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Thomas Jefferson and another lefty populist

5 June 2011

Thomas Jefferson, as a Virginia plantation owner, measured his wealth in terms of property.  In 1785, he wrote to similarly rich Virginian, James Madison, about the need for both a radically progressive tax on wealth and on the advisability of distribution of wealth.

Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment but who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.

Ironically, today, while Jefferson remains somewhat anathema among the right for his defense of religious liberty (including the right to disbelieve), both he and Madison are the intellectual heroes of the “libertarian” strain among the right, where “rights” and “freedom” are generally based on one’s economic condition (something not too different from what Karl Marx said, by the way).

Ollanta Humala is no Thomas Jefferson, but then, he doesn’t pretend to be (as far as I know).  Jefferson died in 1826, about which time Peru was just gaining independence.  And the economic order of things — and the basis of wealth — has changed a bit since Jefferson’s day.

Still, it’s worth considering that the latest in a string of “Leftist Populist” Latin American leaders is not really all that radical.  Certainly, there was nothing “radical” in the proposals both by Humala and his opponent, right-wing populist Keiko Fujimori to what the Associated Press characterized as “a raft of giveaways for the poor, including free school meals and preschool care.” In Jefferson’s United States, no sane person (I’m specificially excluding those “Jeffersonian fundamentalists” who, like religious fundamentalists, pick out of their sacred text those passages that support thier prejudices and ignore the rest) would consider old age pensions radical after about 1936, nor school lunches odd after the Truman Adminstration, nor “Head Start” after 1964.  Hardly “give-aways to the poor,” these kinds of programs are generally seen as a common good, and beneficial to the entire society.

What seems to be “lefty” about Humala is the possiblity that he will propose more taxes on foreign extractive industries, and, perhaps, increase Peruvian access to its own natural gas, even at the cost of fewer exports of the increasingly valuable commodity (this, by the way, is most likely to impact Mexico, which is shipping its own natural gas to the United States and importing Peruvian NatGas).  After all, the wealth from extraction is the basis of wealth in Peru, much as land was that of 18th century Virginia, and “to tax the higher portions … in geometrical progression as they rise,” seems very much in keeping with the philosophical roots of American social and political thought.

And, as to Jefferson’s “silently lessening the inequality of propert”  by “exempt[ing] all from taxation below a certain point,” during the campaign, Humala’s spokesman Daniel Abugattas made the point of stressing during the campaign that “There will be no taxes on your chickens nor will your house be take away”.  In other words, this isn’t a flukish left-wing socialist victory as one of counting your chickens.  The populist most popular with the populace beat the other populist.

It should be noted that the United States, which seemed to prefer the rightist Fujimori (which was looking out for its internatinal corporate interests, but really didn’t have a chicken in this fight), is already making the claim that Humala is another Lulu (the “good”, i.e. “tame”, socialist) and not a Hugo Chavez (the “bad”, i.e., not pro-U.S., kind of socialist).  If he is even a socialist, and not just a nationalist (specially an Ethnocacerista, which, in a sort of “Inca revivialist” spirit, seeks to bring the Mestizo and Indigenous masses into the elites, at the expense of those Peruvians of European and Asian extraction), which might set off some alarms in the rich countries and give cover for complaining about any economic plans that upset the status quo.

At any rate, he’s the President-elect of Peru, so get used to it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. "Craig" permalink
    6 June 2011 5:27 pm

    From all appearances…. Thomas Jefferson is a socialist.

    The teabaggers object strenuously to this crazy socialist talk, especially things that Jefferson said quoted above.

    They’d probably call him a fascist too, not realizing that socialist and fascist are opposite ends of the spectrum… Although facts have never impeded them before.

    Facts have a well-known “liberal bias.”

  2. "Craig" permalink
    6 June 2011 5:30 pm

    P.S. The US has preferred right-wingers in Latin America for years. The only acceptable politicians to them are right-wingers. The people of the nations be damned.

    Sadly, this seems to have been true for both US parties. “Left” in the USA doesn’t exist anymore. It’s Right and Far Right.

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