Income Redistribution & the Agrarian Law

As fiscal cliff talks continue, the debate over income redistribution rages on. There are two cases to be made for a redistributionist settlement: one economic, one political.

The economic case for redistribution is that America’s service-based economy works better with a broad middle class that can afford to consume the (goods) and services that it produces. The specifics of this case are well-presented by John B. Judis at the New Republic, who goes into some specifics about how the consumer economy works and how best to target stimulus. In short, this is an updated version of Henry Ford’s maxim that the best way to grow his business was to ensure that his workers, and others like them, could afford to buy the consumer good (automobiles) that his company produced.

On the economic merits, Judis’ case is enough, but the case for redistribution is strong even without a consumer economy. Throughout the history of western republicanism, from the Gracchi brothers of Rome, through Machiavelli, James Harrington, and Thomas Jefferson, theorists have agreed that unlimited wealth is distorting to politics and proposed an “agrarian law” to reduce the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few. In the pre-industrial age, land was a far more important component of wealth than was liquid capital, and proponents of agrarian laws sought to break up large estates while distributing lands to commoners. The most radical agrarian law, proposed by Harrington in his Commonwealth of Oceana, would have broken up large estates by capping all inheritances at the value of £2,000. Harrington estimated the aggregate value of English estates at £10 million, meaning that wealth could theoretically never be concentrated in the hands of fewer than five thousand equal land holders, and in practice would be even more widely distributed through the functioning of the actual economy.

The agrarian law concept was enacted in actual legislation during the American Revolution, when Jefferson’s reforms of Virginian land law included the abolition of primogeniture and entail as well as an attempt to undermine speculation by land corporations in western Virginia. Jefferson’s reforms were only partially successful, but his initial plans for a robust agrarian law in his draft constitution for the state of Virginia show how he was able to reconcile his firm conviction in the necessity of private property with redistribution aimed at facilitating political stability. Jefferson’s reforms brought the agrarian law concept from Europe and adapted it to the American context.

Agrarian laws were intended for an agricultural society; capital redistribution through progressive income taxation and estate “death” taxes are their modern equivalent. Therefore, it makes sense that a republic practicing both democracy and capitalism would redistribute wealth. There is nothing un-American or threatening to the established order in a tactically redistributionist regime that does not dissent from the underlying logic of private property. Indeed, redistribution has typically been proposed as a means of ensuring the stability of the existing political and economic regime, not undermining or overthrowing it.


About Daniel Clinkman

I recently completed my PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh. My academic interest is in the transition from feudalism to liberalism in early modern Britain and its empire. My non-academic interests include public policy, political thought, international politics, social institutions, and travel. I grew up near Boston before attending the American University in Washington, DC. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow me @dclinkman on Twitter.
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