ECON 107 UC Santa Barbara Tax the Superrich Economy Essay


The Conservative Case for
Restoring Progressive Taxation
On the Super-Wealthy
Average Household Wealth
Top Income Tax Rate
Average Household Wealth of Top 0.01 Percent in Constant
2010 Dollars, Together with Top Income Tax Rate
1950 1955 1960 1965 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2012
Top Income Tax Rate
Top 0.01 Percent Avg Wealth
Lanny Ebenstein / MARCH 2019 DRAFT
Critical Acclaim for the
Work of Lanny Ebenstein
Chicagonomics: The Evolution of Chicago Free Market Economics
“Ebenstein … has written 10 books on economic and political history … With this book, he joins
a group of detractors of modern-day American conservatism who are sympathetic to many of the
ideas of conservatism but harshly critical of how it is now practiced.”
–New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice Selection
“Mr. Ebenstein’s book does a fine job of differentiating classical liberalism from libertarianism …
For that reason alone, the book deserves to be read by all those with an interest in economic
–The Economist
“Offers a comprehensive and noteworthy examination of the University of Chicago’s influence
on economic theory in the U.S. … accessible, clear, and entertaining”
–Publisher’s Weekly
A Bloomberg Best Economics Book of 2015
Milton Friedman: A Biography
“A powerful book about the most influential economist since Adam Smith.”
–Martin Anderson, Domestic Policy Adviser to Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan
“Lanny Ebenstein gives us a careful and illuminating exposition of the life and ideas of Milton
Friedman. A genuinely rewarding read.”
–George P. Shultz, U.S. Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan
“Definitely worth reading to help understand the development of an extraordinary individual.”
–Gary Becker, Nobel Laureate in Economics
Friedrich Hayek: A Biography
“A conscientious and fair-minded job.”
–The Economist
“It is good to have this solid intellectual biography of Hayek available.”
–James M. Buchanan, Nobel Laureate in Economics
“A splendid biography of the 20th century’s greatest philosopher of liberty. A well written,
sympathetic, yet critical examination of his life and intellectual contributions.”
–Milton Friedman, Nobel Laureate in Economics
Works by Lanny Ebenstein
The Greatest Happiness Principle:
An Examination of Utilitarianism
Great Political Thinkers:
Plato to the Present
Introduction to Political Thinkers
Today’s Isms: Socialism, Capitalism, Fascism,
Communism, Libertarianism
Edwin Cannan: Liberal Doyen
Friedrich Hayek: A Biography
Hayek’s Journey:
The Mind of Friedrich Hayek
Milton Friedman: A Biography
The Indispensable Milton Friedman:
Essays on Politics and Economics
Reforming Public Employee
Compensation and Pensions
Chicagonomics: The Evolution of
Chicago Free Market Economics
For Maggie
“It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense,
not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that
–Adam Smith
“Community and equality are mutually reinforcing, not mutually incompatible.
Social capital and economic equality moved in tandem through most of the 20th
century. In terms of the distribution of wealth and income, America in the 1950s
and 1960s was more egalitarian than it had been in more than a century…. [T]hose
same decades were also the high point of social connectedness and civic
engagement…. Conversely, the last third of the 20th century was a time of
growing inequality and eroding social capital.”
–Robert Putnam
Introduction–The American Ideals of Democracy, Liberty, and Equality
1. Top Tax Rates and Economic Growth
Appendix. Supply Side Economics
2. Top Tax Rates and Inequality: The Turn to Plutocracy
3. America’s Regressive Tax and Government Revenue System
4. Top Tax Rates and the Family
Appendix. Christian and Utilitarian Cases for Progressive Taxation
5. Top Tax Rates and Government: The Rise of Debt
6. The 2017 Tax Reform Act and the “Reverse Laffer Effect”
Conclusion–Restoring Progressive Taxation on the Superrich, and
Cutting Everyone Else’s Taxes
Appendix. Ronald Reagan’s Classical Liberalism
The goal of this work is to reconceptualize United States tax and economic growth
policy–historically and prospectively. A great experiment was tried during the 1980s to lower top
income tax rates in order to increase economic growth. Advocates also predicted this reduction
would not have much influence on inequality. This experiment has been tried for more than 30
years now, and it is a manifest and grievous failure. Low top income and estate tax rates are
perhaps the major source of the social, political, and economic ills that confront the United
States at this time. There can be no return to the society of the immediate postwar decades–a
conservative society of high economic growth, relatively small government, strong nuclear
families, and a predominant middle class–without a return to the main tax policy of these
decades: highly progressive taxation at the very top of the economic spectrum and lower taxes
for everyone else. This statement is put forward, moreover, not as one of normative belief but of
empirical fact.
The key point in conservative progressive taxation–the tax policies of the Eisenhower,
Nixon, Ford, and first term of the Reagan administrations–is that it is aimed on the summit of the
wealth and income pyramid. This is where the great shift in the economy has occurred in recent
decades. The problem is not that there are rich and poor. There will always be rich and poor. The
problem is when the extremes between rich and poor become too great, as they are at present.
Opposition to plutocracy and superplutocracy should not be confused with advocacy for equal
outcomes or socialism.
Conservative progressive taxation characterized the tax policies in the United States
during the immediate post-World War II decades–when America’s position in the world and its
domestic economic prosperity were at their peak. This was when the American economy grew
the most, its families were the strongest, government was smaller, and the middle class was in
charge. It is possible to recreate this society. This will occur through reinstituting progressive
income and estate taxes at the apex of the economic order while reducing payroll and other
regressive taxes and government fees for everyone else. It is desirable and possible to support tax
cuts that are targeted on the middle and working classes, not the superrich.
It is important to emphasize that the current comprehensive American tax and
government revenue system is nonprogressive and even regressive: that is, those with less
income–and incomparably less wealth–often pay a greater proportion of their income as well as
their wealth in taxes and government charges than those at the very top. This point is little
understood both by those on the political left as well as political right, and is why his book is
subtitled The Conservative Case for Restoring Progressive Taxation on the Super-Wealthy.
Historically, the comprehensive United States tax and government revenue system was
progressive. It no longer is. Indeed, the “supply side” economics transformation of the United
States tax and government revenue system from progressivity to regressivity was a fundamental
departure from historical American practice. It is time to return to the tax policies and philosophy
that guided America through its first two centuries.
Though many liberals support progressive taxation, they do so often primarily for reasons
of undue emphasis on equality or to grow the size of government–both of which are rejected
here as appropriate societal goals. Smaller government and lower overall taxes, as well as a
society in which there continue to be significant but not chasmic differences in income and
wealth, are among the goals of conservative progressive taxation. Ironically, contemporary
liberals often do not focus on the real problem with respect to the division of income and wealth
in the United States at this time: the great, inordinate, and inefficient possession of wealth and
income particularly by the top 0.5, 0.1., and, especially, the top 0.01 percent, the superrich and
super-wealthy. These are the income and wealth groups who have gained incredibly in recent
decades, whose income and wealth is excessive, and whose income and wealth must be reduced
if America is to become great again.
The problem concerning taxation in the United States is not that the top 10 percent (or
some similar figure) should all pay modestly to moderately higher taxes to fund more
government programs, but that more or less exclusively the top 0.5 percent should pay much
higher taxes–and everyone else, including most in the top 10 percent excluding the ultra-rich,
should pay lower taxes. Conservative progressive taxation sets at its goal neither a completely
equal society nor modestly higher taxes on approximately the top tenth of the population. Rather,
conservative progressive taxation targets almost exclusively the top 0.5 percent (one-half of one
percent, one in two hundred), and, within the top 0.5 percent, the top 0.1 percent (one tenth of
one percent) and, particularly, the top 0.01 percent (one hundredth of one percent, one in ten
thousand) for much higher tax rates. These are the groups who have gained unduly and
inefficiently from tax rate cuts since the 1980s. Everyone else, including the 90th through 98th
percentiles, is now worse off than in the 1980s with respect to the share of national wealth they
own. Vitally, conservative progressive taxation seeks to recreate a traditional middle class
society through tax cuts for working and middle income groups rather than increased
government spending and greater government direction and control of business. Revenues
generated by tax increases on the superrich should predominantly be used to cut everyone else’s
taxes, not to increase the size and scope of government.
Conservative progressive taxation raises taxes on the superrich, and reduces everyone
else’s taxes. Conservative progressive taxation is not about punishing success, but to reverse the
plutocracy America has become, reward hard work, and strengthen families. Early in the 20th
century, Republican presidents led the successful efforts for income and estate taxation,
particularly on the superrich. It is time for new Republican leadership to reinstitute progressive
taxation at the zenith of the economic system.
I attempt to establish a number of empirical propositions in this work:
1) Low top tax rates result in less, not more, economic growth; high top tax rates
result in greater, not lower, economic growth. This point is crucial. Notwithstanding views to
the contrary among economists on both the right and the left, there is not a historical relationship
between low top tax rates and greater economic growth and between high top tax rates and less
economic growth: the correlation is in the opposite direction. The higher top tax rates have been,
the more the economy has grown; the lower top rates have been, the less the economy has
grown. This has been true both on long-term and intermediate-term bases. Economic growth
from the late 1940s to 1970s was substantially greater than from the 1980s to the present. Since
the 1980s, growth has also been more when the top federal income tax rate has been higher.
