You can distribute power & wealth or you can concentrate it but you can't do both. Politicians pretend otherwise - RSA

You can distribute power and wealth or you can concentrate it but you can't do both. Politicians pretend otherwise

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As I do the research for my book Small is Powerful, I'm sharing some of my early thoughts through my blog. Here's the latest.

It is 225 years since the United States Constitution was adopted. One might have thought in that time that our understanding of democracy would have become more sophisticated. But one of the most central insights into the nature of government and society that was commonplace amongst the Founding Fathers has now been largely forgotten.

That insight was inspired by the work of the seventeenth century English political philosopher, James Harrington (1611-1677), who was a great influence in America but whose obscurity today tells its own story.

Harrington was perhaps the first modern political thinker to recognise that the extent to which economic power is concentrated will ultimately have an impact on the extent to which political and social power is concentrated.

He argued, for example, that monarchy had collapsed in seventeenth century England because the Tudors had enabled land to be owned more widely. This had created a new class of landed gentry who then had an economic imperative as well as the power to demand a say in government. For the same reason, social power (which at that time largely meant the power of the Church) was becoming more distributed as the increasingly independent and powerful gentry with its wider diversity of religious views demanded the right to practice their faith as they saw fit.

Harrington rightly predicted that this wider but still limited distribution of property in England would ultimately lead to a revived monarchy but one subject to constitutional controls to ensure the gentry maintained their say over government. For a fully democratic republic to flourish, a much wider distribution of property would be required. For this reason Harrington proposed an "agrarian law" which would forbid anyone making further purchases once they had amassed land worth £2,000.

The Forgotten Power Insight

It is difficult to over-estimate how important Harrington's analysis was for the Founding Fathers. Because of Harrington, leading revolutionary figures including Washington,  Adams, Jefferson, Madison (the first four Presidents of the USA) and even Hamilton (who was the bankers' best political friend) understood that their revolution had to reach consistently into all areas of economic and social life as well as the political.

As John Adams wrote:

Harrington has shewn that Power always follows Property. This I believe to be as infallible a Maxim in Politicks, as that Action and Reaction are equal, as in Mechanicks. Nay, I believe We may advance one Step farther, and affirm that the Balance of Power in a Society, accompanies the Balance of Property in Land. The only possible Way then of preserving the Balance of Power on the side of equal Liberty and public Virtue, is to make the Acquistion of Land easy to every Member of Society: to make a Division of the Land into Small Quantities, So that the Multitude may be possessed of landed Estates. If the Multitude is possessed of the Ballance of real Estate, the Multitude will have the Ballance of Power, and in that Case the Multitude will take care of the Liberty, Virtue, and Interest of the Multitude in all Acts of Government.

In short, the Founding Fathers based their whole approach on this forgotten insight: power and resource have to be distributed widely in the political and social and economic spheres of life to ensure that power and resource remained distributed widely in any one of them. Only then could a meaningful republic be created which guaranteed all people the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Put another way: these crucial figures in the development of the modern state and society recognised you could have your power big (i.e. concentrated) or you could have it small (i.e. distributed) but you couldn't have it both.

Contemporary Confusion on the Left

And yet the politics of today has forgotten this insight. The structure, ideology and ethos of our public world is built around confused and often unconscious attempts to combine big power with small power.

The left, for example, may naturally feel sympathy with the egalitarian sentiments and the analysis of the Founding Fathers. But their solution to the problem of high levels of economic inequality is to urge a big, powerful state to redistribute income, run vast public service organisations and firmly regulate the behaviour of the wealthy and powerful.

But this would have immediately struck Adams, Jefferson and their colleagues as an utterly confused response. Trying to combat the rise of big economic power by creating an even bigger political power would ensure that the threat to liberty and human flourishing then came from a dominant political class rather than a dominant economic class.

They saw clearly that the big powerful state usually serves the interests of the wealthy anyway as it is they who have the power and networks to influence those who are in charge. This was a lesson they had learned from the way European monarchies had come to protect aristocratic power and commercial monopolies. Ultimately the left's attempt to mix big political power with small economic power would be self-defeating.

