In 1647 Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) and his son-in-law Henry Ireton (1611-1651) had a problem. They had succeeded in their revolution but had no real idea what to do with their victory. They wanted to impose Presbyterianism but had no program of political reform. Having no plan, they did nothing.
|Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector|
At the same time parliament, somewhat taken aback by its triumph, was also uncertain how to proceed. Lacking direction, it froze into inaction.
King Charles I Stuart (1600-1649), although defeated, was trying to divide parliament and the army and start another civil war that would end in his favor. This was helped along by the fact that parliament wanted to get rid of the army so that the legislature would be the only power in the land.
Similarly, the army — the only group with real power — did not trust the king or parliament to secure them their rights and were beginning to waver in their loyalty to Cromwell. They were afraid that he, too, might be willing to compromise and surrender their rights in exchange for imposing his religious views on the country.
It was in this confused situation that the Levelers came into being. Regimental committees appeared, seemingly spontaneously, their members drawn from rank and file soldiers; officers tended to be conservative and favor parliament. A number of pamphlets circulated, written mostly by the leaders of the movement, John Lilburne (1614-1657) and Richard Overton (?-1664).
Discussions ensued in the Army Council between the officers’ representatives under the leadership of Cromwell and Ireton, and the regimental representatives, the latter supported by a few of the higher-ranking officers. Talks bogged down in the conflict between the interests of the affluent officers, and the middle-class farmers and tradesmen who made up the rank and file.
Mutiny became a serious threat, and Cromwell finally acted in November 1647. He cut off negotiations with the king, and a few years later the king’s head. This restored the confidence of the ordinary soldiers, and discipline was reestablished. Levelers reappeared as a civil political party a little over a year later, but had the ground cut out from under them in early 1649 when the army adopted a policy of coercion against political opponents.
Astonishingly, the Levelers’ program was remarkably consistent with Catholic political theory as presented in the works of Roberto Francesco Romolo Cardinal Bellarmino, S.J. (1542-1621) — Saint Robert Cardinal Bellarmine — astonishing because they pleaded for religious toleration for everyone except Catholics. In contrast, the totalitarian philosopher Thomas Hobbes could have dictated their opponents’ political theory.
Opponents claimed that Levelers (the label was applied as a pejorative) wanted to abolish private property and impose equality of rank, social position, and economic condition on everyone. The appeal to natural law, they insisted, meant that no one would have any rights, for all rights in the Hobbesian view come from the State, the person of the collective that stands in for the people, a “Mortall God,” as it were. As Ireton declared, “If you will resort only to the law of nature, by the law of nature you have no more right to this land or anything else than I have.”
That was not at all what the Levelers meant. Ironically, had they been willing to rely on Catholic authorities as did John Locke (1632-1704) and Algernon Sidney (1623-1683), they could have made a much stronger case than they did.
The Levelers would certainly have made a more persuasive argument by larding their proposals and pamphlets with the usual scriptural language and quotes. Their opponents, in fact, complained that the Levelers must be ungodly because they consciously seemed to avoid dragging in religion.
Boiled down to its essence, the Levelers’ program sounds very reasonable today, except for the specified lack of toleration for Catholics. Jews were not an issue, as Cromwell would not readmit them into England after their expulsion in 1290 until 1656.
As far as the Levelers were concerned, all men — by which they meant all adult males who were not paupers or Catholics — have equal rights of life, liberty, and private property by nature. This means that all men have an equal right to vote for political representation, to have a say in what laws are passed, and to own capital and be secure in that ownership if they have employed lawful means to acquire and maintain it.
Levelers insisted that they agitated only for political and economic equality of opportunity, not economic equality of results. Further, they made it clear that they considered human positive law not a true law unless it is consistent with the law of nature.
|Magna Charta based on natural law.|
Even Magna Charta, so William Walwyn (cir. 1600-1681) and Overton declared, was a “beggarly thing” if it was not understood in light of natural law. This early instance of original intent profoundly shocked their opponents, as they held by the positivist theory that laws made by the State are the only legitimate laws.