Raising top income and estate tax rates will increase, not reduce, economic growth.
2) High top tax rates result in more widely shared economic growth. Higher top tax
rates do not merely result in greater overall economic growth–they result in more widely shared
prosperity. Contemporary liberals support progressive taxation largely for redistributionist
purposes. It is true that progressive taxation leads to more equality, but this is not the whole or
even the main point. The conservative argument for progressive taxation is not that it equalizes
shares in an existing economic pie, but that it grows both the overall size of the economic pie and
the proportionate size of the pieces for everyone but the superrich. The conservative case for
progressive taxation does not set as its goal complete equality of income and wealth, but
affirms that in a meritocratic, just, and diverse society there will always be significant differences
in income and wealth. The conservative argument for progressive taxation is in part, indeed, that
it creates more economic diversity than current policies do which divide society merely into a
few superrich and everyone else, or policies that would level almost everyone down. Economic
diversity, not plutocracy or economic equality, is the goal of conservative progressive taxation.
3) Low top tax rates result in great economic inequality. Middle class societies are
typified by an absence of extreme division between rich and poor. Conservatism does not flourish
in economically divided societies–in societies in which the bottom half have nothing or almost
nothing, as in the contemporary United States. It is socially, as well as economically, undesirable
for most Americans to have almost no private wealth. This is not the American dream. The main
source of the vastly increased economic inequality in the United States and elsewhere since the
1980s is low top income and estate tax rates. Rich people have paid a smaller proportion of their
income in taxes as top tax rates have been cut, and everyone else has paid a greater share of their
income in other taxes and government fees and charges. Low top income tax rates take from the
“bottom” 99.5 percent of Americans and give to the top 0.5, 0.1, and particularly top 0.01
4) The “snowballing effect” of income and wealth concentrates income and wealth at
the very top of the economic spectrum without progressive taxation. Progressive taxation at
the very top of the economic system also compensates for the “snowballing effect” 1 of income
and wealth. As described by economist Emmanuel Saez, high income leads to high wealth in a
continuing progression. As income becomes more stratified, there is a compounding effect on
wealth. Since high incomes are disproportionately financialized, capital income at the top of the
economic pyramid increases. Wealth as well as income becomes increasingly stratified. Income
inequality leads to wealth inequality, which leads to greater income inequality which leads to
greater wealth inequality. Progressive taxation at the very top of the economic order is required
to break this regressive and unproductive chain.
5) The comprehensive American tax and government revenue system is regressive.
Most economists and the general public do not recognize that the current comprehensive United
States tax and government revenue system is regressive. This was historically not the case, going
back to America’s founding. Among the strongest arguments for progressive income and estate
taxation is they compensate for regressive payroll and sales taxes and regressive government fees
for services and other charges. America’s current tax and government revenue policies are
inconsistent with its founding ideals. Poor, working, and middle income people often pay
proportionately more of their income in payroll, sales, and property taxes, and in other
government fees and charges, than individuals at the peak of the income and wealth structure,
who often do not pay tax on all of their income, especially unrealized capital gains, and as a
result of real estate depreciation. Other provisions of the tax code–including the absence of
Social Security and Medicare taxation on investment and other unearned income, the cap on
earned income subject to Social Security tax, lower tax rates on dividends, and the virtual
elimination of estate and gift taxes–are also all regressive. Moreover, government fees for
services and other charges, predominantly at the local and state levels, are a substantial source of
comprehensive government revenue and are very regressive.
6) Low top tax rates weaken the family. As described by Charles Murray early in his
career, there is a strong link between a society that is severely stratified economically and
negative sociological pathologies among the very poor. Though many contemporary
conservatives maintain that any degree of inequality–no matter how great–does not influence the
character of society, this opinion is badly mistaken. Conservatism is not about enriching those at
the very top or sanctioning and supporting a plutocracy or superplutocracy for the top few tens
and hundreds of thousands. It is about creating and sustaining a measured and ordered society
which is a partnership among the living, the dead, and the yet-to-be-born. Extreme relative
inequality may lead to more negative sociological pathologies than even extreme absolute
poverty, as the history of recent decades in the United States seems to confirm. Similarly, it
appears not to be absolute material rewards which are the most significant motivators to
productivity and innovation, but relative material rewards and other indicators of place in
society. Extreme inequality leads to less innovation and productivity, not more. Most people have
little incentive to be productive. Economic systems of less inequality beneficially require
productive cooperation. When families with children receive a small share of national income
and wealth, family formation is impeded and children’s opportunities are reduced. Families do
best in middle class societies, not superplutocracies.
7) Progressive taxation leads to a greater sense of community. Conservatives
emphasize the importance of civic and nongovernment institutions. These are hard to create and
sustain in societies of profound inequality. When society is divided into the few superrich and the
many have-nots, with a relatively small, dispirited, and powerless middle class, there is a loss of
social cohesion, less individual dignity, more societal division, and a decline of communitarian
bonds. The American founders and their true successors have always advocated middle class
societies in part because these are more likely to possess strong, nongovernment, intermediary
institutions between government and the people. These institutions were more robust when top
tax rates were higher, the economy grew faster, society was more equal, and families were more
8) Progressive taxation at the top of the income and wealth system leads to lower
government budget deficits and less national debt. There is also a strong historical correlation
between low top income tax rates and high government budget deficits, and between high top tax
rates and low government budget deficits. When top income tax rates have been cut, budget
deficits have increased. When top rates have been raised, budget deficits have declined. It is as
simple as that. The 1980s and 1990s provide perhaps the best respective examples of these
relationships, but they are also exemplified by the 2000s and again in more recent years. The
direct negative influence of top tax rate reductions on budget deficits is compounded by the
slower economic growth and increased government spending to which regressive and nonprogressive taxation lead. Increasing top federal income and estate tax rates raises government
revenue, boosts economic growth, cuts government expenditures, and reduces government debt.
9) Progressive taxation results in smaller government. There is also a strong historical
relationship between high top tax rates and smaller government. When top tax rates were higher,
government spent less. As top tax rates have been cut, government has increased in size, scope,
and expense. If individuals receive more money through the private sector and the economy
grows faster, they will not have to rely on government. People will not have to participate in
welfare programs to make ends meet. Family formation is easier, with its attendant and abundant
10) Low top tax rates weaken the upper middle class. Among the most undesirable
outcomes of tax policy in recent decades is the relative decline of the upper middle class,
especially in relationship to the superrich. Perhaps surprisingly, the group that has lost the most
wealth share in the United States since the late 1970s is the 90th to 98th percentiles. In 1978, this
group owned 44 percent of American household wealth; in 2012, the 90th to 98th percentiles
owned 35 percent of household wealth, about one-fifth less.2 By way of contrast, the top 0.01
percent–the top one in ten thousand Americans economically (now about 33,000 people)–owned
2.2 percent of national household wealth in 1978 and 11.2 percent in 2012, an increase of
approximately 400 percent.3 When progressive taxation is not practiced at the summit of the
economic system, wealth concentrates at the pinnacle. Progressive taxation at the very top is
required to recreate a middle class society with a strong upper middle class.
To be emphatic and clear: progressive taxation is not required primarily for reasons of
equality. Progressive taxation is required to make capitalism work. The restoration of
progressive taxation may be the crucial conservative public policy issue of our time. Without the
restoration of progressive taxation, capitalism may be lost. How do most Americans benefit from
the current economic system?
This book is, in the first instance, a study in what my revered mentor Milton Friedman
termed “positive economics”: what is, rather than what should be, in economics.4 Friedman–who
advocated progressive taxation early in his career and was concerned with the distribution of
income and wealth throughout his career–distinguished between facts and values, between
empiricism and normative policy recommendations, between science and ethics. It is a clear,
vital, and essential distinction.
Accordingly, though highly critical of the views of many contemporary conservatives and
libertarians, I try to refrain from personal invective or ad hominem attack. Most conservatives
and libertarians are neither unintelligent nor motivated by ill intentions: indeed, the opposite is
the case. However, they are factually mistaken in their understanding of how progressive
taxation at the summit of the economic system works. Especially since I myself once held many
of the positions criticized here, I can hardly be too harsh toward those who continue to maintain
them. I believe it is possible to argue and modify one’s positions on the bases of facts and reason.
I hope to persuade or be persuaded–though mostly the former!
Since conservatives emphasize American history, I begin with an extensive Introduction
on the founding and guiding ideas and ideals of the United States with respect to equality,
democracy, and liberty. These ideas and ideals are often very different than what many
conservatives and libertarians consider them to be. The founders were secular, deists, rationalists,
and democratic. They supported active government and progressive and wealth taxation. They
were not religiously dogmatic or anarchists, nor were they economic elitists. They crucially
believed that all people are morally and spiritually equal. They favored middle class societies and
believed government has an essential role to play in promoting them. They supported the
“consent of the governed,” as stated in the Declaration of Independence, as the foundation of just
government. They were oriented to the future, not the past.
