Libertarianism and "The People"
Was Thomas Jefferson a libertarian? Most commentators present Thomas Jefferson as a champion of democracy, but individualists and libertarians find in his writings support for everything they preach: the greatest possible amount of individual freedom, individual rights and individual self-government, and the least possible government. Some also believe they find support for laissez-faire capitalism, as well as for a government whose sole legitimate purpose is to protect individual liberties, and whose measures must meet with the consent of each participating citizen.
Is this the real Thomas Jefferson, or is some of that a distortion of his principles and a misinterpretation of his writings?
It is not possible to separate Jefferson's "democracy" from his "libertarianism" without doing damage to his overall political thought. Taking democracy as government directed ultimately by the will of the people, and libertarianism as the protection of individuals in their inalienable rights, it is clear that Jefferson expected a government controlled by the will of the people to be kept in check by them, and that the people themselves would then be able to see to it that their liberties were secured. Jefferson's "system" of government may be seen as composed of three coordinate aspects: (1) a human mechanism for exerting ultimate regulatory control, (2) a structural means for implementing free government, and (3) a philosophy of free government to guide its structure and administration. The controlling mechanism was the sovereignty of the people en masse; the structural means, a constitution with its republican forms; and the philosophy, the inalienable rights of individuals and the principles of republicanism. Supreme over all this was the "will of the people," because without that, no philosophy could implement itself, and no structure would remain pure for long. Indeed, without the control of the people, who or what would see to it that the nation was directed by a philosophy of free government? Without their oversight, who or what would assure that the protections for inalienable rights would not be dismantled by despotic interests? Written documents alone cannot guarantee individual rights unless those documents place power in the hands of the people who will see to it that their rights are preserved.
"The mass of the citizens is the safest depository of their own rights." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816.
Moreover, it is the spirit of the people that keeps a republic on course, not just the written documents, although those are essential also, of course.
"[Our] object is to secure self government by the republicanism of our constitution, as well as by the spirit of the people; and to nourish and perpetuate that spirit." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816.
But without the people, without their spirit and participation, the structure of a republic would soon disintegrate.
"It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, 1782.
This is the mechanism that protects our individual rights. It is democracy itself that preserves liberty, and not merely the structure of the government, not even the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. These last will all be gradually enervated if the people do not remain on their guard. And any disparagement of the democratic process by those who profess a love of liberty is a strike against the only means whereby liberty itself can be established and preserved.
When discussing Jefferson's ideas about "limited government," it is necessary to distinguish between "limited" and "minimal" government. Jefferson fully supported both, but confusing the two, or equating them, misses the unique role of limited government in maintaining our liberties.
For Jefferson, limited government means government limited by the Constitution. His position on limited government was that it was necessary to prevent the abuse of power. Jefferson was not concerned too particularly as a matter of limited government with what kinds of powers government exercised, as long as those powers were exercised within the "chains" of the Constitution. Hence, in general, if there were some activity that was not authorized by the Constitution, his response was not that government should remain always strictly within specific limits already established as to the kinds of power, but rather that the Constitution should be amended so as to grant the desired powers.
"Redemption [of the public debts] once effected, the revenue thereby liberated may, by a just repartition among the states and a corresponding amendment of the Constitution, be applied in time of peace to rivers, canals, roads, arts, manufactures, education, and other great objects within each state." --Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Inaugural, 1805. [Emphasis added.]
Thus, he was willing to spend public moneys on all kinds of projects not authorized by the Constitution, provided there was a corresponding amendment to the Constitution authorizing it. Jefferson did not write, "that government is best which governs least." Nowhere did he indicate that the very least possible government was a matter of principle; rather, he opposed too much government on the grounds of efficiency. He recognized a reasonable role for government in any great nation. Conducting national business by amending the Constitution for needed powers would permit the nation to experiment with various uses of government, but would keep the expansion of power under strict control. Jefferson was opposed to the idea of the courts expanding the constitutional limits, not because those limits should never be expanded, but because that way of doing it would make the Constitution "a blank paper" and strict control would be usurped by a possibly despotic branch of the government that is not even responsible directly to the people.
