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Jefferson on the Family and Liberty

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Thomas Jefferson has valuable things to say about two key criticisms of the free market. I learned about these from reading C. Bradley Thompson’s America’s Revolutionary Mind (Encounter Books, 2019) Thompson has done an immense amount on research on the thought of the leading figures of the American Revolution, and I urge everyone to read this excellent book.

Many critics of the free market say that it is unfair that some people are much wealthier than others. Isn’t it largely a matter of luck how well you do? If so, shouldn’t the state take steps to benefit those who aren’t successful? This is a line of thought I’ve often written about, so I’ll just give one example of it. The late G.A. Cohen states the position in this way, in his Rescuing Justice and Equality (Harvard University Press, 2008):

People with greater-than-average talents and abilities should not in justice receive more wealth and income than others, even if their work is more productive and valuable than their less-fortunately-endowed coworkers. People do not deserve the abilities by which they surpass others, and my own animating conviction…[is] that an unequal distribution whose inequality cannot be vindicated by some choice or fault or desert on the part of (some of) the relevant affected agents is unfair, and therefore, pro tanto, unjust, and that nothing can remove that particular injustice.

Jefferson does not agree. People have a natural right to benefit from their industry and talents, and it is wrong for the state to take money from the rich to help the poor. He says,

To take from one, because it is thought that his industry…has acquired too much, in order to spare to others who…have not exercised equal liberty or skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone of a free exercise of liberty, and the fruits acquired by it.

Someone might object to Jefferson in this way: Aren’t there some people who are so badly off that they need help in order to survive? Shouldn’t they be guaranteed at least a minimum by the state?

Again, Jefferson doesn’t agree. Rights in his view are purely negative. Someone’s being poor does not give him a right to the labor or property of others. Further, “the forced sharing of property would likewise cause all generosity, benevolence, and charity to wither on the vine. If such ‘noble principles’ were destitute of objects and exercise,’ Jefferson added, they would ‘forever lie dormant’” (quoted in Thompson, America’s Revolutionary Mind).

What I’ve said so far describes a familiar libertarian position, but now I’d like to turn to something more controversial. One of the standard criticisms of the free market point of view is that it treats individuals as isolated atoms who view other people only as means to the pursuit of their selfish ends. You can certainly find people who do adopt this view, but Mises and Rothbard do not. Lew Rockwell notes in Against the Left:

Today, the fundamental threat to liberty comes from leftist programs to promote absolute equality. In this chapter, we will first describe egalitarianism in general terms and then discuss one of its main, and most dangerous, manifestations. This is the attempt to destroy the traditional family, the hallmark of civilization….In order to maintain a free society, it is essential that the traditional family, i.e., the union of one man and one woman in marriage, in most cases to raise a family, be preserved. Ludwig von Mises offers some profound insights on this matter.

Jeff Deist argues in a similar vein:

It scarcely needs to be said that family has always been the first line of defense against the state, and the most important source of primary loyalty—or divided loyalty, from the perspective of politicians. Our connection with ancestors, and our concern for progeny, forms a story in which the state is not the main character. Family forms our earliest and hence most formative environment—and at least as an ideal, family provides both material and emotional support. Happy families actually exist.

But government wants us atomized, lonely, broke, vulnerable, dependent, and disconnected. So of course it attempts to break down families by taking kids away from them as early as possible, indoctrinating them in state schools, using welfare as a wedge, using the tax code as a wedge, discouraging marriage and large families, in fact discouraging any kind of intimacy not subject to public scrutiny, encouraging divorce, etc. etc.

On this issue, Jefferson supports the family rather than the atomized individual. Here I need to confess a deception. I truncated a passage I quoted earlier from Jefferson, not to give a false idea of its contents, but rather to hold in reserve something I wanted to emphasize later. The full quotation from Jefferson is

To take from one, because it is thought that his industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal liberty or skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone of a free exercise of liberty, and the fruits acquired by it. (emphasis added)

In his second inaugural address, Jefferson said:

With those, too, not yet rallied to the same point, the disposition to do so is gaining strength; facts are piercing through the veil drawn over them; and our doubting brethren will at length see, that the mass of their fellow citizens, with whom they cannot yet resolve to act, as to principles and measures, think as they think, and desire what they desire; that our wish, as well as theirs, is, that the public efforts may be directed honestly to the public good, that peace be cultivated, civil and religious liberty unassailed, law and order preserved; equality of rights maintained, and that state of property, equal or unequal, which results to every man from his own industry, or that of his fathers. (emphasis added)

Jefferson’s view would get him into trouble with contemporary egalitarians. They think it is especially “arbitrary from the moral point of view” that some people have advantages because of their family. Jefferson sees matters differently.


Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

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