«Robert F. Clark Wisdom of the Ancients Human societies have always recognized a special responsibility to those in need. The reasons for this sense ...»
THE EARTH AS A COMMON TRUST
Implications for a Minimum Income Guarantee
Robert F. Clark
Wisdom of the Ancients
Human societies have always recognized a special responsibility to those in need. The reasons
for this sense of responsibility vary but mainly spring from a few core values. Through a brief
historical “tour d’horizon” of selected societies, we seek out those values as a way to frame the
debate on extreme global poverty.
Hammurabi, the Amorite who became king of Babylon in 1792 BCE, unified the city-states of Mesopotamia and made his capital one of the great cities of the ancient world. As king he had a divinely imposed duty to ensure justice and provide for the general welfare. In 1750 BCE, he had 282 laws (most only a sentence in length) engraved onto an eight-foot stele, using the Akkadian language and cuneiform script.
The Code of Hammurabi makes provision for the upkeep of women and children. In the case of divorce (law 137), for example, the man was required to assign his former wife the usufruct of field or garden, as well as goods, to maintain herself and their children until they grew up. At his death she received a portion of the estate equal to that of one son and was free to marry again.1 In Plato’s Republic, the ideal society is governed by an intellectual elite that has tapped into ultimate truth and reality. For Aristotle (384-322), “the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual [who], when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole.”2 Modern notions of self-sufficient individualism would have sounded strange to both philosophers’ ears. For them, the root of social policy is the dependence of the individual on the state and vice versa.
To their discredit, ancient Greek and Roman societies countenanced slavery, an inferior status for women, abortion and infanticide. But more humane impulses also surfaced. For example, in Rome, uncertain harvests, irregular transportation schedules and price gouging periodically triggered famines.
During two terms as tribune (123-122 BCE), Gaius Gracchus won popular support for his law enabling Roman citizens to buy grain at a subsidized price. This measure helped maintain regular grain supplies and kept a lid on prices in periods of shortage. Eventually the grain subsidy turned into a free dole.3 Greek and Roman societies also made provision for poor widows, gave pensions or allowances to people with disabilities and established institutions to care for orphans whose fathers died in battle.4 Religion and Poverty In the world’s great religious traditions, voluntary poverty through self-denial can produce a spiritual payoff. Involuntary poverty is another matter. Religious leaders have decried the material disparities between rich and poorand called on the former to share their bounty.
In Hinduism, there is no dichotomy between material and spiritual well-being. Material goods can sustain and enrich the spirit and the spirit can assure the proper enjoyment of material goods. Greed and selfishness prevent people from experiencing the ultimate reality of Brahman but instead condemn them to a cycle of suffering and rebirth.
Commitment to duty (or dharma), material success and love are integral to Hindu teaching, all with the goal of achieving moksa or spiritual freedom. Hinduism stresses both the rights of the individual and the collective welfare of humanity, both material and spiritual. All have a right to share earth’s bounty, which comes through Brahman.
The individual and society are interdependent. The individual is entitled to a secure place in society so that he can both contribute to it and derive support from it. In this context, for example, aid should be given to the poor with no thought of reward. India’s caste system was evolved as a societal expression of Hindu values but that expression could take other societal forms as well.5 Buddhism, which grew out of Hinduism, also recognizes the interplay between physical and spiritual well-being but stresses the priority of the latter over the former. By extinguishing desire, one achieves victory over suffering, the lot of humankind. The Buddha placed little value on material riches. A life of few wants and desires paves the way to the final beatitude of nirvana.
The goal is detachment, not poverty per se. When ordinary people are deprived of basic needs and instead are exploited or marginalized, they tend to resort to violence. A just social order provides for full and productive employment so that all people can live together in harmony, free of social tensions, conflict and war. The quality of life in society is measured not by material abundance but by conditions that foster caring and compassion.
Some Buddhist thinkers oppose Western-style antipoverty programs that in their view promote not only the acquisition of material goods but also greed, selfishness and overly competitive behavior. Such external influences undermine traditional beliefs and values. The eradication of poverty is desirable, provided that “poverty” is properly understood in all its dimensions.6 The ancient Hebrew scriptures known collectively as the Old Testament included commandments to give to the poor.7 These duties are elaborated on in the authoritative Talmud and in other Jewish commentaries.
Christianity not only retained this notion but also extended it through the commandment to love one’s enemies and through universalization of the concept of “neighbor”. Poverty was seen as a permanent feature of human society. Charity towards all but especially toward the poor was the guiding principle.
Under Church law, the wealthy had an obligation in both justice and charity to share their resources with the less fortunate. In the medieval period, assistance to the poor was also provided through the vast network of monasteries, dioceses and parishes. “Hospitals” were multipurpose institutions that cared for the sick, lepers, pilgrims, orphans, elderly persons and the destitute.8 Among the five pillars of Islam is the duty to give alms.9 According to the Koran, “To be charitable in public is good, but to give alms to the poor in private is better and will atone for some of your sins.”10 The Prophet Muhammad (570-632), who had been orphaned as a child and raised by an uncle, always emphasized that widows, orphans and people in poverty deserve help and respect.11 More broadly, the Prophet’s message stressed social solidarity and compassion. The Koran highlights the virtue of infaq, or voluntary spending to benefit the poor. Islamic countries mandate almsgiving by law; in non-Muslim countries, local communities collect alms as voluntary gifts. In both cases alms aid the needy and help with the spread of Islam.
In recent centuries, leaders in some religious traditions have worked to improve conditions for the poor as less as a matter of compassion or even moral obligation than as a matter of social justice.
