Agrarian Justice?

This June marked 205 years since the death of Thomas Paine, which prompted me to think about Paine’s legacy and his relevance to contemporary politics.

From Common Sense, the pamphlet which strengthened American resolve to fight the British and continue the American Revolution to The Rights of Man, ‘the most widely read pamphlet in the movement for reform in Britain in the 1790s and for the opening decades of the nineteenth century’ (Philp, 2013), to his election to the French National Convention and prosecution for treason after he spoke against the execution of Louis XVI, Paine shaped the political landscape which we know today. Yet I believe that it is his final work, Agrarian Justice, which has the greatest relevance for our contemporary politics as it seeks to resolve the inherent tensions and problems regarding the use of finite natural resources.

Paine repeats throughout the text that the Earth belongs to all and ‘in its natural, uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race’ (Ibid.: 325). This is because ‘earth, air, water’ (Ibid: 320) are the ‘legitimate birthright… [of] all individuals’ (Ibid.: 321). But despite this clear and continued support for the rights of all to their shared environment, Paine is also aware of the necessity of exclusive private ownership and the use, transformation and destruction of natural resources.  He argues that this system of ownership and use of resources is ‘a necessity’ as ‘without it there cannot be sustenance for more, perhaps than a tenth of its inhabitants’ (Ibid.: 324). Developing natural resources is, Paine argues, necessary if we wish to promote the quantity and quality of human life.  Furthermore, he also defends the rights of those who own and use natural resources – ‘while therefore I advocate the right and interest myself in the hard case of all those who have been thrown out of their natural inheritance by the introduction of the system of landed property, I equally defend the right of the possessor to the part which is his’ (Ibid.: 326). Paine therefore recognises a dilemma with which contemporary environmentalists may be familiar – all humanity is dependent on our shared environment, yet the ownership, use and destruction of this natural world may be essential to our survival and to the quality of life which we can achieve.

Yet I would argue that Paine’s relevance to our current environmental politics does not rest on his recognition of this problem, but in his suggested solution. He suggests that all those who are ‘dispossessed of their natural inheritance’ to the environment should be compensated (Ibid.: 333).  This compensation would be funded by heavy tax levelled on landed property of over five hundred pounds, payable on the death of the property owner (Ibid.: 329 – 330, 333 – 355). The money raised in this way should, Paine argues, be shared amongst all in the form of a grant of fifteen pounds when an individual reaches twenty one and an ‘pension’ in the form of ‘the sum of ten pounds per annum during life, to every person now living of the age of fifty years and to all others as they shall arrive at that age’ (Ibid.: 327). Grants will also be given to those who are physically incapable of earning their own living (Ibid.: 331) but the initial payments should  ‘be made to every person, rich or poor’ (Ibid.: 327), as they reflect the rights of all to their environment.

Overall, in Agrarian Justice Paine is arguing that ‘every individual in the world is born therein with legitimate claims on a certain kind of property [in the environment] or its equivalent’ (Ibid.: 320), enabling the development and use of resources to take place without violating the environmental rights of others. This idea of environmental equivalents may not be a complete solution to the tensions of finite resources, the necessity or otherwise of development and property and the claims of all to the environment, but Paine is suggesting a way of thinking through these problems.  And, at the very least, Agrarian Justice shows that we are not the first to try to confront these issues.


Ashley Dodsworth, University of Leicester

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and are not designed to reflect the position of the PSA Specialist Group on Environmental Politics.  The Group encourages thoughtful and respectful reflection on the content in the comments section of the post.*


Paine, T., ‘Agrarian Justice’, 1797 in Kuklick, B., (ed.), Thomas Paine Political Writings, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000c), 320 – 338.

Philp, M., “Thomas Paine”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), accessed July 2014 at