John Adams: Prophet?

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Suppose a nation, rich and poor, high and low, ten millions in number, all assembled together; not more than one or two millions will have lands, houses, or any personal property; if we take into the account the women and children, or even if we leave them out of the question, a great majority of every nation is wholly destitute of property, except a small quantity of clothes, and a few trifles of other movables. Would Mr. Nedham be responsible that, if all were to be decided by a vote of the majority, the eight or nine millions who have no property, would not think of usurping over the rights of the one or two millions who have? Property is surely a right of mankind as really as liberty. Perhaps, at first, prejudice, habit, shame or fear, principle or religion, would restrain the poor from attacking the rich, and the idle from usurping on the industrious; but the time would not be long before courage and enterprise would come, and pretexts be invented by degrees, to countenance the majority in dividing all the property among them, or at least, in sharing it equally with its present possessors. Debts would be abolished first; taxes laid heavy on the rich, and not at all on the others; and at last a downright equal division of every thing be demanded, and voted. What would be the consequence of this? The idle, the vicious, the intemperate, would rush into the utmost extravagance of debauchery, sell and spend all their share, and then demand a new division of those who purchased from them. The moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If “Thou shalt not covet,” and “Thou shalt not steal,” were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society, before it can be civilized or made free.

John Adams, Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, 1787

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  1. Adams’ statement is somewhat prescient. He gets a little Ayn Randian there with the statements about the idle and the vicious, but point taken. Not to go Vox Nova on this blog, but one could argue that there’s a strong countervailing power against this tendency coming from the undemocratic forces wielded by elites and moneyed interests. (If you doubt America has its own version of aristocracy, just try to work in Hollywood and challenge Lord Geffen. Or talk to a judge.) The irony, of course, is that these elites are often characterized by self-loathing that compels them toward the same redistributive policy prescriptions as the lowly masses. Oh, they’ll still protect their private property tooth and nail, but it’s not as though they’re a bulwark against democratic chaos.

  2. It’s not solely the “idle and vicious.”

    Today’s WSJ: George Melloan writes a review entitled “A Jeremiad to Heed” of Niall Ferguson’s book, “The Great Degeneration.”

    Mr. Melloan writes about “the strangling of private initiative by an ever-encroaching state.” Professor Ferguson cites crises in economics, politics and culture. The most threatened institutions are: representative government, free markets, the rule of law, and civil society. Regarding the erosion of the rule of law, politicians ignore the Constitution and spawn huge numbers of “unwise and unenforceable laws and regulations.” As government expands, civil society retreats.

  3. St Thomas ascribes private property to positive law. : “Community of goods is ascribed to the natural law, not that the natural law dictates that all things should be possessed in common and that nothing should be possessed as one’s own: but because the division of possessions is not according to the natural law, but rather arose from human agreement which belongs to positive law, as stated above (57, 2,3). Hence the ownership of possessions is not contrary to the natural law, but an addition thereto devised by human reason.” [ST IIa IIae Q66, II,obj 1]

    This is not the only place in his writings where one can see the influence of the Roman jurisprudence; here, its stark distinction between possession, which is a fact and ownership, which is a right.

    One can see this principle working to great effect in the French Revolution. Take Mirabeau (a moderate) “Property is a social creation. The laws not only protect and maintain property; they bring it into being; they determine its scope and the extent that it occupies in the rights of the citizens”

    So, too, Robespierre (not a moderate) “In defining liberty, the first of man’s needs, the most sacred of his natural rights, we have said, quite correctly, that its limit is to be found in the rights of others. Why have you not applied this principle to property, which is a social institution, as if natural laws were less inviolable than human conventions?”

  4. These men were SO WISE If John Adams were alive today and said or wrote that he would be ridiculed and called a “racist”. The people in power have more than three years left to circumvent the Constitution and create their twisted vision of America. I am praying that the Constitution is the true bulwark that can save us. It is being severely bent but I do not think it will break.

  5. L.P., I was about to enter that one-word (“racist” the most versatile word in the political lexicon) comment.

    Remember the Second Great Commandment, love thy neighbor as thyself (even if he is a rich SOB).

    Schemes to “take from the rich” ever and always degenerate into envy, hatred, violence, and dystopia.

  6. T Shaw wrote, “Schemes to “take from the rich” ever and always degenerate into envy, hatred, violence, and dystopia.”

    And yet, the increase in the number of landowners in France from from 43 before the Revolution to 10,000,000 in 1789 provided the greatest element of social stability for over a century. The new peasant proprietors, along with the petit bougeoisie were the backbone of the Party of Order

  7. 43? Where did you get that number MPS? I believe that between 30-40 percent of all land prior to the Revolution in France was owned by peasant proprietors. Of course quite a few peasants fought against the Revolution that tended to be much more popular in the cities than in rural areas.