"Our peculiar security is in the possession of a written Constitution. Let us not make it a blank paper by construction." --Thomas Jefferson to Wilson Nicholas, 1803.
The immediate effect of limiting government to its constitution was to prevent making the Constitution irrelevant, not just to prevent it from doing what someone may think is a violation of rights. Not every act exceeding the constitution need be a violation of individual rights. This procedure whereby a constitution is rendered ineffective is a very insidious process. It begins in subtle ways, and then spreads. The first expansion might be entirely innocuous. But as Jefferson wrote,
"The slightest deviation in one circumstance becomes a precedent for another, that for a third, and so on, without bounds. A relaxation in a case where it is certain no fraud is intended, is laid hold of by others, afterwards, to cover fraud." --Thomas Jefferson to George Joy, 1790.
Such a process continues until the government operates under a constitution that is virtually the government's own creation. It assumes governmental powers that it thinks are "necessary and proper" in a modern world, and these assumptions are directed by the needs of the political process, rather than having the political process limited and directed by the will of the people. When this happens, control of the process by the people is practically eliminated. The constitution is whatever those in power say it is, and if they choose to violate the rights of the people, they can usually finds the means to do so.
Preventing the violation of rights is, strictly speaking, a matter of philosophy, not of limited government. Limited government makes sure that governmental power is kept under control and subject to the people's philosophy, i.e., their will. But when the Constitution is made a blank paper, then there is nothing standing in the way of encroachments on liberty, because it has slipped from the control of its ultimate regulators, the people. Government is then under the control of whoever is expanding the constitutional powers. Of course, even under limited government, with the acquiescence of the people, governments might violate inalienable rights; but that is still a matter of philosophy and the will of the people, not a question of a government limited to its constitution.
It is as if many libertarians skip the middle step, however: the control provided to the people by limited government. They seem to suggest that limited government means that government will be limited from encroaching on the rights of individuals, and that it should be limited in its size and extent to just whatever was necessary to protect individual rights (i.e., minimal government). But, as pointed out above, true limited government per se does not necessarily protect liberty or even keep government to a minimum. Rather, it prevents the loss of the people's control and the corruptions of power, which in turn will almost certainly result in threats to liberty. The thing that protects liberty is the oversight of the people and their adherence to, and insistence on, principle. Thus, it may be said that democracy is what holds government to its libertarian principles, and limited government is necessary if democracy shall remain capable of doing this. Jefferson also believed in minimal government, of course.
"I am for a government rigorously frugal and simple, applying all the possible savings of the public revenue to the discharge of the national debt; and not for a multiplication of officers and salaries merely to make partisans, and for increasing by every device the public debt on the principle of its being a public blessing." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799.
But Jefferson's view on the size of government was one of moderation, not of "the least possible."
"We are now vibrating between too much and too little government, and the pendulum will rest finally in the middle." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Smith, 1788.
Too little government? Is it ever possible to have too little government? Jefferson believed in efficiency, frugality, and simplicity in government, but he did not believe in weakness and incapacity.
"The government which can wield the arm of the people must be the strongest possible." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac Weaver, Jr., 1807. ME 11:221
Minimal government is a relative position. Limited government is a matter of maintaining necessary governmental structure, whereas minimal government, including "getting the government out of our lives," as a matter of our philosophy of government, is something to be worked out in the public arena by those who control the government, i.e., the people.
Self-Government: Individual & National
The term "self-government" is used by Jefferson in several different contexts, including an individual's self-government of his own affairs, and a society's self-government of national affairs. At the national level, self-government means that a whole people may make their government, in form and principle, what they wish. This seems to be a bitter pill for most libertarians to swallow, because their adherence to "Individualism" demands that the will of each individual not be subordinate to a national will, and that the nation must rely entirely on the voluntary compliance of its citizens -- a position that ultimately would make any national government unworkable, in any practicable sense. But such views are foreign to Jefferson, who wrote,
"Individuals are parts only of a society, subject to the laws of a whole." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789.
