Walter Weyl (1873-1919): The state has a “primordial, intrinsic, underlying right to all property”


By Lee Cary –

Walter Weyl was an early, intellectual theorist for the American Progressive Movement.  He was a coeditor of The New Republic magazine from 1914-1916, and his political philosophy fit tongue-and-grove with that of The New Republic founder Herbert Croly.   His book The New Democracy (1912) is a classic expression of progressivism.

From the progressive prospective, Weyl was a prophet.

In 1896, he received a doctorate in economics from the University of Pennsylvania.  He died at age 46 of throat cancer.

Below are excerpts from The New Democracy.  Published 101 years ago, the book today finds much fulfillment in the administration of President Barack Obama.  Weyl’s words, in italics, are taken from the 1964 Harper & Row reprint of The Macmillan Company original 1912 edition.

The U.S. Constitution established a dated, individualistic democracy

The greatest merit – and the greatest defect – of the Constitution is that it has survived.” (p.15)  “The Constitution…provided for a sufficiently feeble government.” (p.53)

The Constitution established “an individualistic democracy – not a democracy adapted to the steam engine, the big factory, the great city and the social relations corresponding to a complex, closely knit industrial system.” (p.21)

In the 19th Century, America gave up its leadership in establishing a democracy. “The immediate task before America, the frontiersman of civilization, was not democracy, but the Conquest of the Continent.” (p.22)

The westward march of the pioneer gave to Americans a psychological twist which was to hinder the development of a socialized democracy.  The open continent intoxicated the American…It made the American mind a little sovereignty of its own, acknowledging no allegiances and but few obligations. It created an individualism, self-confident, short-sighted, lawless, doomed in the end to defeat itself, as the boundless opportunities which gave it birth became at last circumscribed.” (p.36)

Widespread corruption accompanied the era of America’s conquest of the continent. “In many States the fount of legislation, the wells of justice were controlled. Legislation was no long bought, but owned. The big individualist, the giant gambler, had gained his last strategic hold.” (p.63)

The “rape” from national growth brought the “plutocracy” and their “trusts

At the end of the 19th Century, “The continent, incalculably fertile and wealth-giving though it was, showed signs of a century of rape. Regions formerly blessed with a plentiful rainfall had become arid, and rivers which once kept their measured beds now alternated between trickling, unfructifying streams and torrential floods. Everywhere were the evil results of the destruction of forests, the denudation of soils, the impoverishment of rivers, the annihilation of animal life, and the insensate wasting of natural resources by men who know responsibility, and who in the midst of a self-created desolation were astounded at their own moderation, The continent, which had evoked the spirit which meant its ravishing, was now like a nursery, with its broken toys strewn upon the floor.” (pp. 66-67)

Thanks to “the serenely stupid indifference of the state,” all this waste and destruction was not only tolerated, but enabled as “the individualist… had erected upon the cleared land a city wilderness, an overgrown, tangled, rank and morass-filled forest of distorted and dying human plants of all countries, of all natures, ill-sorted, struggled for a dwarfed life and – poisonous.” (pp. 70-72)

The “trusts” emerged victorious and powerful from the devastation.  “Because we could not escape from our former utter planlessness and anarchy except by reorganizing our whole business…we were obligated to go over to a highly centralized trust system of production,” leaving the nation with “a swaggering plutocracy…To-day our problems are enormously complicated by the presence in our midst of a powerful and cohering plutocracy, with vast power and antidemocratic temptations.” (pp. 76-77)

Weyl’s “Plutocracy” equals today’s 1%’ers

Our American plutocracy is rather a more or less fluctuating group of very wealthy men, loosely united…who, through their wealth and prestige, and through the allegiance of like-minded but poorer men, exert an enormous, if not preponderating, influence over industry, politics, and public opinion.” (p.78)

Our plutocracy, based on the trust’s position in industry and the trust magnate’s position within the trust, is composed, to a great extent, of strong, unscrupulous, far-seeing, and ultra-individualistic persons, who secured hold of our national monopolized business while we as a nation were dreaming of competitive beatitudes. “ (pp. 90-91)

