In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville produced one of the earliest accounts of the American dream. In his famous study of the Jacksonian U.S., the Frenchman wrote that Americans possessed “the charm of anticipated success” — a ubiquitous optimism that he attributed to our country’s democratic character, and to the “general equality of condition” that prevailed among its “people.”
On Wednesday night, Sean Hannity took de Tocqueville to task. In the Fox News’ host’s telling, general economic equality is not a precondition for the American dream, but rather, an insurmountable obstacle to it — because the American dream is (apparently) to earn more than $10 million year without having to pay a top marginal tax rate higher than 37 percent.
Of course, Hannity did not actually frame his argument as a rebuke of de Tocqueville. His true target was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
After popularizing the idea of a 70 percent top marginal tax rate earlier this month, the freshman congresswoman recently suggested that the mere existence of billionaires was both immoral, and a threat to American democracy. “I do think that a system that allows billionaires to exist when there are parts of Alabama where people are still getting ringworm because they don’t have access to public health is wrong,” Ocasio-Cortez told the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, during an interview on Martin Luther King Day. One day later, the congresswoman approvingly quoted an op-ed by the economists Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez, which argued that the purpose of high taxes on the wealthy wasn’t merely to generate revenue, but rather, to safeguard “democracy against oligarchy.”
Hannity’s not buying it. The Fox News host informed his audience Wednesday that Ocasio-Cortez had “called the American dream immoral,” and that she wants to “empower the government to confiscate” said dream. “Better hide your nice things,” Hannity advised his audience (whom he ostensibly believes to be composed primarily of billionaires), “because here come the excess police.”
Hannity was hardly alone in deriding AOC’s antipathy for billionaires as fundamentally un-American. But in reality, there’s nothing foreign or communistic about the idea that concentrated wealth is incompatible with democracy, or all-too compatible with mass poverty. Republicans might call such notions radical. But many of our republic’s founders would have called them common sense.
Compare AOC’s first argument — that the simultaneous existence of billionaires and poverty is immoral, and thus justifies steeply progressive taxation — with Thomas Jefferson’s reflections in 1785. During a visit to the French countryside, Jefferson found himself scandalized by “the condition of the labouring poor.” In a letter to James Madison, Jefferson wrote that the extremity of European inequality was not only morally suspect, but economically inefficient. Aristocrats had grown so wealthy, they were happy to leave their lands uncultivated, even as masses of idle workers were eager to improve it. Thus, these proto-billionaires undermined both the peasants’ ability to transcend mere subsistence, and their society’s capacity to develop economically:
[T]he solitude of my walk led me into a train of reflections on that unequal division of property which occasions the numberless instances of wretchedness which I had observed in this country and is to be observed all over Europe. The property of this country is absolutely concentered in a very few hands…I asked myself what could be the reason that so many should be permitted to beg who are willing to work, in a country where there is a very considerable proportion of uncultivated lands? These lands are kept idle mostly for the aske of game. It should seem then that it must be because of the enormous wealth of the proprietors which places them above attention to the increase of their revenues by permitting these lands to be laboured.
Here is how Jefferson proposes to address the obscene coexistence of concentrated wealth and underemployed workers:
I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and a practicable one. 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…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. [Emphasis mine.]
If Ocasio-Cortez’s views are un-American, then surely these words from our third president’s are, as well.
To be sure, Jefferson’s views on the propriety of wealth redistribution were hardly consistent. And, of course, the slave owner was never concerned with minimizing the number of landless African-Americans or women in the United States. What’s more, the bulk of America’s founders regarded wealth redistribution as a species of majoritarian tyranny, and designed the Constitution to guard against such despotism.
My point here isn’t to suggest that AOC is channeling the sacred wisdom of our republic’s founding racists. Rather, it’s that she’s channeling one deeply rooted strain of American thought on economic morality. And while that strain might have been marginal among the leaders of the American Revolution, it was pervasive among its foot soldiers (there’s a reason the leading propagandist of the war effort, Thomas Paine, was one of the earliest champions of an American welfare state).
Regardless, Ocasio-Cortez’s second argument against the existence of billionaires — that concentrated wealth is incompatible with genuine democracy — was something close to conventional wisdom among the founders (including those who opposed democracy).
America’s first political theorists took these truths to be self-evident: that a person could not exercise political liberty if he did not possess a modicum of economic autonomy, and that disparities in wealth inevitably produced disparities of political power.
The notion that political freedom has a material basis did not originate with Karl Marx and the creed of Communism; it was a core idea of the 17th-century British political theorist James Harrington, and his formulation of classical republicanism. A man who does not own the means of his own reproduction can never exercise political freedom, Harrington argued, because “the man that cannot live upon his own must be servant.” Likewise, the man of immense wealth — whose fortune consigns great masses of men to servitude — is inevitably a kind of tyrant. After all, “where there is inequality of estates, there must be inequality of power, and where there is inequality of power, there can be no commonwealth.”
These premises deeply informed the American founders’ conception of republican liberty. The Jeffersonian ideal of a yeoman’s republic derived from the conviction that only independent landowners were politically free — and only a (very) rough equality in the distribution of land could preserve such freedom. Even a consummate elitist like Alexander Hamilton couldn’t help but echo Harringtonian thinking, writing in the Federalist Papers, “A power over man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.”
Critically, relatively few of the founders saw these premises in a progressive light. To many 18th-century American elites, the fact that the propertyless lacked the capacity to exercise genuine political freedom was not an argument for giving them property, but rather, for denying them the franchise. Similarly, the notion that true democracy couldn’t coexist with wealth inequality struck many leaders of the early republic as an argument against democracy.
“Power and property may be seperated for a time, by force or fraud — but divorced never, ” Benjamin Leigh, a conservative legislator in Virginia’s House of Delegates, argued at that state’s Constitutional Convention in 1830. “For, so soon as the pang of separation is felt … property will purchase power, or power will take property.” Being a man of property, Leigh concluded that the poor should therefore be denied political rights, saying, “it does not follow that, because all men are born equal … all men may rightly claim, in an established society, equal political powers.”
Thus, Ocasio-Cortez’s belief in the moral necessity of mass democracy (and women’s suffrage, and the abolition of slavery) would have struck many a Founding Father as radical. But her insistence that true democracy is incompatible with America’s present distribution of property — in which the richest 0.1 percent of Americans command as much wealth as the poorest 90 percent — would have struck Jefferson & Co. as tautological. And a large body of political science research suggests that their shared intuition is correct.
All of which is to say: If the right to self-government is an inextricable component of the American dream, then it isn’t AOC who regards that dream as immoral — it’s Sean Hannity, and every other multimillionaire who believes that legislators should not invent “many devices for subdividing property.”