This passage is from the same letter that contains another statement that may seem to present a slightly different view:
"What is true of every member of the society, individually, is true of them all collectively; since the rights of the whole can be no more than the sum of the rights of the individuals." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789.In fact, the second only affirms that when we are speaking of the national will, we are speaking of a whole nation of free individuals joined together in unity, not functioning as separate and disjointed units. Even the magnificent assertion of inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence was stated as a syllogistic preliminary in justification for a free people throwing off a government that violates their inalienable rights and forming new government that accords with their collective will:
"...it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."
The purpose of the Declaration was to justify revolution, not to state the primacy of individual rights, even though individual rights were an indispensable part of the argument. Everything, therefore, is stated in the plural -- "all men," "they" and "their" -- because it is an argument for the people, not for individuals:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
It is because of the equal possession of those inalienable rights by all the people that the whole nation has a right to take action and make this change of government. If they did not each one possess those inalienable rights, they could not collectively claim the right to change their government, because, as stated above, "the rights of the whole can be no more than the sum of the rights of the individuals." Without those rights held by each member of society, the people as a whole would not be the sovereign, and would be compelled to accept whatever they were dealt by the forces that claimed and exercised sovereignty over them. But possessing those rights and, consequently, the right to abolish any government that was found destructive of those rights, they could then collectively establish whatever form of government they pleased, which, incidentally, need not be the republican form. As Jefferson later stated:
"We certainly cannot deny to other nations that principle whereon our government is founded, that every nation has a right to govern itself internally under what forms it pleases, and to change these forms at its own will; and externally to transact business with other nations through whatever organ it chooses, whether that be a King, Convention, Assembly, Committee, President, or whatever it be. The only thing essential is, the will of the nation." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Pinckney, 1792.
"The right of nations to self-government being my polar star, my partialities are steered by it without asking whether it is a Bonaparte or an Alexander [Emperor of Russia] toward whom the helm is directed." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Correa, 1815.
So that the principles and form of the new government, while initiated by a people possessing inalienable rights and therefore expected to continue in the enjoyment of those basic natural rights, is not by natural right limited to the republican or any other particular form of government. It is subject to the will of the people.
"It accords with our principles to acknowledge any government to be rightful which is formed by the will of the nation substantially declared." --Thomas Jefferson to Gouverneur Morris, 1792.
The essential element is that it is formed by the "will of the nation." Since it is already established that they are a free people, and, as a free people, they can establish what kind of government they please, the will of the nation trumps everything else at the fundamental level of the nation itself. If a free people are hoodwinked and choose the unlikely course of abandoning republican government, they can do it, because they have the sovereign power to do it. A people at the national level can destroy themselves, if they so choose. And the only proper weapon to use against such an unfortunate turn of will is... EDUCATION that will restore them to their senses.
"Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787.
When they become educated and enlightened, they will realize that they are living under a destructive government with unjust powers. Of course, we know that such a series of events as described here is pure speculation based on unrealistic theory; the corruption of government does not occur as a wilful act of a whole people, but as the result of their failure to remain vigilant, allowing interested forces to have their way and pervert the government to despotic ends.
These propositions are hard for some libertarians to accept, because they have difficulty with a government whose people can make a mistake and compel a minority of enlightened individuals to live under that mistake. Of course, any enlightened person would have difficulty with such a turn of events. But that is the way the free world works. The solution is not to cast aside popular government or to trash the human mechanism that is the sole guarantor of liberty; the solution is to educate and win over the hearts and minds of the people. If individuals are free, and if a whole people are free, then they as a people must be free to experiment, even free to make mistakes. We cannot eliminate trial and error at the national level and still have a free society. Nevertheless, libertarians base their objections to the government programs and regulations they don't like, not on utility and efficiency, but on principle. But the principles of inalienable individual rights do not support such objections. Even more devastating, in their interpretations of inalienable rights, too many libertarians choose theories that would avoid the results of popular sovereignty, that would prevent the will of the people from being effective, and that are not only unworkable and self-defeating, but would defeat the cause of liberty itself.
