Ben Franklin on the “Disposition” of “Superfluous” Wealth for the “Welfare of the Publick”
All the property that is necessary to a Man, for the Conservation of the Individual and the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition. He that does not like civil Society on these Terms, let him retire and live among Savages. He can have no right to the benefits of Society, who will not pay his Club towards the Support of it.
– Benjamin Franklin, letter to Robert Morris, December 25, 1783
All the property that is “necessary”… but not more. Such said good old Ben Franklin. Everything beyond that, i.e. all wealth beyond that, said Ben, is “superfluous” and, as such, must be allocated to “the welfare of the publick” when the public interest so warrants.
What was Ben saying here? Was one of the country’s Founding Fathers arguing that each person should be free to earn as much as he could? Was he arguing that an individual’s right to accumulate unlimited wealth was perhaps the most fundamental American freedom? Was this an argument to put the right to pursue wealth ahead of societal interest? The answer to these questions is clearly “no”.
Ben was one of the most important architects of American values. The American ideal is that we, the people, have every right to demand that all excess wealth accumulated by individuals can be confiscated by the people, through their representatives, for the public good. We have today, in this country, the greatest gap between rich and poor we have seen since the Great Depression and perhaps the greatest ever. This concentration of wealth has perverted our political process and it has led to all manner of crimes against the common man and woman and against the environment on which we all depend.
What is the state of wealth confiscation in America today? What do we hear in our political discourse and throughout our mass media? What do our major parties have to say on this critically important issue? Even most American liberals are afraid to touch this third rail.
The silence is deafening but the implications scream loudly in anguish.
Note that Ben made no mention of “current year’s income”. He did not call for a levy on income (e.g. a graduated income tax) but rather a “disposition” of “superfluous property”. What he spoke of was the right of the public to confiscate wealth. Today’s political class justifies greed (“greed is good”) by ignoring the spirit, soul and intent of the nation’s founders. Those uttering Franklin’s words today are dismissed as left-wing kooks and heretics to American values. Franklin would never have granted any individual the right to possess the wealth of kings because such wealth inevitably would betray, or at least could betray, what is good for all the people. Franklin’s message was unequivocal: the rights of the society, this is the “Publick”, superceded the rights of the individual. Today’s America has long since forgotten and perverted that message.
We need to truly understand the implications of an ever-centralizing concentration of wealth. The well-known “a rising tide lifts all boats” is no longer relevant. In a healthy, growing economy, it was true that even as the super-wealthy increased their share of national wealth, it did not mean the middle class could not also be growing more prosperous. But such models were only relevant in a post-WWII America where the US overwhelmed the global economy. In today’s world, many new nations are emerging as economic powers and the global economic domination of the US is waning. Put another way, there is no rising tide anymore. The tide is going out and with it the hopes and dreams of an egalitarian society with a strong middle class.
With the loss of economic might, the endless concentrating of wealth becomes an urgent matter for the masses. The paradigm that it is OK for the wealthy to grow wealthier relative to the middle class is no longer operative. Now, as wealth concentrates among a narrower and narrower segment of society, poverty and suffering extends its reach among a rapidly growing number of Americans. There is no more “win-win”; for decades now, we have been trapped in a very clear “win-lose” perversion of Franklin’s vision. Superfluous wealth, i.e. wealth beyond any reasonable definition of necessity, has somehow come to be seen as the essence of a free America. There is no freedom amidst the poverty and hopelessness created by a government that treasonously perverts the will of the Founders by catering to the special interests.
Until more of us understand the American values embodied in Franklin’s statement, democracy itself will continue to die. What will you do about this? What will you demand from those running for office? What candidates or parties will address the urgency of this issue? The concentration of wealth we have today is destroying the last remnants of a once-promising American democracy, and America’s middle class, while those who stand for election say and do nothing about it. If we continue to vote for them, are we not enabling the special interests to prosper at our expense and the interest of the Publick?