Democracy with Property

Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Democracy is impossible without an adequate distribution of personal wealth. This is a fundamental premise too easily lost in the political fog of radical individualism and too easily confused with the collectivism of socialism. It is a populist vision of the path to real democracy. Adrian Kuzminski’s history of populism traces this vision back to ancient Greece and forward to modern times.[i]

What is an adequate distribution of personal wealth? It means a degree of economic independence, enough to enable citizens “to come together more or less as political equals.” It presumes a right to possess private property, not just an opportunity to struggle for it.[ii]

Phaleas of Chalcedon postulated that democracy cannot succeed if a few citizens have so much wealth that they can dominate the majority, or if ordinary citizens possess too little wealth to avoid being dominated politically by economic elites. (Aristotle, despite his reservations, ultimately saw it the same way.) A populist democracy does not require or aspire to absolute economic equality. Differences of talent, opportunity, and ambition are acknowledged. It aims only to avoid the extremes of poverty and wealth and to broaden the middle class. A true democracy of citizens engaged in self rule is founded on each citizen’s “access to ownership of resources,” that is, enough personal wealth to exercise democratic agency.[iii]

Access to ownership of resources—the distribution of wealth—in a modern finance-driven economy might be achieved by a system of credit administered by “a genuinely public national bank accountable to the people,” preferably a decentralized bank, not the present system of an ostensibly national bank which is actually controlled by private banking interests that gain unearned profits by manipulating interest rates. “If the resources of society are to be broadly shared by all, and not monopolized by a few, then money or ‘national credit’ must somehow be available to all.” Public credit “is not a giveaway or a free lunch.” It is a loan at non-usurious interest rates based on a citizen’s good collateral—usually his or her earning power—a loan issued by the state on behalf of the people. A democratic system of public credit as a source of individual wealth is a populist alternative to “the privatization of the [state’s] monetary system in modern economies.”[iv]

Thomas Jefferson, the most prominent populist in U.S. history, combined the notions of public credit and political decentralization to conceptualize a robust democracy. His blueprint for confederated ward republics would constitute citizens as “resource-owning independent producers controlling their system of money and credit and governing themselves through direct democracy in local communities, and indirectly through accountable representatives to broader levels of government.”[v] Kuzminski details the plausibility of Jefferson’s democratic populism for his own time (Jefferson aimed to complete the American revolution) and its conceptual relevance to present times. But oligarchy has prevailed, leaving us to live with faux democracy.

What is faux democracy? Unlike real democracy, its representative bodies are “closed to public participation with little or no grassroots accountability.” Public participation is restricted to “periodic voting in mass elections . . . . Our governments—local, state, and national—are literally closed oligarchies established through so-called free elections . . . mediated by political parties.” Ordinary citizens do not participate and vote in agenda setting and policy making deliberative assemblies. They delegate their political agency to representatives who are only loosely accountable to the people through symbolic electoral rituals run as expensive marketing campaigns.[vi]

Kuzminski’s history documents a long tradition of the populist vision of a real democratic economy and politics, a vision expressed in various ways and degrees by Phaleas, Aristotle, James Harrington, George Berkeley, David Hume, Frederick Soddy, Tom Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Edward Kellogg, Charles Macune, and the Peoples Party. It is a vision embedded in the nation’s history deeply enough to suggest the plausibility of building toward a new democracy for a post-imperial age—the cultural germ of a project yet to be undertaken.

The main point, from a populist perspective and beyond the specifics of implementation, is that democracy requires a degree of personal economic independence for its citizenry, enough not to be dominated by elites, and a measure of political decentralization, enough to give citizens a substantive roll in agenda setting and policy making deliberations and to provide for the actual accountability of their chosen representatives at broader levels of government.


[i] Adrian Kuzminski, Fixing the System: A History of Populism, Ancient and Modern (New York: Continuum, 2008).

[ii] Kuzminski, pp 2-3.

[iii] Kuzminski, pp. 3-4, 15, 20, 79.

[iv] Kuzminski, pp. 87-88, 98-100, 133, 138, 146.

[v] Kuzminski, p. 111.

[vi] Kuzminski, pp. 127-129.

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