Jefferson and the problem of inequality in a democracy

Earlier this month, the Ojai Chautauqua held a panel discussion on income inequality, with a brilliant and politically diverse group of panelists, phenomenally well-moderated by Dan Schnur of USC. I'll put in a link, but may I say (even as someone associated with the "Ojai Chat") that it really went well, and honestly may be worth your time to watch, if you worry about the imbalance of power between the rich and the not-so-rich in this country.

Speaking of American government, we often hear Thomas Jefferson mentioned as someone who believed in small government, who advocated for the bucolic country life, and worried about tyranny of government. Well, Nelson Lichtenstein, of UC Santa Barbara, had a fresh take on that question (that deserves to be searchable here on the interwebs).

According to Lichtenstein, a MacArthur Foundation scholar, the problem of inequality in a democracy was something that Thomas Jefferson thought about a lot. Lichtenstein taught at the University of Virginia, he said, so he had first hand exposure to Jefferson's thought. Here's what Lichtenstein said:

"What Jefferson was worried about in the late 18th century was the problem of democracy. How do you have democracy in a world of inequality? What do you do when you have a society of people who own lots of land, and Jefferson happened to be one of them, and other people are either enslaved, or are working for someone, or are women, who are disenfranchised?


So what Jefferson said was that the problem is that those people who do not have an independent income, who didn’t own their own land, if they voted, if they had a voice, it would be inherently corrupt, because they were dependent on those with power and money and land. So his solution, Jefferson’s solution, was let’s have a world of independent farmers. Let’s not have big cities. And those people who aren’t independent farmers, i.e., slaves, or women, or even landless people, they shouldn’t vote, because they’ll be corrupt.


Now, in 1936, Franklin Roosevelt, when gave his acceptance speech on being renominated, he had a solution to that question. What he said was, what are doing with the New Deal? We are ending a new form of tyranny. Jefferson and the founders ended a political tyranny, when they threw out  King George. We are ending an economic tyranny. We have a new class of economic royalists, he said, and he used that phrase to evoke King George, and he said what we have to do is democratize the society.


How do we do that? We create institutions that can counter the power and land and money, and can give the powerless a voice, as in trade unions, as well as the power of the government to regulate, with the SEC. To tame, to regulate, to control this new form of economic tyranny.


The solution, to fulfill Jefferson’s ideal, is not to go back and only give the vote to those people who have an independent income, but to do something else, which is to give everyone a sense of independence. Let me give you an example of this right here on the South Coast.

We did a survey in Santa Barbara two months ago. We asked lots of questions, and among those questions we asked, of people earning low wages, was the question: Can you take time off if you get sick? Some companies make provision for sick leave, and others don’t. A huge proportion of those people we asked said, no, I’m not taking time off if I get sick, because I don’t have enough money and I need to work, or because I’m afraid I’ll be fired or penalized if I take time off. So what they represented when they said that was what Jefferson was afraid of, which was the fear and dependence of people without their own voice, or without institutions that could defend them. What these [low wage] people need is not an inspector in every workplace, but institutions [such as trade unions] that will defend people without a voice, to give them the equivalent of a farm, the equivalent of independence."

Jefferson as a defender of the independence of the working poor! That's original – and hearteningly American.

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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