent who couldn’t help themselves. Quoting natural rights philosopher John Locke, West writes that “[T]he law of nature teaches not only self-preservation but also preservation of others, ‘when one’s own preservation comes into competition.’” In other words, society is organized for the security of its members as well as their liberty and property. A society that fails to respond to those in need jeopardizes its own preservation.
    In the early days of the American experiment, local governments — not the feds — assumed this responsibility. But there was careful emphasis that “poor laws not go beyond a minimal safety net,” West notes, and that aid be provided only on the condition of labor. Only the truly helpless, those “who had no friends or family to help, were taken care of in idleness.”
    The founders saw a great danger in overly generous welfare policy — that it would promote irresponsible behavior. That, in turn, would threaten the inherent natural right of every individual “to liberty, including the right to the free exercise of one’s industry and its fruits.”

    Thus, to the extent that Locke's view shaped the Founders' thinking, it would appear that the consequentialist argument was an important factor.

  2. Also, inequality was a preeminent concern of Madison's in the overarching design of the Constitution: "James Madison claimed that factions arise from the unequal distribution of wealth. One faction is the majority, composed of the many who have little or no property. The other is the minority, composed of the few who hold much wealth. The delegates thought that, if left unchecked, either a majority or minority faction would become tyrannical. The founders believed that the secret of good government is "balanced" government. A limited government would have to contain checks on its own power. As long as no faction could seize the whole of government at once, tyranny could be avoided. In Madison's words, "ambition must be made to counteract ambition.",10640,2179716-,00.html

    Madison was definitely concerned about the economically privileged minority trampling on the rights of the majority: To that extent, he cared about inequality even if he'd been entirely confident that human nature or constitutional safeguards would forestall any and all risk that the majority would rise up against the minority were inequality to become too extreme.

    But I'm not familiar enough with Madison's writings to say whether this concern about oligarchy was his PRINCIPAL concern (my armchair amateur view is probably not) or whether he would have designed the Constitution/checks & balances any differently had this been his sole source of concern about inequality.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?