John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) wrote this sentence. In 1800, this claim was axiomatic to governance in the U. S. The population of the country was 3,000,000; agriculture was the primary source of income for its citizens and land ownership was the primary store of value (source of wealth).
They understood the meanings of “own”, “run” and “country”, as well. “Own” was a legal term: legal title was necessary and sufficient. “Run,” meant, “to manage as a business or farm.” And, “country” referred to the 13 original colonies. Everyone knew what Jay meant: land and business owners should vote and no one else should vote. Thus, women, slaves, indentured servants (none of whom could own property), tradesmen and merchants who rented their place of business from a landlord couldn’t vote.
Around the time of the founding of the republic (circa 1770), agricultural land constituted about 50% of the total stock of public and private capital assets in the U. S. Today, it constitutes less than 1% of total capital. Housing constituted about 25% of capital and other domestic capital (commercial buildings, equipment, private harbors, roads, etc.) constituted about 25%. Net foreign capital (capital owned by U. S. citizens or corporations) was tiny and remains tiny. Today, housing amounts to about 40% of domestic capital and other domestic capital constitutes about 60% (I know this list totals to 101%, but these are estimates and I’m not quoting the exact figures, anyway). In 1800, the population of the United States was about 3,000,000. Today (2010), it’s about 350,000,000. Population grew by a factor of 117 during the intervening 210 years. The United States in 2010 is different from the United States in 1800 in practically every meaningful way. Its population is larger and more diverse, its territory is larger and more diverse, its sources of income are different, its relative standing in the world is different, forms of ownership and “personhood” are different (corporations are “moral persons”, whatever that means), women can vote, children and women have rights and there are no slaves (legally) here, not to mention the technology gap (essentially, the entire industrial revolution and a good chunk of the information revolution).
Who, then, “owns the country” and “ought to run it”, today? One unstated and widely believed answer to this question is something that resembles, “the U. S. citizens who own the financial-economic assets located within the borders of the United States own the country and should run it”, an echo of Jay’s pronouncement 214 years ago. This principle excludes some obvious groups: U. S. citizens living abroad who own no property in the U. S. and no financial instruments that evidence ownership of U. S. entities; U. S. citizens living in the U. S. who own no real or financial assets located in the U. S.; and U. S. residents who are not U. S. citizens. This principle includes whom? It includes me, my spouse and two of my adult children (both of whom own homes), but it excludes my other two adult children (who are college or university students of voting age). It includes the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch (not a citizen), Barack Obama, Ted Turner and George Soros (these folks are just some of the well-know owners). It includes homeowners, the investor class and owners of private businesses and farms. In the current demographic, the owners are the middle class, upper middle class and wealthy, while the indigent, working poor and lower middle class are generally excluded from the owner class and, therefore, from the voting class.
Yet, who, then, owns public property and public assets? Does every citizen own, by proxy, a share of the national parks, monuments and forests, undeveloped or unincorporated land, wilderness, government buildings, or the oceans within the 12-mile boundary? Do local residents of a municipality own its public parks, public jails, wastewater treatment plants, public landfills and streets and curbs as well as such service organizations by proxy? Are all citizens, then, property owners?
What could “run the country” mean, today? What could “run the country” mean in any period during a democratically elected, representative governing body? Leading an elected body is not coaching a team, managing a commercial enterprise or growing grain (see my blogpost on this topic). To “run the country” seems to mean that elected, representative officials would comprise people who own domestic assets (financial, productive or real). Citizen-owners would direct or influence their elected officials to pass laws that those owners want passed and erect administrative structures of which such owners approve for their implementation. If the class of owners constitutes all citizens (some as indirect owners of government assets, then, this definition seems to be consistent with the U. S. Constitution. If, however, the class of owners constitutes a subset of the citizenry and their influence exceeds their portion of the population, this definition describes a situation that is inconsistent with the U. S. Constitutional principle of universal suffrage. This idea, universal suffrage, expresses the idea that each vote counts equally and connotes its extension to the idea that each voice is heard and understood on the same basis as every other voice. The day laborer’s vote, the doctors’ vote and the CEO’s vote count once each; the laborer’s voice, the doctor’s voice and the CEO’s voice should be heard equally well.
In the United States, today, there seems to be disconnect between the idea of universal suffrage and its implementation in the political election process. The SCOTUS majority seems to have forgotten that the world and the U. S. have changed significantly and meaningfully since its founding 238 years ago.