Jefferson on the Family and Liberty

Jefferson on the Family and Liberty by  for Mises

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:

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