  8. Donald M McClarey

    All but 43 proprietors held of a subject superior, to whom various duties and ground annuals were due. Only a pairie-fief amounted to absolute ownership (dominium directum) Everyone else had only the “dominium utile” – ownership of the use. Even where inflation had rendered the feu-duties trivial, the casualties payable on succession or alienation often amounted to half-a-year’s profits and the superior usually retained the sporting, timber and mineral rights.

    During « la Grande Peur » between 19 July and 3 August 1789, manorial records, terriers and rent-rolls were destroyed by peasants all over France with quite remarkable thoroughness.

  9. Ergo, I had in mind . . .

    “In 1932-33, the Ukraine, formerly the breadbasket of Russia, was turned into a desolate wasteland during the ‘Holodomor.’ Malcolm Muggerage wrote in his book, War on the Peasants, ‘On one side, millions of starving peasants, their bellies often swollen from lack of food; on the other, soldiers, members of the GPU (secret police) carrying out the instructions of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They had gone over the country like a swarm of locusts and taken away everything edible, they had shot or exiled thousands of peasants, sometimes whole villages, they had reduced some of the most fertile land in the world to a melancholy desert.’ More than 7 million people died so that their farms could be collectivized by Moscow.
    “The policies of the Communist Party in China caused more than 76 million people to starve between 1958 and 1961. Called the Three Years of Great Chinese Famine, the government had ruled that changes in farming techniques were the law. People were not allowed private plots to grow their own food and all farms were arranged into communes (collectivism strikes again). Yang Jisheng, a Chinese historian wrote in his book Tombstone, ‘In Xinyang, people starved at the doors of the grain warehouses. As they died, they shouted, “Communist Party, Chairman Mao, save us”. If the granaries of Henan and Hebei had been opened, no one need have died. As people were dying in large numbers around them, officials did not think to save them. Their only concern was how to fulfill the delivery of grain.’ To this day, Yang Jisheng’s book about the famine is banned on Mainland China.”
    From a Daisy Luther piece published in “The Organic Prepper.”

  10. There are opposing realities that a Catholic has to recognize: None of our possessions are “owned” by us; we’re merely borrowing them during our time in this world. Hopefully we are good stewards of that property. A wise person realizes that our endowments are not purely a result of our own actions, but are also a product of fortune. These things temper our understanding of “private” property.

    Having said that, Adams’ point is still valid: It’s hard to imagine a just society where the rule of law does not include fairly strict protections on property. I’m not an expert on natural law or natural rights, but there are those Ten Commandments. Property rights might not be as absolute as the right to life, but a just order based on the rule of law depends on them heavily.

  11. J Christian wrote, “It’s hard to imagine a just society where the rule of law does not include fairly strict protections on property”

    Absolutely, but to elevate them into “natural rights” can lead to inflexibility. For example, most legal systems have some system of prescription, whereby a bona fide possessor can acquire ownership by long, undisputed possession. A system whereby dormant claims, especially to land, could be raised after a century would make everyone’s title insecure. Again, some legal systems tend to favour a bona fide purchaser’s rights over the original owner’s more than others. French law is rather more generous than Scottish, but neither is manifestly unjust. Reasonable people, even reasonable jurists (if that is not an oxymoron) can differ and moral theologians have always agreed that this is properly the province of the civil law.

    Rousseau, a citizen of Geneva, thought property rights were more likely to be respected in a society of small property owners than one of rich men and beggars; a sad commentary on human nature, no doubt, but I believe he was right. I graze my sheep on open moorland, but there are parts of Glasgow where I would not leave a bike unattended

  12. T Shaw

    But what you give are examples of collectivism, which is notoriously inefficient, not redistribution. The French Revolution adopted the opposite process; it redistributed the royal domain, the confiscated estates of emigrants and malignants, the common lands, the forest lands, it abolished the payments to feudal lords for work no longer done or value given, payments due to them “from the time, the obscure and distant time, when power went with land, and the local landowner was the local government, the ruler and protector of the people, and was paid accordingly.”

    As Populorum Progressio says, “If certain landed estates impede the general prosperity because they are extensive, unused or poorly used, or because they bring hardship to peoples or are detrimental to the interests of the country, the common good sometimes demands their expropriation.”

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