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  • Constitutionalizing Property-Owning Democracy
  • Thad Williamson (bio)

Political constitutions are essential components of political-economic regimes. If one accepts the postulate that society needs to move towards a post-capitalist political-economic system, a key question that immediately follows is whether and in what ways existing political constitutions will need to change.

The concept of property-owning democracy has been extensively explored in recent scholarship.1 In a nutshell, property-owning democracy consists of a system combining political democracy with a market economy, but with explicit measures in place to broaden the distribution of capital and property as widely as possible and prevent domination of the economy (and state) by a small elite. Many recent articulations of the idea also call for establishing in effect a right to a meaningful share of property (be it cash, housing, and/or productive capital) for individuals or households. A property-owning democracy is intended to realize effective political equality, fair equality of opportunity, and an economy that lifts the position of the least well off group over time to a much greater degree than do even the best forms of welfare state capitalism. Property-owning democracy shares many of the same features and intellectual sources as the "Pluralist Commonwealth" model articulated by Gar Alperovitz,2 and most if not all of the argumentation below would in my view apply with equal force to the Pluralist Commonwealth. Indeed, the Pluralist Commonwealth model can be viewed as a specific version of property-owning democracy, tailored especially to American conditions. [End Page 74]

There is good reason to doubt that property-owning democracy (or a Pluralist Commonwealth) can be achieved under the existing Constitution (especially as presently interpreted by the Supreme Court majority). I have in mind here not, primarily, the obvious defects of the U.S. Constitution with respect to political equality—such as the extraordinary overrepresentation of rural, often more conservative states in the U.S. Senate, at the expense of larger, more diverse and urban states—defects which have been catalogued by Robert Dahl and other political scientists.3 These defects in the mechanics of the American system are serious, and in general tend to harm the practical possibility of achieving a politics of property-owning democracy (or other conceptions of social justice), but I leave them aside here. Instead, I focus on the question of what social and economic rights would need to be constitutionally guaranteed if a fully realized property-owning democracy were to be established in the United States.

Elsewhere, I have sketched accounts of property-owning democracy, and also promoted an "egalitarian interpretation" of the idea that involves an explicit long-term scheme to distribute productive wealth directly to all adult citizens, with the long-term aim of assuring that practically all households control at least $100,000 in net assets. Clearly, it would not be necessary or wise to hardwire such a scheme in any detail into an actual constitution.4

Here I am concerned with property-owning democracy in a more general form: a regime that seeks to secure (in Rawlsian terminology) the fair value of the political liberties, fair equality of opportunity, and either the difference principle or some other reasonable limit on inequality by distributing human and productive capital as widely as feasible. The intended contrast is with regimes in which control of productive capital is dominated by a tiny minority of citizens (i.e. the top 1%, who now control nearly two-fifths of all wealth in the United States), in which human capital (and also, often, effective political agency) is also distributed in a lopsided fashion, and that rely primarily on redistributive taxation to achieve a measure of social justice.5

In the American context, realizing property-owning democracy in a stable form will require five constitutional guarantees:

  1. 1. A right to an equal public education.

  2. 2. A right to a minimum income and/or the means for supporting one's self at a minimal level of social acceptability.

  3. 3. Explicit limitations on corporate political activity and provision of a public system of campaign financing. [End Page 75]

  4. 4. An individual right to a share of society's productive capital and/or wealth...


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