Following the Introduction, I present the main empirical findings of this book in five
chapters: 1. Top Tax Rates and Economic Growth, with an appendix on supply side economics,
2. Top Tax Rates and Inequality: The Turn to Plutocracy, 3. America’s Regressive Tax and
Government Revenue System, 4. Top Tax Rates and the Family, with an appendix on Christian
and utilitarian cases for progressive taxation, and 5. Top Tax Rates and Government: The Rise of
Debt. I consider the 2017 tax reform act in the sixth chapter together with what I dub the
“Reverse Laffer Effect”, where I argue that lower taxes on working and middle income people,
not the wealthiest, spur economic growth and bolster tax revenues and investment.
In the Conclusion, I make public policy recommendations for restoring progressive
taxation at the very top of the economic order and cutting everyone else’s taxes. This book is
intended to help recreate a conservative society in fact, not in theory. For this reason, I hope that
conservatives especially will consider the empirical information and arguments here, change
their minds, and renounce their former positions: I am sincere in this statement–intellectual
objectivity and credibility require it. Issues of transition as well as ultimate outcome are
presented, since transitions are so important and so often neglected. An appendix on Ronald
Reagan’s classical liberalism concludes the text. The endnotes provide more detailed
information. As the References and following acknowledgements make clear, I subscribe to the
words of John Stuart Mill in On Liberty: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows
little of that.”5
This book is largely an internal critique of conservative tax and growth policies from the
right. Somewhat similarly to Friedrich Hayek in The Road to Serfdom (1944), who criticized
socialism not on normative but empirical grounds, my argument is primarily to conservatives
that, if they want to create the sort of society we share in common as a vision and goal–a prolife,
high economic growth, strong family, limited government society–it will not be achieved
through continuing the policies of supply side economics. Probably, indeed, no set of ideas has
done more damage to the realization of conservative ideals than those of supply side economics.
Cutting the taxes of the superrich does not just diminish economic growth, it diminishes a
conservative social order. Neither economic growth nor conservative social policy can or will
flourish in a superplutocracy.
I regret that all of the analysis here cannot be considered final. Since much of the
information is new, it can at times only mark trails that I hope others will follow, modify, and
improve. At the same time, I am confident that the general thrust of this work, as well as most of
the detail, is accurate–and more accurate than existing paradigms of economic theory and
Many good people provided comments and thoughts on this book whom I would like to
thank. I acknowledge first my students at UCSB, in whose classes I have presented and discussed
many of the empirical propositions and ideas here. The members of the Casier Seminar–the late
Bob Casier and John Busby, Brian Cearnal, John Kay, Barbara Lindemann, Peter MacDougall,
and Stan Roden–reviewed and critiqued successive drafts of the manuscript. Others who read
and commented on a manuscript draft or offered thoughts include Joe Armendariz, Ted
Bergstrom, Dave Dixon, Martin Feldstein, Ted Frech, Jeremy Levine Shelly Lundberg, Greg
Mankiw, Gabriel Pragin, Peter Rupert, Emmanuel Saez, Nik Schiffmann, Tom Schrock, Mark
Skousen, and John Smith. I thank Steve Moore for the opportunity to participate in a debate with
him that clarified my thinking that the years of fastest growth during the Reagan administration
were when the top income tax rate was 50 percent. I was able to develop thoughts on various
subjects in presentations at Young America’s Foundation and FreedomFest conferences and to
develop ideas on Adam Smith in a talk for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. I have benefited
from participation in a number of Liberty Fund conferences over the years.
I am indebted to the work of many scholars in preparing this book, of whom I would
emphasize Saez, Friedman, Naomi Cahn, June Carbone, Brian Domitrovic, Nicholas Eberstadt,
Arthur Laffer, George Nash, Henry Olsen, Steve Pincus, Thomas Sowell, Joseph Stiglitz,
Michael Tanner, and Gabriel Zucman. Steve LeRoy and Lester Telser provide continuing
support, as do Rob Ebenstein, Michelle White, and Clifton Harrison. The Russell Sage
Foundation sponsors many excellent works on inequality. I thank Nelson Lichtenstein for the
exceptional lecture series of the Center for Work, Labor, and Democracy at UCSB. I benefit from
my association with the Cato Institute as an adjunct scholar–though it will probably not, at least
initially, agree with everything written here, as is the case with others acknowledged. I thank the
Chicago Economics Society for the opportunity to make an early presentation on themes in this
work to it. I finally thank, most of all, Maggie.
WE ARE ALL CREATED EQUAL. It is time to reaffirm and reestablish this greatest of
American truths.
Lanny Ebenstein
Santa Barbara, California
Introduction–The American Ideals of Democracy, Liberty, and Equality
“All men are created equal”
–The Declaration of Independence
The essential American ideals are equality, democracy, and liberty. Based ultimately in
Christian and Jewish beliefs in the dignity and value of each human soul, and incorporating Stoic
views of the ability of all human beings to participate in a divine reason suffusing and animating
the universe, the ideas of equality, democracy, and liberty have been transcendent and
transformative since the beginning of the republic. Different conceptions of equality, in
particular, have shaped discussions of what it means to be an American and what the American
purpose in the world is. These discussions revolve around the twin (fraternal, not identical)
concepts of equality of opportunity and equality of result. American politicians and philosophers
have generally preferred the former to the latter, but also affirm that if inequality of result
becomes too great–as it is in the United States at this time–it threatens and even precludes
genuine equality of opportunity.6
What most distinguished the United States from Europe in the eyes of early visitors was
equality of income and wealth. Alexis de Tocqueville began his classic work in 1835,
Democracy in America:
No novelty in the United States struck me more closely during my stay
there than the equality of conditions. It was easy to see the immense influence of
this basic fact on the whole course of society….
I soon realized that the influence of this fact extends far beyond political
mores and laws, exercising dominion over civil society as much as over the
government; it creates opinions, gives birth to feelings, suggests customs, and
modifies whatever it does not create.
So the more I studied American society, the more clearly I saw equality of
conditions as the creative element from which each particular fact derived, and all
my observations constantly returned to this nodal point.7
Early American society was egalitarian and democratic as a result of the frontier and free
land.8 Thomas Jefferson remarked on the equality of conditions that characterized the early
republic: “We have no paupers … The great mass of our population is of laborers; our rich …
being few, and of moderate wealth. Most of the laboring class possess property, cultivate their
own lands, have families, and from the demand for their labor are enabled to exact from the
rich … such prices as enable them to be fed abundantly, clothed above mere decency, to labor
moderately and raise their families…. The wealthy, on the other hand, have only somewhat more
of the comforts and decencies of life than those who furnish them. Can any condition of society
be more desirable than this?”9
John Locke, avatar of the American Revolution, emphasized equality and democracy. For
Locke, labor creates property. Each person has property in himself or herself, and it is by mixing
one’s labor with the natural resources of the Earth that private property originates. But property
is limited to what an individual can use. Locke wrote in his seminal Second Treatise of Civil
Government (1689) that it will “perhaps be objected … if gathering acorns, or other fruits of the
Earth, makes a right to them, then anyone may engross as much as he will. To which I answer,
Not so.” “‘God has given us all things richly,’” he continued, “is the voice of reason confirmed
by inspiration. But how far has He given it us? To enjoy. As much as anyone can make use of to
any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labour fix a property in; whatever is
beyond this is more than his share, and belongs to others.” 10 Though Locke sanctioned greater
inequality in civil society after the transition from the state of nature, his essential position is
George Washington made statements that would be considered by many conservatives
today to be tinged with pro-government and even egalitarian sentiments. The great, 19th century
classical liberal Lord Acton characterized Washington’s “so powerful” “type of statesmanship”
as “revolutionary doctrine in a conservative temper.”11 Washington wrote during the
Revolutionary War: “Let vigorous measures be adopted … to punish speculators, forestallers, &
extortioners, and above all to sink the money by heavy taxes, to promote public and private
economy. Encourage manufactures &c. Measures of this sort, gone heartily into by the several
States, would strike at once at the root of all our evils, & give the coup de grace to British hopes
of subjugating this continent.”12 He said in 1785 that his “first wish is to see this plague [war] to
mankind banished from off the Earth, and the sons and daughters of this world employed in more
pleasing and innocent amusements, than in preparing implements and exercising them for the
destruction of mankind. Rather than quarrel about territory, let the poor, the needy, and oppressed
of the Earth, and those who want land, resort to the fertile plains of our western country, the
second land of promise, and there dwell in peace, fulfilling the first and great commandment”:13
“Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the Earth.”14
Washington favored a society of relative social and economic equality. He supported
heavy taxes and activist government in certain circumstances. He endorsed government
encouragement of industrial enterprises, manufacturing, and commerce throughout his career.
Consistent with the Enlightenment spirit in which he played an important role, he advocated the
expansion of education. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, passed under the Articles of
Confederation and reaffirmed during his presidency, stated that “schools and the means of
education shall forever be encouraged.” 15 Among the provisions of the Northwest Ordinance was
that government land could be sold to finance public education.
