Friday, December 15, 2006

Is Central Government a Neutral Arbiter?

In yesterday's post I raised the question of what a commitment to 'individual freedom' means if the state is not a neutral arbiter, that is, if it does take sides and does not simply ensure the framework within which individuals pursue their individually defined goals. I'm reading a book by historian Leonard Richards called Shays's Rebellion: The American Revolution's Final Battle; it certainly contributes an answer to the question of the neutrality of the Massachussets State government in the 1780s. Richards discovered a list of 4000 signatures of those involved in Shays's rebellion and thus was able to do research on the actual social composition of the rebels; previously no one had gone to the trouble of deciphering the handwriting and doing this research. The book was published in 2002, two hundred fifteen years after the rebellion.

Richards' research makes it clear who the rebels were, what their motives were and how they managed to attract so many followers. The book makes it clear that the Massachussets legislature at this time was dominated by Boston merchants and speculators and their privileged allies. After the passage of a new constitution written primarily by that love object of 'conservatives', John Adams (who probably does qualify as a genuine conservative), the legislature passed laws ensuring that all the notes of indebtedness of Massahchussets would be redeemed at face value and interest would be paid. While many of these notes were issued as 'pay' to Revolutionary War soldiers they had never been redeemed and thus many if not most of the soldiers sold these notes to buy necessities for themselves and their families; the primary purchasers of the notes were more well off Boston speculators who could afford to buy them at 10-25% of their face value and wait or trade them in the Boston securities market. When the legislature, representing the interests of these Boston merchants and speculators, passed legislation redeeming these notes at a cost to state government about twice as high as any other state, the state had to figure out how to pay for this. Thus, they sharply raised taxes which regressively fell unequally onto the farmers of the backcountry of Western Massachussets. Thus, while many of the ordinary soldiers who fought in the war received relatively worthless notes as pay and were forced to sell these to speculators, these same soldiers were going to have pay a heavy burden of taxes to redeem these notes with interest so the speculators could profit. Moreover, the notes were not accepted as payments of taxes, the latter had to paid with hard money which was scarce and difficult to acquire.

These were the primary reasons that back country Western Massachussets farmers and their allies took up arms against the state government. Richards also makes it clear that the rebellion was a major motivator for the 'great men' of the Constitutional convention to get together and write our national Constitution. Most of the 'founding fathers' were relatively wealthy property holders who were made afraid by Shays's Rebellion and wanted, among other things, to be able to have a national government which could easily raise an army to put down popular rebellions. Indeed, that is precisely what President Washington did in 1794 when he amassed 13,000 troops to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania.

Does it really further the freedom and dignity of the individual to support a state if that state is not a neutral arbiter?

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