excerpted from

Economic Justice:
The American Class System

from the book

Declarations of Independence

by Howard Zinn

publisher - HarperCollins



Rugged Individualism and Self-Help

Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." (Or as amended by women who gathered in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, at a women's rights convention: "that all men and women are created equal." Or as a possible children's convention might say: "that all children are created equal.")

A common reaction to Jefferson's phrase "created equal" is that it is just not so; people are endowed with different physical and mental capacities, and with different talents, drives, and energies. But this is a misreading of the Declaration of Independence. There is no period after the word "equal," but a comma, and the sentence goes on: "that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." In other words, people are equal not in their natural abilities but in their rights.

Jefferson said this was "self-evident," and I would think that most people would agree. But some selves do not think it evident at all. We know that Jefferson and the Founding Fathers, almost all of whom were very wealthy, did not really mean for that equality to be established, certainly not between slave and master, not between rich and poor. And when, eleven years after they adopted the Declaration, they wrote a constitution, it was designed to keep the distribution of wealth pretty much as it existed at the time-which was very unequal. But that is no reason for anyone to surrender those rights, any more than the ignoring of the racial equality demanded by the Fourteenth Amendment was reason for discarding that goal.

To say that people have an equal right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, means that if, in fact, there is inequality in those things, society has a responsibility to correct the situation and to ensure that equality.

Not everyone thinks so. One man whose thinking was close to that of the Reagan administration in the eighties (Charles Murray, Losing Ground ) wrote enthusiastically about doing away with government aid to the poor: "It would leave the working-aged person with no recourse whatsoever except the job market, family members, friends, and public or private locally funded services."

It is a restatement of laissez-faire-let things take their natural course without government interference. If people manage to become prosperous, good. If they starve, or have no place to live, or no money to pay medical bills, they have only themselves to blame; it is not the responsibility of society. We mustn't make people dependent on government- it is bad for them, the argument goes. Better hunger than dependency, better sickness than dependency.

But dependency on government has never been bad for the rich. The pretense of the laissez-faire people is that only the poor are dependent on government, while the rich take care of themselves. This argument manages to ignore all of modern history, which shows a consistent record of laissez-faire for the poor, but enormous government intervention for the rich.

The great fortunes of the first modern millionaires depended on the generosity of governments. In the British colonies of North America, how did certain men obtain millions of acres of land? Certainly not by their own hard work, but by government grants. The British Crown gave one semi-feudal proprietor control of all of the land of Maryland. How did Captain John Evans of New York get an area of close to half a million acres? Simply because he was a friend of Governor Fletcher who granted three-fourths of the land of New York to about thirty people.'

After the Revolutionary War, the new Constitution of the United States was drafted by fifty-five men who were mostly wealthy slave-owners, lawyers, merchants, bondholders, and men of property. Their guiding philosophy was that of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington's closest adviser and the first secretary of the treasury. Hamilton wrote, "All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well-born, the other the mass of the people.... Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government."

The Founding Fathers, whether liberal like James Madison or conservative like Alexander Hamilton, felt the same way about the relationship of government and the wealthy classes. Madison and Hamilton collaborated on a series of articles (The Federalist Papers) to persuade voters in New York to ratify the new Constitution. In one of these articles (Federalist #10). Madison urged ratification on the grounds that the new government would be able to control class conflict, which came from "the various and unequal distribution of property." By creating a large republic of thirteen states, the Constitution would prevent a "majority faction" from creating trouble. "The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States."

What kind of trouble was Madison worried about? He was blunt. "A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal distribution of property, or for any other improper or wicked project." Like the other makers of the Constitution, he wanted a government that would be able to control the rebellion of the poor, the kind of rebellion that had just taken place in western Massachusetts when farmers, unable to pay their debts, refused to let the courts take over their farms.

The Constitution set up a government that the rich could depend on to protect their property. The phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," which appeared in the Declaration of Independence, was dropped when the Constitution was adopted, and the new phrase, which became part of the Fifth Amendment and later the Fourteenth Amendment, was "life, liberty, or property."

In 1987 the Mobil Oil Corporation celebrated the adoption of that phrase in ads appearing in eight major newspapers, reaching so million people:

"Why was property so important as to be included with life and liberty as a fundamental right? Because the Framers saw it as one of the great natural rights . . . to keep what one had earned or made-that ought to be forever secure from the tyranny of governments or any covetous majority."

That phrase "covetous majority" goes back to Madison's feared majority wanting "an equal division of property, or . . . any other improper or wicked project."

The new government of the United States began immediately to give aid to the rich. Congress passed a Fugitive Slave Act to enforce the provision in the Constitution that persons "held to Service or Labor in one State" who escaped into another "shall be delivered up" to the owner.

"Why make the slave-owner dependent on the government?" a slave, holding to the conservative idea of rugged individualism, might ask. "You want your slave back? You're on your own."

The first Congress also adopted the economic program of Alexander Hamilton, which provided money for bankers setting up a national bank, subsidies to manufacturers in the form of tariffs, and a government guarantee for bondholders. To pay for all those subsidies to the rich, it began to exact taxes from poor farmers. When farmers in western Pennsylvania rebelled against this in 1794 (Whiskey Rebellion), the army was sent to enforce the laws.