For example, most libertarians state that "The sole purpose of government is to protect our individual liberties." Such a principle cannot be derived from the right of a people to establish government "laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness." Only if the "sole purpose" principle were made into a huge legal fiction could it result in a practicable government; every reasonable act of government would need to be forced into the category, "to protect our liberty." Such "sole purpose" theory is instead used to discredit government of the people, and thereby discredit the only security for liberty. Proponents of that view frequently mock government of the people, referring to them as "the peepul," and fail to realize that even a "free" government forced upon "the people" is a despotism still. Clearly, a free people are free to use their government for any ends they please. Who can tell them they can't? A theoretician? Anyone who tries to tell a free people what kind of government they can or cannot have is necessarily proposing some kind of despotism, whether they realize it or not.
Many libertarians maintain that "consent of the governed" means consent of every single person who is a citizen, and that compliance to governmental measures should be entirely voluntary on the part of those who choose to participate. But that unworkable proposition is clearly contrary to Jefferson's ideas about popular government and his statements on the "lex majoris partis," the law of the greater part:
"The people of [a] country [that have] never been in the habit of self-government [will] not [be] in the habit of acknowledging that fundamental law of nature by which alone self-government can be exercised by a society, I mean the lex majoris partis." --Thomas Jefferson to John Breckenridge, 1800.
"If the measures which have been pursued are approved by the majority, it is the duty of the minority to acquiesce and conform." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1811.
"The first principle of republicanism is that the lex majoris partis is the fundamental law of every society of individuals of equal rights; to consider the will of the society enounced by the majority of a single vote as sacred as if unanimous is the first of all lessons in importance, yet the last which is thoroughly learnt. This law once disregarded, no other remains but that of force, which ends necessarily in military despotism." --Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, 1817.
Other libertarians express opposition to democracy itself, claiming that the people will only turn into a nation of looters and undermine free government if given a chance. Although theoretically possible, history has shown that it is corrupt factions, not the people as a whole, that have produced corrupt governments in modern times. Examples of pure democracies expiring in a frenzy of factional conflict in the city-states of ancient times are not relevant to a modern republic. In any case, there is no other sovereign power that can produce just government. There must be a "human mechanism" to exert sovereign control, and if it is not the people through their majority, who shall it be? A dictator? A ruling elite? Shall force and despotic control produce a free society?
"And where else will [Hume,] this degenerate son of science, this traitor to his fellow men, find the origin of just powers, if not in the majority of the society? Will it be in the minority? Or in an individual of that minority?" --Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824.
"No other depositories of power [but the people themselves] have ever yet been found, which did not end in converting to their own profit the earnings of those committed to their charge." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816.
Or, as Thomas Paine explained it:
"In republics, such as those established in America, the sovereign power, or the power over which there is no control and which controls all others, remains where nature placed it--in the people; for the people of America are the fountain of power.... In a republic, the people retaining the sovereignty themselves, naturally and necessarily retain freedom with it; for wherever the sovereignty is, there must the freedom be; the one cannot be in the one place and the other in another." --Thomas Paine
If individuals are to be free, they must first be free as a sovereign people, gathered together to control the reins of government and act as the depository of their own liberty. To suggest that there can be free individuals without popular sovereignty is a theoretical absurdity and a practical impossibility.
Through all of this, it is evident that the primary active force in the formation and administration of a just state is the will of the people. Their inalienable rights are a fundamental premise for their being entitled to actions based on their will. But they are empowered to act because they naturally possess those rights, not because someone or some other human entity has granted them those rights. Therefore, as a free people in possession of sovereign power, they are not restricted by any claims against them, whether by any other human power or even by the theory of inalienable rights itself. Such claims can only be made as appeals to their understanding and spirit. They themselves are the depository of their own rights, the ultimate sovereign whose commission it is to secure those rights, "the power over which there is no control and which controls all others." If they sometimes display certain weaknesses or failings, there is no other sovereign that can displace them and assure free government. If they fail to maintain a free society, there is no one else who shall restore it. Only "The People" can do that.