In Western societies, especially since the Renaissance, traditional Judeo-Christian values of love and charity as the response to poverty have ceded ground to more legalistic notions of equity and social justice.
Influence of Humanism12
With the rise of humanism during the sixteenth century, European thinkers began to tout the duty of government rather than the Church to alleviate poverty.
In Utopia, humanist (and Catholic saint) Thomas More (1478-1535) has the fictional Portuguese traveler Rafael Nonsenso recount a conversation involving Rafael, the Most Reverend John Morton, Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England, and a certain lawyer. The lawyer wondered why England continued to be plagued with thieves and robbers, since so many were caught and hung.
Rafael responds that, instead of meting out punishment, it would make more sense “to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody’s under the frightful necessity of becoming first a thief and then a corpse.”13 When the lawyer rejoins that many trades are open to those who have instead opted for thievery, Rafael launches into a lengthy indictment of English society.
Idle nobles extort exorbitant rents from their tenants. Retainers who lose their positions will not accept more menial jobs and instead turn to violence for their livelihoods. Nobles, gentlemen and abbots enclose ever more land as sheep pasture, evict small farmers, and drive up the price of wool. Incongruously, wretched poverty is linked with expensive tastes, as all classes of society “are recklessly extravagant about clothes and food.” They waste money in brothels and at gaming tables.
Rafael’s solution? “Stop the rich from cornering markets and establishing virtual monopolies.
Reduce the number of people who are kept doing nothing. Revive agriculture and the wool industry, so that there’s plenty of honest, useful work for the great army of unemployed.…”14 This falls short of guaranteeing everyone an income. But it does dictate a responsibility for society to change conditions that induce people to resort to violence and thievery as their means of survival.
Thomas More’s friend Johannes Ludovicus Vives (1492-1540) was the first to develop an argument and a detailed plan for a minimum subsistence. Born in Valencia into a family of converted Jews, Vives left Spain in 1509 to escape the Inquisition, studied at the Sorbonne, but spent most of his adult life in Bruges.
During a stay in England in the 1520s, he mingled with people prominent in letters and politics, including Thomas More, and was often a guest at the court of Henry VIII. He was exposed to new theories about the duty of the state to provide for the poor and efforts to outlaw begging as a means of support. The various English poor laws for the administration of relief at the parish level influenced his thinking.
In a 1526 memo to the mayor of Bruges, titled De Subventione Pauperum (“On Assistance to the Poor”), Vives proposed that the municipal government assure a subsistence minimum for all its residents. No one, he contended, not even the most dissolute, should die of hunger.
Why is this a social responsibility? Theologically, God’s creation is meant for all His children.
Those who appropriate nature’s gifts for themselves are “thieves” unless they help those in need.
Subsistence aid should be extended only to those truly in need but before they are compelled to request it.
However, the poor must deserve the help they get by being willing to work. Those who have lived lives of dissipation should be given “smaller rations and more irksome tasks” in order to serve as an example to others.15 Christ had said that the poor would always be with us. Some actually worried that, if poverty were eliminated, these words would be proven false. In strikingly modern terms, Vives replied that “not only those without money…are poor, but those who lack bodily vitality, physical wellbeing and mental health and sanity….”16 These latter poor would remain in abundance.
Mild as they may appear to us in the 21st century, Vives’ proposals ran into opposition from Church leaders. In Bruges, private religious and parish associations rather than municipal authorities handled poor relief. This situation was changing elsewhere, for example, Brussels and Louvain. Vives’ plan was adopted in Lille (1527), Ypres (1527), Mons, Oudenarde and Valenciennes (1531) and eventually Bruges itself (1556).
Small wonder that Church leaders viewed Vives’ approach as a threat to the status quo.
Faculties at the Sorbonne condemned the Ypres plan for transferring the administration of poor relief from ecclesiastical to civil authorities. The Bishop of Sarepta declared it heretical and subversive, a product of the Lutheran sect.17 However, the genie was out of the bottle. Vives’ ideas about the role of the state in providing for the poor espoused principles that were embodied in the great Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601.
That law consolidated an unwieldy tangle of poor relief legislation developed in Britain over the prior century. Poverty was not a condition to be punished; instead relief was to be provided by the state at public expense.
These notions found their way into the country’s new colonies on the eastern seaboard of North America. As pioneered in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, the American system of poor relief included almshouses for the deserving poor, workhouses for the able-bodied, prisons for debtors and public hospitals for sick paupers.18 Vives had helped set in motion an antipoverty approach that replaced donor beneficence and isolated local efforts with more coordinated national plans. However the goal of public assistance continued to be alleviation of individual need rather than elimination of poverty as a social evil.
According to the English political philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), “God gave the world to men in common…[and]…the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common….” The improvements to the earth made by an individual’s labor give rise to the right of private property. “As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property.” Still, as I read Locke, the right to private property is not absolute, since it should not operate to the “prejudice” of the rest of mankind.19 For Thomas Paine, the issue was one of social justice.
A Stake in Society
Thomas Paine (1737-1809) is justly celebrated for his authorship of Common Sense, a pamphlet issued on January 10, 1776 that powerfully influenced the American movement toward independence.
The Rights of Man, written in defense of the French Revolution and published November 1790, contended that the young, aged and indigent deserved public assistance not as charity but as a right. In Part II of this great work, published in February 1792, Paine attacked the British monarchy, advocated world revolution on behalf of democracy and presented ideas for making wars unnecessary.
In other writings, Paine advocated governmental reform, popular education, poor relief, pensions, and a progressive income tax.20 For our purposes, his argument and plan for wealth transfer deserve particular note.