This was only the beginning in the history of the United States of the long dependency of the rich on the government. In the decades before the Civil War, great fortunes were made because state legislatures gave special help to capitalists. The builders of railroads and canals, needing large sums of money, were not told Raise your own capital. They became dependents of the government, using their initial capital not to start construction, but to bribe legislators. In Wisconsin in 1856 the LaCrosse and Milwaukee Railroad got a million acres free, after distributing about $900,000 in stocks and bonds to seventy-two state legislators and the governor.

Altogether, in the decade of the 1850s, state governments gave railroad speculators 25 million acres of public land, free of charge, along with millions of dollars in loans. During the Civil War, the national government gave a gift of over 100 million acres to various railroad capitalists.

The first transcontinental railroad was not built by laissez-faire. The railroad capitalists did it with government land and money. The great romantic story of the American railroads owes everything to government welfare. The Central Pacific, starting on the West Coast, got 9 million acres of free land and $24 million in loans (after spending $200,000 in Washington for bribes). The Union Pacific, starting in Nebraska and going west, got l2 million acres of free land and $27 million in government loans.

And what did the government do for the 20,000 workers-war veterans and Irish immigrants-who laid five miles of track a day, who died by the hundreds in the heat and the cold? Did it give their families a bit of land as payment for their sacrifice? Did it give loans to the 10,000 Chinese and 3,000 Irish, who worked on the Central Pacific for $l or $2 a day? No, because that would be welfare, a departure from the principle of laissez-faire.

The historical practice in the United States of aid to the rich and laissez-faire for the poor was particularly evident in the 1920S, when the secretary of the treasury was Andrew Mellon. One of the wealthiest men in America, he sat atop a vast empire of coal, coke, gas, oil, and aluminum. Mellon cut taxes for the very rich, whose high living gave the decade its name "The Jazz Age." Meanwhile, many millions of Americans lived in poverty, with no aid from the government."

When the nation's economy collapsed after the stock market crash of 1929, a third of the labor force lost their jobs. Hunger and homelessness spread all over the country, and the historian Charles Beard wrote an essay called "The Myth of Rugged American Individualism." He noted the hypocrisy of those who said the poor should make it on their own. He recounted the ways in which the government had aided the business world: regulation of the railroads and donation of hundreds of millions of dollars to improve rivers and harbors and to build canals. Government also granted subsidies to the shipping business, built highways, and gave huge gifts to manufacturers (at the expense of consumers) through higher and higher tariffs.

Beard pointed to the use of the nation's military force to help business interests around the world, a most crass violation of the laissez-faire philosophy. In our time, the dependence of very rich corporations on the military power of the United States and on its secret interventions in other countries has become very clear. In 1954, the CIA organized the overthrow of the elected president of Guatemala to save the properties of the United Fruit Company. In 1973 the U.S. government worked with the IT&T Corporation to overthrow the elected socialist leader of Chile, Salvador Allende. Allende had not been friendly enough to the foreign corporations that exploited Chile's wealth for so long.

In 1946 a secret air force guideline (which became public knowledge when it was declassified in 1960) said that the aircraft companies would go out of business unless the government made sure they got contracts. Since that time certain major aircraft companies have depended totally for their existence on government contracts: Lockheed, North America, and Aero-Jet.

The giant businesses depend on the government to arrange tax schedules that will, in some cases, permit them to pay no taxes, in other cases, to pay a much smaller percentage of income than the average American family. For instance, five of the top twelve American military contractors in 1984, although they made substantial profits from their contracts, paid no federal income taxes. The average tax rate for those twelve contractors, who made $19 billion in profits for 1981, 1982, and 1983, was 1.5 percent. Middle-class Americans paid 15 percent.

All through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, landlords have depended on the government to suppress the protests of tenants (for instance, the anti-rent movement of the 1840S in the Hudson River Valley of New York) and to enforce evictions (as in the thousands of evictions during the Depression years). Employers have depended on local government's use of police and the federal government's use of soldiers to break strikes-as in the railway strikes of 1877, the eight-hour day strikes of 1886, the Pullman rail boycott of 1894, the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, the Colorado coal strike of 1913, the auto and rubber and steel strikes of the 1930S, and hundreds more. If those employers were truly "rugged individualists," as they asked their workers to be, they would have rejected government aid.

Furthermore, employers with the money to hire lawyers and to influence judges have depended on the courts to declare strikes and boycotts illegal, to limit picketing, and to put strike leaders in jail (as when Eugene Debs, the leader of the Pullman strike and boycott of 1894, was jailed for six months because he would not call off the strike)

Through the nineteenth century, according to legal historian Morton Horwitz, the courts made clear their intention to protect the business interests. Mill owners were given the legal right to destroy other people's property by flood to carry on their business. The law of "eminent domain" was used to take farmers' land and give it to canal companies or railroad companies as subsidies. Judgments for damages against businessmen were taken out of the hands of juries, which were unpredictable, and given to judges. Horwitz concludes,

By the middle of the nineteenth century the legal system had been reshaped to the advantage of men of commerce and industry at the expense of farmers, workers, consumers, and other less powerful groups within the society. . . . It actively promoted a legal redistribution of wealth against the weakest groups in the society.'