Capitalism and Self-Government
Given a free and sovereign people who are able to exercise self-government, what is the relationship between free-market capitalism and national self-government? Is free-market capitalism a natural extension of inalienable rights? Does capitalism, as an expression of an individual's inalienable rights, take precedence over national self-government? That is, Is capitalism a matter for individuals, in which the national government has no legitimate concern?
Given that the people as a whole are the ultimate sovereign of a nation, this sovereignty acts as a self-sufficient mechanism, and there is NO force, power, or authority that can tell them what they can and cannot do without itself becoming the sovereign authority and reducing the people to some form of servitude. Even if we were to say that free-market capitalism must be recognized as an individual right by the people who are the possessors of national sovereignty, who would enforce such a decree? Who would make them do it? This is a choice that the people themselves must make.
Therefore, the proposition that there shall be free-market capitalism is at best a "should," or an "ought." It is an element of the philosophy of government that a nation must determine it wishes to exercise, if it is to be exercised at all. It is something to be persuasively argued, not something proposed as a matter of right. For the will or choice of the people governs independently of, and supremely over, any economic system or any other consideration. We cannot replace the will of the people with capitalism, because the people's will is a fundamental mechanism governing a free society, whereas capitalism is merely an economic form, a policy outcome.
Free enterprise is not a natural right. There is no such thing as a natural right to hire other individuals and to employ them in industry. This is a right that arises as an adjunct to an individual's participation in society. It is granted by society and is naturally subject to regulation by society. Indeed, the very idea of one individual working for another and being subordinate to the other's command and discharge is, if anything, contrary to the idea of freedom. The suggestion that employees and employers are independent "free traders" in the labor market is a huge, insidious fiction. No one is a free trader who faces as an alternative starvation and death. The history of the labor movement presents the true picture of these relationships, not the apologists for unregulated capitalism. Laboring people fought long and hard for good wages and decent working conditions against an unregulated system that would have them working at a bare subsistence level and for wages that hardly kept body and soul together. Moreover, the decent living standards that they fought for and won, rather than wrecking the economic system, increased the breadth of the economy along with their own buying power, and helped make this the most prosperous nation in the history of the world.
Freedom for most workers is not working for someone else. Indeed, that possibility is the incentive for many individuals who become entrepreneurs, who enter the professions, who go into business for themselves (and become the hirer instead of the hired), and for those who, after a lifetime of working for others, are finally able to retire. Capitalism is industrial autocracy. Not even the stockholders exercise any genuine democratic control over the corporations of which they are supposedly the owners. There is nothing about capitalism that naturally tends towards liberty and inalienable rights for the participants, except, perhaps, for the capitalist.
Capitalism, therefore, is an economic condition of society in which all of society's members are compelled by necessity to participate in some form or another. The corporation -- the very mainstay of capitalism -- is the creation of society and society's law, the main purpose of which is to limit the liability of the owners and permit the expansion of enterprise beyond the resources of a single individual. There is nothing natural or inalienable about it at all. If anything, it is the ultimate expression of complex, social interrelationship. Employing individual members of society is a right afforded and made possible by society, and like all other socially afforded rights, is fully subject to society's regulation and control.
Free-market capitalism, however, declares itself outside the regulatory control of any agency, most especially "the people," or of the government, which is the arm of the people. It wishes to be as separate from the state as is the church, although as we know, the church is still subject to ordinary civil and criminal laws and regulations. Therefore, free-market capitalism would be outside the purview of national self-government regarding internal matters related to free-market transactions, with the sole governmentally supervised proviso that these transactions not violate individual rights.
