Saturday, December 11, 2010

Thomas Jefferson on income inequality

From a letter to James Madison (courtesy of Brad DeLong):

I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable, but the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree, is a politic measure and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions or property in geometrical progression as they rise.

Whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on. If for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be provided to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not, the fundamental right to labor the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment, but who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.


  1. Don't see too may tea partiers quoting this, do you?

  2. It doesn't seem inconsistent with ideas behind Occupy Wall Street. I don't think any democracy is ever going to think of inequality as an objective good. It may end up as a necessary evil, in some cases, but it puts political and economic power too much at odds.

  3. over half the land in the US is owned by the government. Let that be equally divided among the people before there is talk of seizing more private property under the guise of "preserving it for the people" then doing nothing with it other than using it as collateral to expand the public debt.