THE IDEA of paying equal dividends to all isn’t new. It was first proposed in 1797 by the American patriot Thomas Paine.
Paine is most famous for Common Sense, the best-selling pamphlet that inspired America to declare independence from his native country. Less well-known is his essay Agrarian Justice, which, despite its title, isn’t about agriculture but about property rights.
“There are two kinds of property,” Paine wrote. “Firstly, natural property, or that which comes to us from the Creator of the universe—such as the earth, air, water. Secondly, artificial or acquired property—the invention of men.” The latter kind of property must necessarily be distributed unequally, but the first kind rightfully belongs to everyone equally. It is the “legitimate birthright” of every man and woman, “not charity but a right.”
Paine’s genius was to invent a way to distribute income from shared ownership of natural property. He proposed a “National Fund” to pay every man and woman about $17,000 (in today’s dollars) at age twenty-one and $12,000 a year after age fifty-five. Revenue would come from “ground rent” paid to the fund by private owners of natural wealth—in this case, land. Paine even showed mathematically how this could work.
PRESCIENTLY, Paine recognized that land, air, and water could be monetized, not just for the benefit of a few but for the good of all. Further, he saw that this could be done at a national level. This was a remarkable feat of analysis and imagining. Two centuries later, it’s time to implement it.