Contemporary Confusion on the Right

The right, however, is no more consistent. The more the ethos and interests of the private sector holds sway over government policy, the happier right-leaning thinkers and politicians tend to be. Equally handing state functions over to large commercial interests is seen as an excellent way of reducing the power and influence of a bloated state.

Again, however, the Founding Fathers would have been bemused by such an approach. How would it advance the cause of liberty, they might ask, to remove power and resources from a political elite and hand it to an economic elite. Big power is big power in whatever sphere it operates, it advances the liberty of a few at the expense of the many: it ultimately stifles the creativity and flourishing of the "multitude".

Small Power and the Social

The confusion only deepens in the social and cultural sphere. As explained above the Founding Fathers believed freedom of choice inareas such as religion were vital to maintain liberty in the economic as well as the institutional political sphere. Again their disdain for Europe was vital here. They saw how monarchs and wealthy aristocratic elites worked with an established orthodox church to maintain their separate interests and privileges and prevented challenge from below.

Now we have a much wider conception of the realm of freedom in social and cultural matters extending the liberties of the Founding Fathers  to groups they actively oppressed or simply ignored including women, people of other races and gay people.

On this issue the left has tended to be the most vocal in opposing the concentrated big power of those organisations and structures that prevent greater freedoms for excluded groups. And yet while promoting small power in social matters, the left also promotes a big state and often (rather surreptitiously) favours big business. But what this means, in practice, as the Founding Fathers understood, is that groups without power and resources simply become dependent on those with power and resources to grant them freedoms which they should have by right.

The mainstream view on the right is equally inconsistent theoretically supporting small power in the political and economic spheres but suddenly being overtly in favour of big social and cultural power when it comes to issues such as greater freedoms for women, black people and gay people. Of course many argue that they simply do not want to extend state regulation in these areas but as the recent votes on gay marriage reveal, very many on the right are happy to maintain regulation when it comes to limiting freedom of choice on social and cultural matters.

The Power Insight: Two Challenges

Those who want to take the Founding Father's insight into the nature of power and liberty seriously face a double challenge.

The first is that there is not anywhere in contemporary politics that seems able to stay true to the insight. There are enclaves within both main parties and the lesser ones which desire small rather than big power in economic, social and political spheres. But they tend to be a weak minority often forced to compromise or accept the bold big power policies of the majority which are usually seen as touchstones of one's commitment to a party or ideology.

The second much more important challenge is about agency. We live in a political world so obsessed with the state and what it can or should do for the public good that it is almost impossible now to imagine how a greater distribution of power and resource can be achieved without big government getting involved. Who or what will create an economic sphere characterised by small distributed power and resources when big concentrated power is already so well established?

It was partly due to the fear of such a conundrum emerging that led to a long and bitter fight in eighteenth and nineteenth century America over the granting of charters and privileges to large commercial corporations. Many law-makers feared these moves would lead to just the sort of concentration of capital that scarred the Europe the early colonists had deliberately left behind. Ultimately this fight was lost and by the early twentieth century very large businesses exerted vast power over whole markets leading to great enrichment for those at the top of those firms. Efforts to take remedial action through regulation to break up monopolies have had only a very limited impact and are now generally designed to protect consumer choice rather than challenge concentrations of power and resource.

The Power Insight therefore poses a big question to those who recognise its value: how can the 'multitude' through peaceful and voluntary effort generate a broader distribution of power and resources in the social, political and economic spheres without relying on the coercive power of the state? In short, how can "we, the people" create a world of small power rather than big power?

It's a very tough question which I hope to explore further in my book and in future on this blog. All help gratefully received!


Adam Lent can be found on Twitter here.

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  • Mexican land coops, Irish land will division, ex-communist Bulgarian land ownership by agricultural poor are examples of alternatives; plus Common Land in the past. Alternatives have existed to agri-business/utilitarianism haven't they? Your analysis of previous social land/property experiments would interest me.