He wrote in 1786 that “every effort of genius, and all attempts towards improving useful
knowledge ought to meet with encouragement in this country”;16 and in 1796: “Education
generally [is] one of the surest means of enlightening and giving just ways of thinking to our
citizens.”17 He said in a 1790 message to Congress: “Nor am I less persuaded that you will agree
with me in opinion that there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the
promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public
happiness. In one, in which the measures of government receive their impression so immediately
from the community, as in ours, it is probably essential.”18 He affirmed the democratic character
and nature of the United States. He said in in his first inaugural address in 1789 of the “people of
the United States” that theirs was a “Government instituted by themselves.”19 Conservative
publisher Alfred Regnery observes that “the Declaration says … all rightful power in government
derives only from the people.”20
Washington wrote in 1795 that a “plan of Universal education ought to be adopted in the
United States.” He believed that it was vital for “the people themselves to know and to value
their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between
oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; between the burdens proceeding from
a disregard to their convenience and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of Society.”21
Political scientists Scott Cook and William Klay comment on this last passage that “today some
persons in politics question the legitimacy of nearly all forms of taxation. Washington, however,
cautioned that there are legitimate ‘inevitable exigencies of Society’ and that education should
help citizens use reason to discern what burdens are necessary to enable a government to
function effectively.” 22 Washington was no anti-government fundamentalist.
He declared in 1788 that “America, under an efficient government, will be the most
favorable country of any in the world … It will not be less advantageous to the happiness of the
lower class of people, because of the equal distribution of property, the great plenty of
unoccupied lands, and the facility of procuring the means of subsistence.”23 Property ownership
was an essential right–and reality–for most colonial European Americans. It was not restricted
to a few. At the time of the Revolution, non-slave American society was economically,
politically, and socially the most egalitarian in the world.
Washington supported the Bank of the United States against those who maintained its
establishment violated the enumerated powers listed in the Constitution. He favored public
works and a national university. His response to the early phase of the French Revolution was
enthusiastic: “The revolution which has been effected in France is of so wonderful a nature that
the mind can hardly recognize the fact.”24 He, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas
Paine were made honorary citizens of France.
The founders would have recoiled from the present distribution of wealth in the United
States. At the time of the Revolution, the top 1 percent of free Americans owned about 10
percent of the nation-to-be’s wealth.25 In the present-day United States, the top 1 percent own
more than 40 percent of the nation’s wealth.26 America’s founders supported a middle class
society in which wealth and income are broadly diffused. According to Canadian Foreign
Minister Chrystia Freeland, a former economic journalist: “The America of the national
foundation story–the country as it was during the American Revolution–was one of the most
egalitarian societies on the planet. That was the proud declaration of the founders.”27
John Adams believed the “balance of power in a society accompanies the balance of
property in land.” It is by making the “acquisition of land easy to every member of society … so
that the multitude may be possessed of landed estates” that social power is on the “side of equal
liberty and public virtue.” 28 Adams certainly did not believe, as many self-described
conservatives do today, that economic and political power are unrelated and that inordinate and
undue private economic power is not of concern to the commonweal or government. He also said
that in “every society known to man an aristocracy has risen up … consisting of a few rich and
honorable families who have united with each other against both the people and the first
magistrate.”29 That all should have something is essential to the American dream. The founders
supported societies without extremes of wealth and poverty, not plutocracies. They did not
favor complete equality of income and wealth–knowing this to be neither possible nor
desirable–but they opposed great inequality of wealth, and believed government should work to
prevent and alter it. Adams also thought that a “natural and unchangeable inconvenience in all
popular elections” is that “he who has the deepest purse, or the fewer scruples about using it, will
generally prevail,”30 which he deplored.
Adams served on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. In his
correspondence with his wife, Abigail, following the Declaration’s adoption, 31 he emphasized its
conclusion including such statements as the right of the new nation to “establish commerce” and
to “do all the other acts and things … which other states may rightfully do.” That the introduction
of the Declaration includes “the pursuit of happiness”–as well as “life” and “liberty”–among the
unalienable rights of humankind that governments are instituted to secure suggests a larger role
for government than protecting private material or financial property.32
Moreover, that immediately following its enunciation of self-evident truths, the
Declaration states “the right of the people” when instituting a new government includes to lay its
“foundation on such principles” and to organize its “powers in such form … as to them shall
seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness” indicates some discretion in the powers of
government–not anarchism or severe no-governmentism. That the Declaration here also affirms
that governments derive their “just powers from the consent of the governed” demonstrates the
founders’ commitment to a democratic form of polity. Several of the specific charges against
King George in the Declaration included his abrogation of the rights of elected colonial
legislatures: “He has refused to pass … Laws for the accommodation of large districts of People,
unless those People would relinquish the right of Representation in the legislature; a right
inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only,” and “He has dissolved Representative
Houses repeatedly.” Moreover, the Declaration goes as far as to say the “Right of the People”
includes to “alter” or “abolish”33 government, an extremely democratic principle differentiating
the United States from previous societies. George Mason wrote in the Declaration of Rights in
the new Virginia Constitution that Jefferson consulted when writing the Declaration of
Independence that “all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; …
magistrates are their trustees and servants and at all times amenable to them.”34
The idea of some present-day conservatives and libertarians that the American founding
was largely unconnected to democratic principles and institutions is a profound error.35 The
United States Constitutional historian Alpheus Mason wrote on the “different meanings of the
word ‘democracy’ in 1787 and the 20th century. The framers tended to use the term to denote
either a direct form of governance … or invidiously as something close to mob rule. Yet 18th
century terms such as ‘popular government,’ ‘republican form,’ or ‘free government’ won wide
approval among the founding generation,”36 as did “consent of the governed” and “selfgovernment.” The founders supported democracy and believed in human equality as much
as, or more than, anyone else in the world of their time. Contemporary conservatives and
libertarians should give up their attempts to present the American founding as basically
unconcerned with or opposed to democracy and equality: this was exactly the opposite of the
founders’ actual views. The whole point of much American advocacy during the Cold War was
that the United States and its allies were democratic, and the Soviet Union and its satellites were
In his famous speech for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race that was his
introduction to national politics, Ronald Reagan praised the American founders for enunciating
that “government is beholden to the people.”38 As the founders, Reagan identified democracy
with freedom and held that democracy is necessary to secure other human rights. He said in his
Second Inaugural Address in 1985: “We strive for peace and security, heartened by the changes
all around us. Since the turn of the century, the number of democracies in the world has grown
fourfold. Human freedom is on the march, and nowhere more so than in our own hemisphere.
Freedom is one of the deepest and noblest aspirations of the human spirit. People, worldwide,
hunger for the right of self-determination, for those inalienable rights that make for human
dignity and progress.”39 Democracy, which is founded on equality, is an essential element of
The democratic intent of the founders and their commitment to reasonably extensive
government were reaffirmed in the Constitution in 1787, which commences, “We the people,”
and includes in its preamble “to promote the general welfare”40 as among the purposes of
government. Jefferson wrote on the eve of becoming secretary of state in 1790 that the “will of
the majority … is the only sure guardian of the rights of man.”41
Among Jefferson’s proudest accomplishments was the elimination of primogeniture and
entail in Virginia. Primogeniture was a law by which land was passed to the oldest son, and entail
directed that land was to be left to a line of heirs so that none could sell it or give it away. In an
1813 letter to Adams, Jefferson remembered that “these laws [against primogeniture and entail],
drawn by myself, laid the axe to the root of Pseudoaristocracy.”42 Jefferson also commented that
to “annul this privilege, and instead of an aristocracy of wealth, of more harm and danger, than
benefit to society, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent, … was deemed
essential to a well-ordered republic.”43
Almost all the founders opposed primogeniture and entail, recognizing that these and
similar devices were the means by which aristocracies emerged and developed in agricultural
societies in which almost all wealth was in land. Accordingly, to endorse the elimination of
primogeniture and entail was to favor the break-up of large estates and to support a more equal
distribution of wealth. When North Carolina adopted a bill to restrict primogeniture and entail in
1784, the bill gave as its justification that it would “tend to promote that equality of property
which is the spirit and principle of a genuine republic.”44 Adam Smith opposed primogeniture.
He wrote in The Wealth of Nations (1776) that primogeniture was “founded upon the most
absurd of all suppositions, the supposition that every successive generation of men have not an
equal right to the Earth, and to all that it possesses; but that the property of the present generation
should be restrained and regulated according to the fancy of those who died perhaps 500 years
Jefferson was, with Paine, perhaps the most egalitarian founder philosophically. Jefferson
praised the tariff as a source of government revenue because it was paid disproportionately by
the rich: “We are all the more reconciled to the tax on importations, because it falls exclusively
on the rich.” He looked forward to the day, indeed, when the “farmer will see his government
supported, his children educated, and the face of his country made a paradise by the
contributions of the rich alone”46 as a result of revenue from tariffs. At the federal level, most
taxes through the first century of the United States were provided by tariffs; at the local and state
levels, as we shall see in chapter 3, almost all government revenue was provided by property
taxes. Historically, governments at all levels in the United States were mostly funded by
progressive taxation. In his Second Inaugural Address in 1805, Jefferson approvingly observed
that tariffs were “paid chiefly by those who can afford to add foreign luxuries to domestic
comforts,” and called for a Constitutional amendment to allow surplus federal funds to be
“applied, in time of peace, to rivers, canals, roads, arts, manufactures, education, and other great
With respect to taxes, Jefferson wrote Madison in 1785 that a way to “silently lessen the
inequality of property is to exempt from all taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher
portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise”48–an early statement of progressive
wealth taxation. This letter was later used by advocates of inheritance taxes to justify their
position.49 Jefferson also wrote Madison that “enormous inequality” causes “much misery to the
bulk of mankind,” and accordingly “legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing
According to the Maryland Declaration of Rights: “The levying [of] taxes by the poll is
grievous and oppressive, and ought to be abolished; … paupers ought not to be assessed for the
support of the government; but every other person in the State ought to contribute his proportion
of public taxes, for the support of government, according to his actual worth, in real or personal
property.”51 An early draft of the Pennsylvania Declaration of Rights read: “An enormous
Proportion of Property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the Rights, and destructive of
the Common Happiness of Mankind.”52
Early tax revolts in American history were against taxes on the many, not the few. The
original tax protest, the Boston Tea Party, which played a key role in initiating the American
Revolution, was against taxation on a good commonly consumed. Similarly, the Whiskey
Rebellion during Washington’s presidency protested a general sales tax.