Yet when someone advocates "a legal redistribution of wealth" on behalf of the poor, the cry goes up against "government interference" and for "rugged individualism."

After the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment's phrase "life, liberty, or property," which turned out to be useless to protect the liberty of black people, was used in the courts to protect the property of corporations. Between 1890 and 1910, of the cases involving the Fourteenth Amendment that came before the Supreme Court, ~9 were concerned with the lives and liberties of blacks and 288 dealt with the property rights of corporations.

The working conditions in American industry during that much praised time of speedy industrialization were horrible and also legal. (The Senate's Committee on Industrial Relations reported that in the year ~914 alone, 3S,°°° workers were killed in industrial accidents and 700,000 injured.) This led to thousands of strikes, and to demands for protective legislation.

But when the New York legislature passed a law limiting bakery workers to a ten-hour day, six-day week, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1905 declared this law unconstitutional, saying it violated "freedom of contract."' It took the economic crisis of the 1930S and the turmoil it produced to get the Supreme Court to reverse its stand and approve a minimum wage law in Washington, D.C. The Court in 1937 decided that the freedom of contract was not as important as the freedom to be healthy. "

However, the Supreme Court has been careful to keep intact the present distribution of wealth and the benefits in health and education that come from that wealth. In ~973 it decided a case where poor people in Texas, seeing that much less money was allocated for the schools in a poor county than in a rich one, sued for the right of poor children to equal funds for their education. The Court turned down their plea, saying that these children (mostly Mexican-American) were not completely denied an education, but just denied an equal education, and education was not a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution.

Clearly, the same would apply to the right to food and medical care, which, like education, are not specifically mentioned in the Constitution as fundamental rights. One constitutional lawyer, however, has argued that the Fourteenth Amendment's requirement that no state can deprive any person of "life" ("life, liberty, or property") could be used to provide an equal right of the poor to food, medical care, a job. Professor Edward V. Sparer of the University of Pennsylvania Law School has said:

We guarantee income to farmers for not producing crops. We guarantee subsidies to railroads and to oil companies. It seems to me only reasonable that we should guarantee the subsidy of life to those who are starving and to those without shelter or medicine-reasonable not only on humanitarian grounds, but because there is a 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection of the laws.

Most of the accumulation of wealth is strictly legal. And if any question comes up about the legality of corporate behavior, lawyers are available to straighten out any accuser. The columnist Russell Baker once wrote, "There are plenty of rich men who have no yachts and others who have no Picassos.... Every last one of them, however has a lawyer.... Having a lawyer is the very essence of richness.... What we have here is a class structure defined by degree of access to the law '

When the rich commit the truly grand larcenies, which become too flagrant to ignore, their lawyers work out deals with the government and no one goes to jail, as would happen to a petty thief. For instance, in 1977 the Federal Energy Administration found that the Gulf Oil Corporation had overstated by S79 million its costs for crude oil obtained from foreign affiliates. It then passed on these false costs to consumers. The following year the administration announced that to avoid going into a court of law, Gulf would pay back $42 million. Gulf cheerfully informed its stockholders that "the payments will not affect earnings since adequate provision was made in prior years." One wonders if a bank robber would be let off if he were to return half his loot.

Jimmy Carter was president at that time. It seemed that liberal Democrats did not behave terribly different from conservative Republicans where wealthy corporations were involved.

Adam Smith's famous book The Wealth of Nations, published around the time of the American Revolution, is considered one of the bibles of capitalism. He spoke candidly on the class character of governments:

"Laws and governments may be considered in this and indeed in every case as a combination of the rich to oppress the poor, and preserve to themselves the inequality of the goods which would otherwise be soon destroyed by the attacks of the poor, who if not hindered by the government would soon reduce the others to an equality with themselves by open violence."

Around the same time, Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, an imaginative account of how government and laws came into existence, and concluded that society and laws which gave new fetters to the weak and new forces to the rich, irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, established forever the law of. property and of inequality, changed adroit usurpation into an irrevocable right, and for the profit of a few ambitious men henceforth subjected the entire human race to labor, servitude, and misery.

A roughly similar point was made in the 1980s, by a black taxi driver in Los Angeles, who was interviewed by a filmmaker about "democracy." The man laughed and said, "We have government by the dollar, of the dollar, for the dollar."

Surely we need to clear guilt from the air in the poorer districts of our cities (there are enough impurities there already) by asking: Why shouldn't people in need be dependent on the government, which presumably was set up exactly for the purpose of ensuring the well-being of its citizens? The words promote the general welfare do appear in the Preamble to the Constitution, even if ignored in the rest of it.

Indeed, is there such a thing in this complicated society of the twentieth century as true independence? Are we not all dependent on one another, and is that not a necessity of modern life? We all depend on the government for schools, garbage collection, protection against fire and theft, and many other things. Welfare is only one kind of dependency.

Declarations of Independence