The Roots of Progress (Part 1: In England)

“…10. Tenthly, that you will take some speedy and effectual course to relieve all such prisoners for debt as are altogether unable to pay, that they may not perish in prison through the hard-heartedness of their creditors; and that all such who have any estates may be enforced to make payment accordingly, and not shelter themselves in prison to defraud their creditors…

…12. Twelfthly, that you will provide some powerful means to keep men, women, and children from begging and wickedness, that this nation may be no longer a shame to Christianity therein…”

-From the Large Petition to Parliament, 1647; Most prominent author: William Walwyn

William WalwynThe above was written during the English Civil War, by members of the group known to history as the Levellers. The Levellers had a radical idea: that government derived its legitimacy from the people, and thus that the supreme part of government was not the King or the House of Lords, but the House of Commons which was the assembly of the representatives of the people. Taken as a whole, the works of the Levellers were perhaps the first coherent and dominant tracts about democracy in the English language. Their works were highly popular with the parliamentarian New Model Army (one tract was entitled The Case of the Army, Truly Stated), which led to their challenging Oliver Cromwell. Eventually, Cromwell dealt with them the way King Charles I dealt with them; prison and murder.

We have trouble conceiving of the past without thinking about it in terms of the present. Thus we don’t realize the effects the English Civil War had on government and philosophy. Besides the Levellers, the Diggers came along (sort of proto-socialists); more famously, both John Locke and Thomas Hobbes are highly influenced by the war. We also can’t realize that the English were rapidly shifting from a feudal society that viewed anyone utilizing market forces to enrich themselves as sinful to a mercantile society that was the foundation for what became capitalism. When we learn the history, we largely de-emphasize or ignore the Agricultural Revolution that preceded the Industrial Revolution; the former freed up millions of people for the latter.

It’s important to understand that the two demands above weren’t just separate from a host of other social justice demands, they also fit into a larger body of work (along with An Agreement of the People) that expressed democratic thought in an era where the use of the word “democracy” was akin to calling someone an anarchist. Expressed from highly pious and Christian position, at the very beginning, the case for democracy included a mandate for government to take care of the less fortunate. To include that in our demands about the purview of the government should not be as radical as it was over three hundred years ago; yet many persist in making it so.

…”the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life… But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the laboring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.”

“The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. They find it difficult to get food, and the greater part of their little revenue is spent in getting it. The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. A tax upon house-rents, therefore, would in general fall heaviest upon the rich; and in this sort of inequality there would not, perhaps, be anything very unreasonable. 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.”

-Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations

Adam Smith

Adam Smith

In the first quote above, Adam Smith describes what Karl Marx would eventually call “alienation” as an effect of the division of labor. Rereading it, you can see the natural elitism of Smith, but that doesn’t really make him any different from any other theorist of his times. The reality about Marx (besides that he was often wrong) is that most of his critiques of capitalism existed prior to him writing them down. They were made often by Christians who viewed capitalism as a real danger to the social fabric of the people’s lives. The Chartists in England made many critiques of the capitalism they saw about a decade before Marx set down to writing. In the fog of history though, when we get to these views, we label them all as “Marxist” or “socialist” or “communist”. Anti-capitalism has existed as long as capitalism. Its critiques are right there besides its birth.

More interesting to me is the second quote, which many read as an argument for progressive taxation (I find it hard not to read it that way). Taken with the first quote, it seems to advocate government spending and programs to assist the poor. Why, almost a redistribution of wealth. In the very foundational text of capitalism. Odd.

Governor Lincoln Chafee has before him a plan to end homelessness. The General Assembly has before it progressive taxation as well as quite a few bills aimed at assisting the less fortunate. These are in keeping with the foundational mandates of both democracy and capitalism. Perhaps we should determine whether we continue with this system, or whether we should abandon them for a more sinister version of each.


Part 2 is forthcoming. Hints: Common Sense and Whiskey.

A native-born Rhode Islander, educated in Providence Public Schools, went to college in North Carolina and a political junkie and pessimistic optimist.

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