The Dangers of Wealth in a Democratic Society

Americans seem to have forgotten, if they ever were aware, that the history and origins of our constitutional freedoms, particularly the Bill of Rights we ratified in 1791, were about protecting people of lesser means against the power and corrupting influence of great wealth. The English Magna Carta of 1215, which chartered British liberties against the arbitrary governance of a feudal king, Britain’s “Glorious Revolution” in 1688 and English Bill of Rights in 1689, which empowered a a house of “commoners” against the king and his aristocracy, and  even America’s Declaration of Independence (1776) and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) which triggered revolutions against monarchy and aristocracy in the name of the people’s sovereignty, all of these were about ending the corrupting and arbitrary power of wealth in the conduct of public affairs. “All men are created equal,” we declared. America must now decide what that means.

That the history and purpose of America’s freedoms were as much economic as they were political has been lost in the telling of American history (and, therefore, in our courts and in our politics).  This is partly because so many of our founders condoned property qualifications for voting and office-holding in the Early American Republic. But they did so in the belief that only property owners, e.g., Thomas Jefferson’s yeoman farmers, could enjoy the independence of mind (not being subservient to others) to act as free and enlightened citizens. They did not do so to allow wealthy people to dictate public affairs, which was an idea they had revolted against. Americans soon discarded those wealth and property qualifications, and they did so in the name of democracy.

The United States is at a critical moment in examining the role of wealth is its governance and its society. Two recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, empowering the wealthy to exercise disproportionate influence in our politics, and an important new book, Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in The Twenty-First Century,” measuring how concentrations of wealth undermine the promise of equal opportunity, have drawn public attention to the subject. The Occupy Wall Street Movement, with its forebodings of social unrest, should have instigated this discussion three years ago. But it didn’t. So let’s not miss this opportunity today.

A discussion that attempts to balance the dangers of accumulated wealth against the larger interests of a democratic society will be difficult in today’s America, with its short-attention spans and demagogic name-calling. Just as in the 1790s, when ordinary Americans first debated this subject, a vitriolic press and excessive partisanship may label one side as radicals or the other as aristocrats. In seeking a middle ground, however, where the answers inevitably lie, we should be mindful that the English, French, and American Revolutions that gave birth to our constitutional liberties were actually middle-class revolutions, seeking constitutional balances and an enumeration of rights, to protect and develop a strong and growing middle-class.

The founding generation knew the dangers of great wealth and made protections against them. Our generation must do the same today.

 

Richard N. Rosenfeld is the author of American Aurora, A Democratic-Republican Returns (St. Martin’s Press, 1997).

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