If you consider yourself to be a ‘Conservative,’ this post is going to be very difficult to accept. However, if you consider yourself to be among any of the various Left-wing political camps, I suspect this post will be totally beyond your ability to understand or accept. Now, I understand how condescending that may sound, but it is the truth. This post is founded solidly on the principles of Natural Law, and the heart and soul of all Leftist ideology is the rejection of Natural Law. Therefore, I do not see this post being of any use to Left-leaning readers. So, to those of you who consider yourselves “Conservative’ and think this means you are in line with the original intent of our founders, let me see how much you really know about the founding philosophy you claim to embrace.
Let me start by quoting a famous political observer of the young United States:
Grant me thirty years of equal division of inheritances and a free press, and I will provide you with a republic.
–Alexis de Tocqueville
Now, de Tocqueville over-simplified the matter with those words, but he did put his finger on a fundamental principle of Natural Law: the dead should never be allowed to rule over the living. This principle is explained fairly well in a post on the Rio Norte Line, Usufruct. The only thing I would take issue with in this post is that it does not go far enough. This principle must not apply only to individuals, but also to artificial entities, such as the law and corporations. Otherwise, the principle is violated and people long since dead will still be governing over the living. This is what de Tocqueville was driving at when he penned his words.
But before de Tocqueville, our founders asserted this same argument, and they did so with much more force and reason:
“All the property that is necessary to a Man, for the Conservation of the Individual and the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition. He that does not like civil Society on these Terms, let him retire and live among Savages. He can have no right to the benefits of Society, who will not pay his Club towards the Support of it.”
–Benjamin Franklin, letter to Robert Morris, 25 December 1783, Ref: Franklin Collected Works, Lemay, ed., 1
“A right of property in moveable things is admitted before the establishment of government. A separate property in lands, not till after that establishment. The right to moveables is acknowledged by all the hordes of Indians surrounding us. Yet by no one of them has a separate property in lands been yielded to individuals. He who plants a field keeps possession till he has gathered the produce, after which one has as good a right as another to occupy it. Government must be established and laws provided, before lands can be separately appropriated, and their owner protected in his possession. Till then, the property is in the body of the nation, and they, or their chief as trustee, must grant them to individuals, and determine the conditions of the grant.”
–Thomas Jefferson: Batture at New Orleans, 1812. ME 18:45
Clearly, our founders understood that there are forms of property that can only exist as a result of civil legislation. Furthermore, as the product of civil legislation, our founders understood that these forms of property rightly remain under the control of the people, through whom the civil laws were written to create that property in the first place. However, if one of these types of property were to ever be given the status of personhood, then the Natural Law by which it was created will be violated. And when Natural Law is violated, society suffers from the resulting chaos. Well, a corporation is such an artificial property which – in many nations – has been given legal personhood. And predictably, society is suffering for it because it allows the dead to dictate to the living. The same applies to legal constructs such as trusts.
This is why the founders originally restricted corporations. They had clearly defined areas within which they could operate, and even then, only for set periods of time. After which, the corporation – or charter – had to be renewed or the corporation/charter was automatically dissolved. Furthermore, and most importantly, the laws were such that those who had ownership and the responsibility for running the corporation were held personally accountable for the corporation’s actions. If a law was broken, the corporation didn’t just pay a fine; people went to jail and the corporation was dissolved. This was in keeping with Natural Law; the way we do things today is not.
Finally, the founders were aware that every generation must be allowed to find its own way. To allow an accumulation of wealth through generational inheritance was a violation of Natural Law because it established a pre-existing ‘favoritism’ or advantage for those who inherited it. At the same time, the founders were aware that they could not handle this issue the same way their role models did. In the Bible, the land was divided up between families, or clans. Each individual could buy and sell land as they wished within the confines of the law, but every so many years, all of the land reverted back to the original family and the buying and selling of that same land started all over again. This served to renew the natural order of things by preventing accumulations of wealth and power that could threaten Natural Law. But because this system was impractical in the United States, the founders looked instead to the system of inheritance to serve the same function:
“If the overgrown wealth of an individual is deemed dangerous to the State, the best corrective is the law of equal inheritance to all in equal degree; and the better, as this enforces a law of nature, while extra-taxation violates it.”
–Thomas Jefferson: Note in Destutt de Tracy’s “Political Economy,” 1816. ME 14:466
By this system, those who have the necessary talent will be able to exploit their inheritance and, thus, they will have an advantage. But the natural order of things is such that the majority of people will squander their money, and thus, they will return it to the system in general – only in a manner much more equitable than anything directly governed by civil authority.
We need to understand that, when the Left complains about the unjust influence of large corporations and the very wealthy on society and government, it has a point – just for the wrong reasons. Corporations allow the dead to rule the living, and the accumulation of vast amounts of wealth allows individuals to subvert the natural order of things. Our founders knew this; it is what de Tocqueville was driving at in the first quote I cited and what Jefferson is explaining in the last. So, if we are to have any hope of righting the economic ship in this nation and restoring opportunity and prosperity to the individual in this country, we are going to have to deal with this issue. Natural Law must be restored or the problems we’re having will continue to grow until we have a Fascist tyranny where the interests of large corporations and government cooperate to rule over us all, or we’ll succumb to a single dictator. In both cases, the whole of 20th Century European history testifies to the pattern in which we now find ourselves. We can only hope that we remember the principles of Natural Law and liberty in time to correct our mistakes, and the first step in doing that is to remember The Source of that Natural Law and liberty.