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'Do Honors to Revolution by Justice'

Economic and Political Philosophy according to Thomas Paine

By Nelson L. Barrette

This August we didn’t time for Shark Week. The Middle East remained a boiling cauldron of ethno-religious hatred; an Ebola outbreak was spreading; and Vladimir Putin decided that Russian roulette is a game best played with surface-to-air missiles. But all of these international convulsions should not obscure another summer trend: labor disturbances in the United States, and the wider conversation about economic justice of which they make a part.

In New England, the employees of the budget supermarket chain Market Basket stopped work over the firing of their beloved CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas, who prioritized the dignity and well-being of workers. Market Basket employees make "well above minimum wage," and get generous bonuses and pension plans from the company’s profit-sharing arrangements. Fearing that new management might mean a change in these practices, workers refused to show up to work until "Artie T" was reinstated.

Less well-off wage earners also made headlines. Following Seattle’s and SeaTac’s passage of a $15-an-hour minimum wage, Massachusetts raised its state minimum wage to $11-an-hour–the highest of any state.

In the pages of The New York Times, a series of recent articles and features to the plight of part-time workers appeared. These employees have started to organize to demand more equitable treatment, and legislators have taken notice.

In Chicago, fast food workers came together  during the last weekend of July to press for an $15-an-hour wage. On July 29, they got a boost from the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, who ruled that McDonald’s should legally be considered a joint-employer along with its franchisees. McDonald’s plans to appeal the case, arguing that it ignores decades of legal precedent.

What this recent uptick in pro-labor activity doesn’t ignore, however, is a long-running American concern with the equitable distribution of wealth. After the Revolution had been won and the Constitution written, Thomas Paine, the famous author of “Common Sense,” wrote another pamphlet titled “Agrarian Justice.” Paine, in 1796, argued that the existence of private property, while necessary and just in order to encourage the “natural improvements” of cultivation, inevitably breeds “the greatest evil,” poverty. To correct for the inequities he observed, Paine suggested that the government guarantee every person an inheritance at the age of 21, and a retirement income at the age of 50.

Today, Paine’s pamphlet reads a bit like a cross between a Marxist tract, Thomas Piketty's "Capital in the 21st Century," and an Elizabeth Warren speech. Its obsession with landed wealth and the origins of its distribution seems antiquated, but echoes a basic version of Piketty's analysis. And Paine rejects the idea of creating a truly “equal” society, acknowledging the role that private gain plays as an incentive for work. Like Senator Warren, he just argues that common resources play a role in every private success, and that no one should be poor simply because they do not own land or, perhaps in modern terms, a company.

The increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the already wealthy lends new relevance to Paine’s pamphlet. After all, McDonald’s CEO makes $9.5 million a year, while people who have worked at the company for a decade subsist at "about $15,000." The fast food and part time workers of today could certainly have benefited from an infusion of cash at the age of 21, to continue school or at least begin a savings account.

And if this idea seems far-fetched, consider its endurance in the American imagination. None other than Richard Nixon proposed a guaranteed minimum income scheme during his presidency. While Nixon’s proposed income was low, and his plan to cut programs like Medicaid would have been disastrous, in the tradition of Paine he recognized that government should provide a backstop against poverty.

Recently, it seemed that the modern Republican Party was totally uninterested in dealing with the adverse consequences of the market economy, viewing them not as injustices but as the acceptable fruits of a free society. But that political truth may be changing. Though many have rightly decried the inadequacy of Paul Ryan's new plan on poverty, having a leading Republican figure take dead aim at empowering the poor is undoubtedly a positive development.

Bringing conversations about economic justice to the forefront of the national consciousness makes not only political sense for the GOP and Democrats, but also moral and philosophical sense. One of Paine's central points was that a person's ability to live outside of poverty was a right, one that the new, revolutionary governments of his period should guarantee. The United States was borne of that idealism; Paine undoubtedly had it in mind, along with  revolutionary France, when he exhorted his contemporaries to "do honors to revolutions by justice."

More than two-hundred years on, we still have some work to do. So the next time you see  super market employees demanding a say in their conditions of employment, or a fast food worker demanding a living wage, consider that this agitation is not just economic. It is a moral imperative, inherited from the founding of this country, and as revolutionary today as it was in the 18th century.

Nelson L. Barrette ’17, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Winthrop House. His column appears every other Monday.

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