This history lesson is just a way of introducing the question of equality: what does it really mean to say that all men are created equal? In the Just Third Way, with its emphasis on the human person, we think it means equality of opportunity, equality before the law, and equality of access to the institutions of the common good, especially the means of acquiring and possessing private property in capital.
Obviously, for equality of opportunity to mean something, there must first be opportunity to equalize. If the institutions of the common good are such that they prevent or inhibit equality of opportunity instead of encouraging and protecting it, not the State, but the people have the obligation to take matters into their own hands and organize to work to restructure those institutions so that they operate within acceptable parameters.
This is the principle of subsidiarity. The State, after all, is primarily charged with care of the common good, not the individual good of each citizen. The attainment of individual goods is the job of the citizen, individually or in free association with others, not the State. The State is there to ensure that in the process of attaining individual goods the citizens do not harm themselves, others, or the common good as a whole.
|Alexis de Tocqueville|
If, therefore, the institutions of society are badly structured so that they actually inhibit or prevent citizens from attaining their individual goods, the first recourse is for individual citizens to try and correct the situation.
If individual action fails, citizens at the affected level of the common good should organize and work to reform the institutions of society that are adversely affecting them. This is, in fact, what de Tocqueville claimed was the chief characteristic of American life. If organized action fails, they may seek the help of other levels of the common good.
If citizen action fails completely or proves inadequate, only then should the State act, and then only as long as is required to meet the immediate need. The primary care of the common good is not the responsibility of the State, but of the people who, individually or organized in institutions, comprise the common good and provide the social environment within which ordinary people carry out the business of living and more fully developing their humanity.
There is no doubt that the United States — the world — was in deadly peril in the early years of the twentieth century. The last safety valve for the human race, the chance to own landed capital in America by taking advantage of the Homestead Act, had been shut off in the closing years of the nineteenth century.
|Panic of 1873|
The antiquated, even reactionary financial systems based on past savings in place throughout much of the world ensured that few, if any people would be able to gain a stake in the commercial and industrial frontier to replace the disappearing land frontier. Even where the financial system was advanced, as in the German Reich (the Second Reich, obviously), the tax system, and the universal collateralization requirement ensured that future opportunities to own new capital would be restricted, as a rule, to the already-wealthy.
The Panic of 1873 and the resulting depression had been a temporary adjustment in the economy as consumption power caught up to productive capacity. The Panic of 1893 and the Great Depression of 1893-1898 revealed much more serious problems that were, nevertheless, ignored with the return of prosperity. The Panic of 1907, while more limited in scope and with effects of much shorter duration, revealed problems in the financial system that would have to be corrected if the United States was to be put on a sound foundation that would “secure the blessings of liberty to . . . posterity.”
The financial and economic situation was not, of course, the only problem. Money, credit, banking, and finance are, however, essential elements to a just social order. They are the means by which people acquire and possess private property in capital. If most people do not have access to these institutions, most people will not own capital.
|Pope Pius XI|
Without capital ownership, most people will remain powerless, under the control of a private sector elite, or a public State bureaucracy. As Pius XI would put it a generation later,
In the first place, it is obvious that not only is wealth concentrated in our times but an immense power and despotic economic dictatorship is consolidated in the hands of a few, who often are not owners but only the trustees and managing directors of invested funds which they administer according to their own arbitrary will and pleasure.
This dictatorship is being most forcibly exercised by those who, since they hold the money and completely control it, control credit also and rule the lending of money. Hence, they regulate the flow, so to speak, of the life-blood whereby the entire economic system lives, and have so firmly in their grasp the soul, as it were, of economic life that no one can breathe against their will.
The conclusion is inescapable. As Grosscup understood, economic democracy must precede, or at least accompany, political democracy. Political democracy is otherwise a hollow shell. As de Tocqueville said,
The nations of our time cannot prevent the conditions of men from becoming equal, but it depends upon themselves whether the principle of equality is to lead them to servitude or freedom, to knowledge or barbarism, to prosperity or wretchedness. (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, II.4.viii)