The early and great American lexicographer Noah Webster believed that the “very soul of
the republic” and the “whole basis of national freedom” depended on a “general and tolerably
equal distribution of landed property.”53 He wrote that the “causes which destroyed the ancient
republics were numerous, but in Rome one principal cause was the vast inequality of fortunes,”54
and “the power of the people has increased in an exact proportion to their acquisition of
property.”55 Gouverneur Morris, an American Revolutionary leader who was a delegate to the
Constitutional convention, said that it was “confessed on all hands that taxes should be raised
from individuals in proportion to their wealth.”56 Anti-Federalist Thomas Tudor thought the “true
principle of taxation is that every man contribute to the public burthens in proportion to their
In a 1792 essay, Madison advocated “withholding unnecessary opportunities from a
few … [which] increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an
unmerited, accumulation of wealth.” He supported the “silent operation of laws, which, without
violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth to a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme
indigence toward a state of comfort.”58 He wrote in a letter to Jefferson: “I have no doubt that the
misery of the lower classes will be found to abate wherever the Government assumes a freer
aspect, & the laws favor a subdivision of property.”59 Madison also believed that
“freeholders” (property owners) are the “safest depositories of Republican liberty.” 60 At the
Constitutional convention in 1787, Madison favored a strong national government. He thought
the federal government should be able to veto any state law and that representation in the Senate,
as well as the House of Representatives, should be on the basis of population.61
Madison declared in The Federalist (1787-1788) that the “most common and durable
source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.” His other
comments here are helpful to understand what the founders meant by liberty: “Liberty is to
faction what air is to fire … But it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to
political life because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which
is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”62 When the founders
extolled liberty, they did not mean solely the ability to make and keep as much private wealth as
possible: they meant the members of a free society have free speech, freedom of religion, fair
trial, and democratic participation rights. This is the liberty of which the founders and their
true successors speak. It is liberty based upon an egalitarian conception of men and women.
The most famous Revolutionary slogan, “No taxation without representation,” is not a statement
against taxation but against lack of representation. It was a statement for democracy.
Laws concerning property, Madison recognized and affirmed, are naturally and inevitably
various: “Those who hold, and those who are without property, have ever formed distinct
interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like
discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed
interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations … The regulation of
these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation.”63
Furthermore, Madison’s conception of property, following Locke, was broader than material
possession or monetary interest alone. For Madison, property includes “conscience,” “personal
safety,” freedom from “monopolies,” and freedom from “unequal taxes … where arbitrary taxes
invade the domestic sanctuaries of the rich, and excessive taxes grind the faces of the poor.”64
Locke’s idea of property was also broad: it was “life, liberty and estate” 65–a concept of property
that, far from being incompatible with government, requires government attention to and
participation in the commonweal.
The democratic nature of the Constitution was affirmed by Madison in The Federalist:
The first question that offers itself is, whether the general form and aspect
of the government be strictly republican? It is evident that no other form would be
reconcilable with the genius of the people or America; with the fundamental
principles of the revolution; or with that honourable determination which
animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the
capacity of mankind for self-government. If the plan of the convention, therefore,
be found to depart from the republican character, its advocates must abandon it as
no longer defensible….
On comparing the constitution planned … with the standard here fixed, we
perceive at once, that it is, in the most rigid sense, conformable to it. The house of
representatives … is elected immediately by the great body of the people. The
senate … derives its appointment indirectly from the people. The president is
indirectly derived from the choice of the people.66
Historian of American political thought and Leo Strauss student Martin Diamond wrote
that The Federalist “treats its republican regime as belonging overwhelmingly to the democratic
kind of rule,” and, presenting the views of The Federalist’s pseudonymous author, Publius:
“How may Publius’ republic be fitted into the traditional distinction of three kinds of rule, by the
one, few, or many? The answer is obvious: Publius espouses a democratic [emphasis in original]
republic. Indeed, what is remarkable is the extent to which Publius gives the word republic, in
the key passages, an exclusively democratic content.”67 Diamond also said that the “main object
of The Federalist was to urge the necessity of a firm and energetic Union.”68
Like the other founders, Madison favored the expansion of education: “Learned
institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the
public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public
liberty.” He thought that “the more costly” of educational institutions could “scarcely be
provided by individual means” and endorsed a “system which unites with the more learned
institutions a provision for diffusing through the entire society the education needed for the
common purposes of life.” He looked with favor on a Virginia statute that “wherever a youth was
ascertained to possess talents meriting an education which his parents could not afford, he should
be carried forward at the public expense … to the completion of his studies at the highest.”69
Hamilton held that “experience has by no means justified us in the supposition, that there
is more virtue in one class of men than in another.”70 He said in debate, defending the
Constitution, that “while property continues to be pretty equally divided, and a considerable
share of information pervades the community; the tendency of the people’s suffrage, will be to
elevate merit even from obscurity.” 71 He also believed that as “riches increase and accumulate in
few hands … the tendency of things will be to depart from the republican standard.”72 Like
Madison, he considered the most likely source of faction to be “inequality of property.” 73 In his
closing address to the Constitutional convention, Hamilton advocated a “principle of strength
and stability in the organization of our government, and vigor in its operations.”74
In the first letter of The Federalist in 1787, Hamilton wrote that “vigor of government is
essential to the security of liberty,” and a “noble enthusiasm of liberty is too apt to be infected
with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust.”75 He remarked in the twelfth letter that “prosperous
commerce is now perceived and acknowledged, by all enlightened statesmen, to be the most
useful, as well as the most productive, source of national wealth.”76 He sought to use the power
of government, especially the federal government, to promote commerce. As the first Secretary
of the Treasury, he delivered a Report on Manufactures to Congress in 1791. The inadequacy of
the Articles of Confederation was held to be they did not give enough power to the national
government. The purpose of the Constitution was to strengthen the federal government.
Hamilton also wrote in The Federalist that “energy in the executive is a leading character in the
definition of good government.” 77
Charles Pinkney said at the Constitutional convention that the “people of the United
States are perhaps the most singular of any we are acquainted with. Among them there are fewer
distinctions of fortune & less of rank than among the inhabitants of any other nation.” He
observed approvingly that the United States possessed a “greater equality than is to be found
among the people of any other country,” commented favorably on the “equality of condition
which so eminently distinguishes us,” and remarked that “equality is … the leading feature of the
United States.” He said as well that by “rich men I mean those whose riches may have a
dangerous influence,” and asked rhetorically of the riches and wealth of the United States: “Are
they in the hands of the few who may be called rich …? Certainly not. They are in the great body
of the people, among whom there are no men of wealth, and very few of real poverty.” He
looked very favorably on the “destruction of the right of primogeniture.”78
Paine advocated human equality. He said in Common Sense–the key work in galvanizing
American public opinion immediately before the Revolution–that humankind were “originally
equals in the order of creation.”79 He opposed primogeniture and entail, proposed taxation of real
property at death, and advocated progressive taxation. His last work, Agrarian Justice (1797),
identified and criticized the concentration of property as the main source of poverty. He said here
that “civilization has operated in two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the
other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state … [T]he
accumulation of personal property is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little for the
labor that produced it; the consequence of which is that the working hand perishes in old age,
and the employer abounds in affluence.”80
The founders to whom Paine was closest were Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
Historian Henry Steele Commager wrote of Franklin that he was a “good democrat, and his
democracy was more authentically American even than Jefferson’s. For democracy was, with
Franklin, an instinct, not a reasoned conclusion. Middle class in his origins, he took equality for
granted … he carried equality into the arena of everyday life.”81 At the Constitutional convention,
Franklin expressed his disapproval of “everything that tended to debase the common people.”
Rather: “The virtue and public spirit of our common people” during the Revolution contributed
“principally to the favorable issue of it.” 82 The American founders were democratic.