Free-market capitalism, then, is a function of individual action and interaction. It takes the position that if individuals are free, then their actions must be free also, and their personal self-government must be unfettered to an extent that is limited only by the equal rights of all involved. It would place itself in the position of reaping the benefits of association with others in a free society, while at the same time being separate and apart from that society and not subject to its regulation and control.
But all economic activity involves the interrelationship of an individual (or corporate entity) with other individuals (or corporate entities). Such interrelationships are of the essence of what a society is all about: an association of individuals joined together for their mutual protection and benefit. These relationships are the very "fabric" of society. But each party to this relationship has the same rights of self-government as every other, and the ideal is to afford to each member of society the highest level of self-government possible. As Jefferson wrote,
"Circumstances denied to others but indulged to us have imposed on us the duty of proving what is the degree of freedom and self- government in which a society may venture to leave its individual members." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 1802.
Thus, the question of self-government is not one of absolutes; it is one of degrees. It is not a matter of whether the people as a whole can regulate free enterprise if they so choose; clearly, they can. They can do whatever they think "shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness." They can even try something that turns out to be mistaken and wrong-headed. They can experiment. The only question is whether they should, whether it is conducive to their security and happiness to do so.
Here we are dealing with an activity between individuals that is an inescapable part of living. No ordinary member of society could be expected to survive or to effectively engage in "the pursuit of happiness" while opting out of the economic system. Hence, these relationships are a necessary part of living. These activities are not completely private activities, such as thinking, which is beyond the control of government. These activities always involve other members of society, and therefore are by their very nature things that a society might want to control to promote their safety and happiness. These conditions fit very well Jefferson's prescription for social control:
"[When man] has procured a state of society, it is one of his acquisitions which he has a right to regulate and control, jointly indeed with all those who have concurred in the procurement, whom he cannot exclude from its use or direction more than they him." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816.
There is no intrinsic connection between inalienable rights and free-market capitalism that demands the latter exist completely unfettered. If anything, it is just the reverse. The conditions of capitalism are provided by a society, and the people have every right to regulate and control it to whatever extent they feel is necessary for their "safety and happiness." Any form of regulation and control necessarily places a limit on individual freedom. As implied by Jefferson's statement above, there are no natural limits on regulation and control, provided all members of society share equally in its benefits. Moreover, the natural right to govern one's own economic affairs, like other natural rights, may be modified or abridged by necessary regulation and control when one associates with others in society.
"Every man, and every body of men on earth, possesses the right of self-government... This, like all other natural rights, may be abridged or modified in its exercise by their own consent." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on Residence Bill, 1790.
So that it can be reasonably asserted that a nation has a right to regulate and control economic activity between its members which they deem for their own mutual protection and to secure their own happiness, even if this involves some degree of abridgement or modification to the individual's self-government in economic affairs. Therefore, laissez-faire capitalism, i.e., capitalism completely unregulated, is not compatible with a society itself entitled to self-government. Such a society necessarily retains the right to govern in a manner that to them "shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness," and this right cannot be limited arbitrarily by rules that give individuals rights that the whole society does not have. A society therefore is fully within its rights to regulate capitalism for the national good. Free-market capitalism is nothing more than a theoretical and utopian dream that never has and never will exist in a free society, because it violates the free will of the society itself. In order to promote it effectively to any degree, it cannot be done on the basis of individual rights, but on the basis of what is best for the whole society. This no one has demonstrated convincingly.
Jefferson as a Libertarian
There are probably more points of agreement between Jefferson and the libertarians than disagreement. But as is the case with so many partisan adoptions of Jefferson, he can be considered a true libertarian only by carefully selecting and editing his ideas. When viewed as a whole, however, his political philosophy supports a free nation controlled collectively by free individuals, not a mass of individuals free to do as they please without regard to everyone else except to respect their inalienable rights. For as he wrote,
"Every man cannot have his way in all things. If his opinion prevails at some times, he should acquiesce on seeing that of others preponderate at other times. Without this mutual disposition we are disjointed individuals, but not a society." --Thomas Jefferson to John Dickinson, 1801.
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