How our national business must change

We are beginning to see that we can moralize, we can socialize the trusts, and can build more widely upon the economic tendencies of the age…the end of it all must be production on the largest scale compatible with efficiency, but a production so regulated as to ownership, stock issues, dividends, prices, wages, and profits as to safeguard the whole community.  Unless we are to take the saltum mortale [dangerous undertaking] of a complete and immediate governmental ownership and operation of all large industries, we must work out a more perfect system of corporation control in the interest of society.” (pp. 94-95)

The New Democracy v. the old plutocracy

Where the plutocracy means the greatest wealth, the democracy means the widest range of economic satisfactions. Where the plutocracy thinks of profits, the democracy thinks of recreation, leisure, a wise expenditure, and a healthful toil. Were the plutocracy emphasizes a saving in wages, the democracy emphasizes a saving in labor…The democracy interprets utilization as such a production, distribution, and consumption of wealth as will give the highest excess of economic pleasure over economic pain to the largest number of people for the long possible time. Upon this end all the industrial, political, social, and ethical ideals of the democracy converge.” (pp. 149-150)

The New Democracy is a fully “socialized democracy”

“[I]n a common antagonism to a towering, menacing plutocracy, men imbued with new ideals and new hopes are uniting to establish in America a full, free, socialized democracy.” (p.155)

A socialized democracy will aim “…to make taxes conform more or less to the ability of each to pay; but the engine of taxation, like all other social engines, will be used to accomplish great social ends, among which will be the more equal distribution of wealth and income…The government of the nation, in the hands of the people, will establish its unquestioned sovereignty over the industry of the nation, so largely in the hands of individuals. “ (pp. 163-164)

The incremental advance of progressivism

Progress will become adjustment by the gradual adaptation of production to social uses, rather than a complete overturn, either violent or peaceful, either rapid or slow, of our industrial habits and implements. The process will tend to become an attrition, a wasting away, a successive attenuation of ‘vested rights,’ rather than a naked expropriation. Finally this abrasion of rights will be compelled by an overwhelming flood of votes and an irresistible pressure of an enlightening public opinion, rather by a class war, as the class war was formerly interpreted.” (p.185)

The advantage of gradual reform is that it permits a sort of psychological acclimatization on the part of the reformed.” (p.269)

The socialization of industry

The industrial goal of the democracy is the socialization of industry. It is the attainment by the people of the largest possible industrial control and of the largest possible industrial dividend.  The democracy seeks to attain these ends through government ownership of industry; through government regulation; through tax reform; through a moralization and reorganization of business in the interest of the industrially weak.” (p.276)

The dividend from industry, which people are demanding, is more largely a joint than an individual dividend. It is a dividend which the individual citizen can obtain through the intermediation of the State or nation; in other words, through an extension of State control over industry.” (pp. 278-279)

The sovereign state has a primordial, intrinsic, underlying right to all property, more valid in the final instance than the property right vested in the legal owner.”  (p.295)

Progressive, confiscatory taxation as a means to redistribute wealth

Even after the wealth has passed into the hands of individuals it is not beyond the reach of the state.  By progressive taxes on property, incomes, or inheritances (including taxation upon gifts inter vivos [between living persons] within a certain period prior to death), the state can do much towards preventing too insensate an accumulation of individual wealth.” (p.296)

We are now going over more completely to a conception of taxation as an instrument for the socialization of production and wealth; as a means of changing the currents and directions of distribution. In other words, the social, as well as the merely fiscal, ends of taxation are held in view.” (p.297)

Socializing healthcare

“To secure the health and lives of the people we must socialize the business of health-keeping.” (p. 324)

Conclusion:  Although these words are a century old, do any sound familiar?  They should, because they represent the progressive political ideology – advanced by complicit Democrats and compliant Republicans – against which the Tea Party movement struggles today.

And progressivism is winning.