Many works and writings extending over decades and even centuries affirm the
politically democratic and economically egalitarian nature of the early American republic. Yale
historian Steve Pincus writes in his excellent The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ Case
for an Activist Government (2016) that American patriots “responded to the critical events of the
1760s and 1770s from a particular ideological standpoint. The authors of the Declaration
defended a government devoted to promoting economic growth; they believed in the possibility
of limitless prosperity.” He says of colonists’ English philosophical predecessors that they
“denounced regressive taxation,” and to “maximize consumption” they believed a “country’s
wealth needed to be evenly distributed…. [They] did not want to lower or eliminate taxes,
they …. wanted progressive taxation.” He quotes the editors of the English journal Common
Sense (which preceded Paine’s work of the same title) that the “wealth which is in the hands of
the great and the few goes out for luxury and lessens the public stock,” whereas the “share which
is in the hands of the industrious and the many, is employed in manufactures and all kinds of
commerce and of consequence increases the stock”; and: “It is as certain that as the wealth of the
nation runs into a few hands, arts, manufacture, and commerce will in proportion decline”83-early statements of John Maynard Keynes’s views.
Cato’s Letters are revealing. Written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, and
published in England in the 1720s, they were widely read in colonial America. Strongly
egalitarian, Cato’s Letters played a significant role in the creation of the intellectual climate from
which the American Revolution emerged.84 In Gordon’s letter “Of the Equality and Inequality of
Men,” he wrote: “Men are naturally equal, and none ever rose above the rest but by Force or
Consent: No Man was ever born above all the rest, nor below them all; and therefore there never
was any Man in the World so good or so bad, so high or so low, but he had his Fellow.”85
According to historian of political thought Eric Nelson, Trenchard and Gordon were “clear that
liberty in any regime requires the absence of disproportionate wealth in individuals. That is,
whenever the balance of property shifts to one man or a very few men, liberty is lost.” He cites
the 91st of Cato’s Letters: “Very great riches in private men are always dangerous to states,
because they … destroy amongst the Commons, that balance of property and power, which is
necessary to democracy, or the democratic part of any government, overthrow the poise of it, and
indeed alter its nature.”86
The Washington, D.C.-based libertarian think-tank the Cato Institute is named after
Cato’s Letters. Cato Senior Fellow Jim Powell says that Trenchard and Gordon had the “most
direct intellectual impact on the American Revolution”87 of any authors. According to Cato
scholar Ronald Hamowy, the “major outlines of radical Whig ideology appear with pristine
clarity in the letters: that the basis of all government is the consent of the governed.”88
Legal historian Ganesh Sitaraman observes that the Constitution is a “middle-class
constitution. Unlike … constitutions of earlier times, our Constitution assumes relative economic
equality in society; it assumes that the middle class is and will remain dominant…. [O]ur
Constitution does not have a single provision–not one–that explicitly entrenches economic class
into the structure of government.” There are, for example, no property requirements for holding
office. He also notes that from the “time of the American Revolution through the creation of the
Constitution, many Americans believed that the New World was unique because it had relative
economic equality. There was neither extreme wealth nor extreme poverty, as was common in
Europe.”89 In the realm of Europe and its geographical off-shoots, the European population in the
United States at its founding and in its early decades had the most egalitarian living
circumstances in the world as to both income and wealth, as well as to political power. Now, in
contrast, according to economists Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson, the United States is the
“most unequal society in the postindustrial community.” Lindert and Williamson also remark that
“free citizens had much more equal incomes than do today’s Americans … Free American
colonists also had much more equal incomes than did western Europeans.”90
Edward Vernon, the British admiral and politician after whom Washington’s Mount
Vernon is named, supported active government. He opposed a proposed salt tax in 1732 on the
basis that “the Bill is only to ease the rich at the expense of the poor.” 91 Historian and former
Republican strategist Kevin Phillips notes that Washington, though one of the richest Americans,
was “no more than a wealthy squire in British terms.”92 Mount Vernon was virtually a shack
compared to great English estates.
In 1798, Congress voted for a direct tax on dwellings, land, and slaves–essentially a
progressive national wealth tax that provided about one-quarter of federal tax revenue. Houses
appraised at less than $100 were not taxed at all, houses worth $200 were taxed 40 cents, and
houses worth $1,000 were taxed 3 dollars. A mansion of $30,000 was taxed $300, a 1 percent
national wealth tax.93 During the Civil War, both the North and the South instituted progressive
income taxes. The Northern income tax was 5 percent for incomes from $600 to $5,000 and 10
percent for incomes above $5,000, and the Southern income tax went as high as 15 percent.94
Progressive taxation is as American as apple pie.
Howard Mumford Jones wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning O Strange New World:
American Culture–The Formative Years (1952) that it was “difficult for contemporary
Americans … to realize that at its inception and for many years thereafter the United States was
viewed … with that mingling of hope and horror we later showered upon Soviet Russia. The
young nation was an ebullient republic in a world of monarchies … The new state was charged
with being a democracy when democracy was a term of abuse.”95 The early United States was
largely perceived as an experiment in democracy–hence the title of de Tocqueville’s work,
Democracy in America.96
My father, William Ebenstein, was a political scientist who taught at Princeton University
and the University of California at Santa Barbara for 30 years. He wrote: “The example of the
American Revolution was a standing challenge to the established order of Europe, dominated by
absolute monarchy, church, and aristocracy. The significance of the English Revolution of 1688
could not be so quickly discerned, because the monarchy continued as the symbol of traditional
authority and the landowning classes still controlled both Houses of Parliament until 1832. As
for the American Revolution, the absence of monarchy and aristocracy in the new society
unmistakably underlined its belief in equality and opportunity.”97 America’s classical liberal
heritage is paramount and preeminent.
Pincus writes that America’s founders intended to “create a government that could
promote economic prosperity in peacetime. They believed that the state needed to provide
subsidies to develop key industries and products. They wanted the state to provide the
infrastructure to make communications easier and commerce more profitable.” He notes that the
founders encouraged immigration and desired eventually to end slavery. He concludes that
America’s founders “believed that governments could and should play a significant role in
promoting a happier, a more equal, and a more prosperous society. [They] believed that states
were created to promote the common good. Governments were much more than a necessary evil
that existed merely to provide security for property”: the founders sought an “energetic
According to Michael Lind in Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United
States (2012), government–especially the federal government–had a major role in national
economic development from the early years of the republic in such areas as manufacturing,
transportation, research and development (especially, as at all times, for military purposes),
communications, and agriculture. He quotes Jefferson in 1811: “The time is fast approaching
when the United States … will be out of debt. From that time forward, the greater part of their
public revenue may, and probably will, be applied to public improvements … such as facilitating
the intercourse through all parts of their dominion by roads, bridges, and canals; such as making
more exact our surveys and forming maps and charts of the interior country, … perfecting the
system of lights, buoys, and other nautical aids; such as encouraging new branches of
industry.”99 From the time of the nation’s founding, monetary policies of all sorts (both internal
and international) were a matter of great importance to government, often focusing on the
distribution of power and wealth. Tariffs were a key part of economic policy as well as revenue
generation from the beginning. Government resolution of slavery was the great domestic issue
through the Civil War. Vast tracks of land were given to railroad companies in order to develop
railroads. The U.S. postal service became the most extensive in the world. Patents were
authorized in the Constitution to “promote the progress of science and useful arts.”100 By the
early 19th century, New England and northeastern states led the world in the proportion of the
population who were literate and in the proportion of children who were in school. Similarly,
northern American states led the world in the proportion of the population receiving college
Gordon Wood writes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Radicalism of the American
Revolution (1991), praised by the New York Times on its publication as the “most important study
of the American Revolution to appear in over 20 years”:102 “We Americans like to think of our
revolution as not being radical,” but the English colonists in America were “freer, more equal,
more prosperous, and less burdened with cumbersome feudal and monarchical restraints than any
other part of mankind in the 18th century.” For Wood: “If we measure the radicalism by the
amount of social change that actually took place … the American Revolution was not
conservative at all; on the contrary: it was as radical and revolutionary as any in history.”103
He continues that social distinctions and economic stratification in the 18th century were
“usually thought to be caused by the abuses of government.” It is ever the case that those who
have the most wealth genuinely believe they are absolutely entitled to it, that all of society
benefits from it, and that they pay a greater proportion of their income and wealth in taxes than
others, although none of these may be true. As a result of the Revolution, Americans became,
according to Wood, “the most liberal, the most democratic, the most commercially minded, and
most modern people in the world.” Vitally, the “Revolution brought respectability and even
dominance to ordinary people long held in contempt.” In his chapter on “Equality,” he writes that
by the “early 19th century, America had already emerged as the most egalitarian, most
materialistic, most individualistic–and most evangelical Christian–society in Western
Early American society provided a defense of the ordinary person, not of Randian
superhumans. According to Wood, the “republicanizing tendencies of 18th century thinking …
challenged the age-old distinction between the aristocratic few and the common many…. What
remains extraordinary about the views of late 18th century America is the extent to which most
educated men shared the liberal premises of Lockean sensationalism: that all men were born
equal and that only the environment working on their senses made them different.”105
The presentation of the early United States government as a severely minimalist,
inegalitarian, and nondemocratic regime is completely mistaken. The American founders were
not opposed to all government, nor did they even restrict government to the present-day
libertarian standard of defense, police, and courts. The founders sanctioned a wider and more
extensive role for government, especially at the state level,106 in the primitive, rural, and agrarian
society in which they lived, in which transportation and communication were so much less
developed than they have become, than many conservatives do today and the founders
supported and practiced more progressive forms of taxation.
A minimalist concept of government derives historically not so much from the founders
as from John Calhoun, the arch-defender of slavery. Support for slavery went hand-in-hand with
opposition to government–especially the federal government. Slavery was naturally exploitative,
and opposition to the equality of some became generalized into opposition to the equality of all.
The south became the economically most unequal and least democratic part of the United States
during the years leading up to the Civil War, including for its white population, and the least
educated and economically developed. It also had the least government. Historian Robin Einhorn
observes that the “anti-government rhetoric that continues to saturate our political life is rooted
in slavery rather than liberty.”107
United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in his seminal
McCulloch v. Maryland decision in 1819: “The government proceeds directly from the people; is
‘ordained and established’ in the name of the people; and is declared to be ordained, ‘in order to
form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and secure the blessings
of liberty to themselves and their posterity.’ … The government of the union, then …, is
emphatically, and truly, a government of the people.”108
According to Clement Fatovic in America’s Founding and the Struggle over Economic
Inequality (2015): “The ideal of equality has been central to the meaning of America ever since
the Colonies declared independence from Great Britain”; and as “economic inequality receives
more attention … it is well worth considering the emphasis many of the founders placed on the
political implications of economic inequality.”109 Constitutional scholar Jeffrey Tulis says it is an
“irrefutable case that leading politicians of the founding generation and early history of Congress
thought that governmental efforts to avoid or mitigate economic inequality were uncontroversial
and legitimate legislative issues.” 110
According to contemporary conservative Daniel McCarthy, from the “time of the
Constitution’s drafting, American statesmen have seen the need to preserve a middle layer in the
nation’s economic order. As far back as Aristotle, a secure middle class has been thought
essential to the well-being of a constitutional republic.” McCarthy remarks as well that the
“value of the middle class has to be weighed in political terms, not merely economic ones.”111
The founders considered an equitable division of income and wealth to be central to the
success of a democratic republic. Ronald Formisano writes the “framers of the Constitution
believed that if extreme inequality was allowed to flourish within the body politic, it would
undermine the experiment in representative government.”112 These comments are echoed by
Angus Deaton, recipient of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Economics: “The political equality that is
required by democracy is always under threat from economic inequality, and the more extreme
the economic inequality, the greater the threat to democracy.”113
America’s founders believed that relative economic equality, social equality,
democratic institutions, and liberty are inextricably linked. As more recent experience
confirms, an economically divided society leads to a politically and socially divided one. Support
for plutocracy, and opposition to democracy and to equality, are symbiotic positions.
Conservatives and libertarians who maintain the view that the founders countenanced extreme
inequality such as now typifies the United States and were indifferent to or opposed democratic
representative government must justify their positions.
Speaking in 1820 on the 200th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock,
Daniel Webster held: “The nature of government must essentially depend on the manner in
which property is holden and distributed … The freest government … would not be long
acceptable, if the tendency of the laws were to create a rapid accumulation of property in few
hands, and to render the great mass of the population dependent and pennyless.” He also said that
“our ancestors began their system of government here under a condition of comparative equality
in regard to wealth, and their early laws were of a nature to favor and continue this equality.”114
Henry Clay advocated federal involvement in national economic development through banking
and tariff policies and government-funded infrastructure.115 Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story
wrote in Commentaries on the Constitution (1833) that there was an “intimate connexion”
between the “general equality of the apportionment of property among the mass of a nation, and
the popular form of government.”116
According to early American historian and preacher Benjamin Trumbull: “For this
purpose [maintaining republicanism] it will be highly politic … to keep property as equally
divided among the inhabitants as possible, and not to suffer a few persons to amass all the riches
and wealth of a country.”117 Historian James Huston remarks on this passage that in the “late
18th century and throughout most of the 19th, American politicians and publicists averred … that
a republican form of government required an equitable (almost never an equal) distribution of
Andrew Jackson thought it was to be “regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend
the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under
every just government … [E]very man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws
undertake to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of
society …, who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors for themselves, have a
right to complain of the injustice of their government.” 119 He wrote in vetoing the charter
extension of the Second Bank of the United States: “Many of our rich men have not been content
with equal protection and equal benefits, but have besought us to make themselves richer by act
of Congress.”120 A Jacksonian political battle-cry was the Lockean slogan, “Labor the Only True
Source of Wealth.”121
Support for these positions was not restricted to early American history. Among the
strongest proponents of income and estate taxation during the first decades of the 1900s were
progressive Republicans. Theodore Roosevelt proposed progressive income and estate taxation
to reduce “fortunes swollen beyond all healthy limits.”122 He believed there should be a “very
much heavier progressive tax on very large incomes, a tax which should increase in a very
marked fashion for the gigantic incomes.”123 He also thought that the “man who, having far
surpassed the limit of providing for the wants, both of body and mind, of himself and of those
depending on him, then piles up a great fortune, for the acquisition or retention of which he
returns no corresponding benefit to the nation as a whole, should himself be made to feel that, so
far from being desirable, he is an unworthy, citizen of the community; that he is neither admired
nor envied; that his right-thinking fellow countrymen put him low in the scale of citizenship.”124
Roosevelt’s Republican successor as president, William Howard Taft, called for a
Constitutional amendment authorizing a federal income tax, which was ratified in 1913.125 Oliver
Wendell Holmes, nominated by Theodore Roosevelt to the Supreme Court, wrote: “Taxes are
what we pay for civilized society.”126 Republican President Herbert Hoover believed “economic
fair play” requires that the “economically more successful must through taxes or otherwise help
bear the burdens” of “victims of misfortune and the ebb and flow of economic life” by
“providing for old age, unemployment, better homes, and health.”127 According to his biographer
George Nash, Hoover supported “stiff inheritance taxes on large fortunes.”128
Republican President Dwight Eisenhower said in his 1954 Economic Report that though
it was “desirable to bring down the scale of government, our society has become so complicated
that, quite apart from the large and continuing needs for defense, the government now properly
assumes obligations unknown to earlier generations.”129 He was even sharper in personal
correspondence: “Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment
insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again …
There is a tiny splinter group … that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L.
Hunt …, a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from
other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”130 Unfortunately, what was once a
fringe faction in American politics has now become perhaps the leading element. Until this
changes, there is no hope for restoring the principles of the original American republic.
Plutocracy is not the American way or the American dream.
Turning to economists, Adam Smith favored some progressive taxation, nascent welfare
state activities of government, and a middle class society. Jacob Viner, the great historian of
economic thought at the University of Chicago and a teacher of Milton Friedman, held that
Smith was “not a doctrinaire advocate of laissez faire. He saw a wide and elastic range of
activity for government, and he was prepared to extend it even farther.”131 According to
conservative economist Thomas Sowell: “Egalitarianism is pervasive in Smith.”132 Nobel
laureate in Economics James Buchanan wrote that a “returned Adam Smith would be a long
distance from the modern libertarian anarchists.” 133 John Maynard Keynes noted that the “phrase
laissez faire is not to be found in the works of Adam Smith, of Ricardo, or of Malthus. Even the
idea is not present in a dogmatic form in any of these authors.” 134
Smith favored using the tax code to discourage certain activities, including consumption
of hard alcohol, and supported a higher road toll on luxury carriages than on freight wagons in
order that the “indolence and vanity of the rich [may be] made to contribute in a very easy
manner to the relief of the poor.”135 In considering taxes on the rent of homes, in the Wealth of
Nations, he held it is “not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense,
not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.” 136 He
thought that government has a crucial role to play in monetary institutions, and supported labor
regulations, sanitary standards, public parks, public works, some public education, patent and
copyright laws, a postal service, and regulation of monopolies, mortgages, rental agreements,
and interest rates. He opposed primogeniture and entail. He did not think government should do
little or nothing. Smith affirmed, rather, that government is necessary to achieve the highest
standard of living for all. 137
Neither did Smith exalt the wealthy. According to historian of economic thought Henry
Spiegel, Smith considered “free enterprise carried on by the emancipated middle class
humanity’s best hope.” 138 There is nothing in Smith about empowering specifically an elite of
wealth-producers. His focus was the middle class. He was often critical of businesspeople.
Libertarian economist Mark Skousen says that Smith “wrote a book for the welfare of the
average working man. In his magnum opus, he assured the reader that his model for economic
success would result in ‘universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the
people.’”139 According to the Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner, Smith “took an unquestionably
compassionate view of poverty.”140
The role of government in 17th century England–which forms the prelude to American
experience–gives some idea of the extent of the state in Anglo-America at that time. Political
theorist and historian of political thought Maurice Cranston provided this description of
contemporaneous local government in his biography of Locke, describing the career of Locke’s
father, a local magistrate, in the mid-1600s: “In addition to their judicial functions, the
magistrates were responsible for administering the Poor Law and such other measures as there
were for social welfare; they even had the formidable task of regulating prices…. [T]hey were
ordered to inquire into gifts for charitable uses, the training of youths in trades, the reform of
prostitutes, the repair of highways, and ‘keeping watch and ward for the punishment of rogues
and vagabonds.’ The magistrates also ‘granted licenses to and regulated tippling- and ale-houses,
dealt with the numerous cases of illegitimacy, overlooked the building of new cottages, ordered
the maintenance of butts, and busied themselves in general with the most minute details of
county administration,’”141 similar to many present-day government functions. Early AngloAmerican liberty was not anarchic. There was a significant government role.
John Stuart Mill wrote in his classic On Liberty (1859) that to attain greater democratic
control of government “became everywhere the principal object of the lovers of liberty.”142
Eighteenth and 19th century societal reformers did not consider democratic institutions to be the
antithesis of liberty. They most often considered them to be the pith of liberty.
The great American and British statesmen and political economists of the 17th through
19th centuries were on the side of the people, not the elites. They believed in the equal dignity
and value of all human beings. They were among the most egalitarian thinkers of their times.
They sought to create the most optimal societies possible, using government. They favored
broadly middle class societies in which property was widely diffused. They supported private
property, but did not believe its protection was the sole end or purpose of government. They
advocated public works, policies and institutions to encourage economic development, public
education, emerging welfare state practices, a government monetary system, trade and
immigration policies, and some progressive as well as property taxation. They opposed great
economic inequality, and institutions and tax practices that result in concentration of wealth
(especially laws of inheritance that result in the agglomeration of wealth). They rightly feared-and opposed–excessive government, but they were not no-government absolutists. They did not
hate government. They were for minimal and frugal government, not no government. They
supported democratic representative institutions as essential to public well-being and
appropriate societal decision-making. They were for freedom of religion, not its enforcement.
They opposed, in the case of the Americans, an established Church, but thought religion is vital
to national well-being. There was not a religious dogmatist or true believer among them. They
perhaps most strongly endorsed the advance of knowledge and science, seeing in this advance
the greatest hope for the future of humankind. They were tentative and provisional in their
approach to knowledge, and secular in their understanding of truth. They did not believe the
truth had been spoken once and for all, from on high, never to be challenged, changed, or
modified again. Their faith was in reason, not tradition. They looked to the future, not the past.143
George Nash, foremost historian of modern American conservative thought, writes of the
Great Seal of the United States and, in particular, its motto–Novus Ordo Seclorum, “A New
Order of the Ages”: “Adopted in 1782, the Great Seal of the United States symbolized America’s
self-image as it embarked upon nationhood. America, the seal suggested, was not simply another
nation-state; it represented something novel in history. Moreover, it portended the future–‘a new
order of the ages,’ a break with the past. The Old World, with its kings, oligarchies, and regimes
of oppression, was to be left behind forever…. America was to be a polity created by conscious
design, an unprecedented experiment in self-government on a continental scale.”144 Nash quotes
de Tocqueville: “I confess that in America I saw more than America; I sought there the image of
democracy itself.”145
None of this is to say the founders believed in government control over or management
of the economy, nor in unlimited government, for surely these were not the case. Rather, the
founders supported a mixed system in which each of government and the private sector plays a
vital and essential role. The founders were, in terminology I have used elsewhere, classical
liberals, not contemporary libertarians.146
In the 20th century, Henry Simons was an early leader of free market economists at the
University of Chicago who advocated progressive taxation: “A substantial measure of inequality
may be unavoidable or essential for motivation; but it should be recognized as evil and tolerated
only so far as the dictates of expediency are clear…. It has lain within the powers of the political
state, in defining rights of property and inheritance, to prevent the extreme inequality which now
obtains; and the appropriate changes might still be effected without seriously impairing the
efficiency of the system. In a practical sense, there is not much now wrong with the institution of
property except our arrangements with respect to taxation.”147 Other early economists at the
University of Chicago to endorse a significant government role while embracing a free market
position included Jacob Viner and Frank Knight.148 According to Nobel laureate in Economics
Paul Samuelson, who was a student at Chicago in the early 1930s, Knight, Viner, and Simons
“advocated use of the market, but recommended redistributive taxes and transfers to mitigate the
worst inequalities of the laissez faire system.” 149
The young Friedman and George Stigler (another Chicago student who later received the
Nobel Prize in Economics) advocated public policies to achieve greater equality–including
progressive taxation. In a letter on behalf of Friedman and Stigler in 1946, concerning a tract of
theirs that was to be published by the libertarian Foundation for Economic Education (FEE),
Stigler wrote: “We argue that inequality is bad.”150 Friedman also wrote FEE–opposing its
proposal to delete “like us” from the following line that he and Stigler had written, “for those,
like us, who would like even more equality”: “If this phrase were omitted we would almost
certainly be interpreted as opposed to more equality.”151 Friedman and Stigler said in a draft of
their article: “The personal income tax … is admirably suited to reduce the inequality of
income,”152 and wrote in the published pamphlet that they sought more efficient ways to achieve
“even more equality than there is at present.” 153
Stigler said in lectures following World War II: “We should seek to make property
incomes more equal (and smaller) by … extremely heavy taxation of inheritance.” Indeed, at this
stage in his career, he took the position that inequality in wealth leads to inequality in income,
similar to Emmanuel Saez’s work today: “The policy of ignoring inequalities of resources,”
Stigler argued, “and battling vigorously against inequalities of income” was mistaken. “Our
concern should be much more with the ownership of resources that leads to the wide differences
in income.” Stigler also said “we should seek to make labor incomes more equal by enlarged
educational systems, improvements of labor mobility, elimination of labor monopolies, provision
of medical care for poor children, and the like” 154–an endorsement of much of the welfare state.
Friedman expressed in an article originally published in the American Economic Review
and republished in his Essays in Positive Economics (1953) that among the “four main elements”
in a program for economic stability was a “progressive tax system which places primary reliance
on the personal income tax.” He outlined here the “basic long-run objectives” he sought in policy
as including “substantial equality of economic power”–a position that would place him to the
left of Bernie Sanders today. Friedman continued: “While a truly free market in a ‘competitive
order’ would yield far less inequality than currently exists, I should hope that the community
would desire to reduce inequality even further.”155
Friedrich Hayek stated in his magnum opus written at the University of Chicago, The
Constitution of Liberty (1960):
No government in modern times has ever confined itself to the ‘individualist
minimum’ which has occasionally been described, nor has such confinement of
government activity been advocated by the ‘orthodox’ classical economists. All
modern governments have made provision for the indigent, unfortunate, and
disabled and have concerned themselves with questions of health and the
dissemination of knowledge. There is no reason why the volume of these pure
service activities should not increase with the general growth of wealth…. It can
hardly be denied that, as we grow richer, that minimum of sustenance which the
community has always provided for those not able to look after themselves … will
gradually rise, or that government may, usefully and without doing any harm,
assist or even lead in such endeavors. There is little reason why the government
should not also play some role, or even take the initiative, in such areas as social
insurance and education, or temporarily subsidize certain experimental
Hayek also held, specifically with respect to taxation: “Let us consider … the distinction
between the coercive measures of government and those pure service activities where coercion
does not enter or does so only because of the need of financing them by taxation”; and, regarding
the provision of many government services, “if the taxpayer knows the full extent of the bill he
will have to foot and has the last word in the decision, there is nothing further to be said about
these problems in general terms.”157 Specifically concerning progressive income taxation, he
wrote: “Individual taxes, and especially the income tax, may be graduated for a good reason–that
is, so as to compensate for the tendency of many indirect taxes to place a proportionately heavier
burden on the smaller incomes.” 158 These statements could hardly be clearer.
Even in old age, Friedman expressed concerns about inequality. He commented in a 1996
interview that the “greatest problem facing our country is the breaking down into two classes,
those who have and those who have not…. If that widening rift continues, we’re going to be in
terrible trouble…. We’ll have a civil war. We really cannot remain a democratic, open society that
is divided into two classes.”159
America’s presidents have been capable of using even stronger language than cited earlier
here, including:
Thomas Jefferson: “The general spread of the light of science has already laid
open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born
with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride
them legitimately by the grace of God.”160
Abraham Lincoln: “Labor is prior to, and independent of capital. Capital is only
the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor
is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” 161
Franklin D. Roosevelt: “The moneychangers have fled from their high seats in the
temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient
George W. Bush (in 2007): “The fact is that income inequality is real–it’s been
rising for more than 25 years.”163
When the founders put forward as the first “self-evident” truth in the Declaration of
Independence that “all men are created equal,” they were not making the present-day libertarian
or conservative point that rich people have an unlimited right to accumulate and acquire as much
wealth as they desire, and that there is no to little role for government–as so many conservatives
and libertarians today seem to think. Rather, the founders were making the profound and
revolutionary statement–in stark and intended contrast to the hereditary, monarchical,
aristocratic, and socially, politically, and economically stratified societies of their time–that all
human beings are morally and spiritually equal, and that a reasonably extensive and
democratic government should be built upon this foundation.
Nor were the founders and their philosophical inspirers only making the point in their
enunciation of human equality that all human beings are or should be equal under the law or
possess equality of opportunity–though they believed these to be the case. Rather, many and
perhaps most of the founders believed that in large and perhaps largest part human beings are
naturally equal, and it is society that makes them different: human beings are created equal, and
society makes them unequal.164 Benjamin Rush, a physician and signer of the Declaration of
Independence, maintained: “Human nature is the same in all ages and countries, and all the
differences we perceive … in respect to virtue and vice, knowledge and ignorance, may be
accounted from climate, country, degrees o…
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