08 Mar 1992
I finished reading 'Rights of Man'. Since we have all read it at this
point :-), I don't suppose a general review is necessary, but just in
Paine is mostly concerned with the divine right of kings to rule and to
pass their kingship on to their oldest son. Paine attacks this both on
the philosophy of binding future generations and on pragmatic grounds.
Burke said "yet that the English nation did, at the time of the
revolution , most solemnly renounce and abdicate, for themselves,
and for all their posterity, for ever [power to the king]" (p. 203 (*)).
Paine attacks this saying "There never did, there never will, and there
never can exist a parliament, or any description of men, or any
generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power
of binding and controlling posterity to the 'end of time'" and "The vanity
and presumption of governing beyond the grave, is the most ridiculous and
insolent of all tyrannies." (p. 204).
True to liberal (in the old sense) thought Paine defends this with the
notion of natural rights: "A few words will explain this. Natural
rights are those which appertain to main in right of his existence. Of
these kind are all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind, and
also all those rights of acting as an individual for his own comfort and
happiness, which are not injurious to the natural rights of others." (p. 217)
He proceeds to formulate government as a social contract.
I added this discussion to make it clear that Paine's attack on inherited
power was in the context of overthrowing monarchy and not necessarily
other sorts of inheritance.
For me, a lot of what Paine has to say would be libertarian by modern
standards. Add to the above quotes the following:
... imprescriptable rights of man; and these rights are liberty,
property, security, and resistance of oppression.
The 'right' to food, health care, etc. is absent.
If, from the more wrteched parts of the old world, we look at
those which are in an advanced stage of improvement, we still find
the greedy hand of government thrusting itself into every corner and
crevice of industry, and grasping the spoil of the multitude. Invention
is continually exercised, to furnish new pretences for revenue and
taxation. It watches prosperity as its prey, and permits none to escape
without a tribute. (p. 264)
Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the
effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society
and the natural constitution of man. ... In fine, society performs
for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government. (p. 266).
IF we look back to the riots and tumults, which at various times
have happened in England, we shall find, that they did not proceed
from the want of a government, but that government was itself the
generating cause; instead of consolidating society it divided it; it
deprived it of its natural cohesion, and engendered discontents and
disorders, which otherwise would not have existed. (p. 268)
But as fact is superior to reasoning, the instance of America presents
itself to confirm these observations. -- If there is a country in the
world, where concord, according to common calculation, would be
least expected, it is America. Made up, as it is, of people from
different nations, accustomed to different forms and habits of
government, speaking different languages, and more different in
their modes of worship, it would appear that the union of such a
people was impracticable; but by the simple operation of constructing
government on the principles of society and the right of man, every
difficulty retires, and all the parts are brought into cordial unison.
This last paragraph has relevance to our AA debate as well.
Every man wishes to pursue his occupation, and to
enjoy the fruits of his labours, and the produce of his property in
peace and safety, and with the least possible expense. When these
things are accomplished, all the objects for which government ought
to be established are answered. (p. 297)
In contemplating the whole of this subject, I extend my views into
the deparmtent of commerce. In all my publications, where the
matter would admit, I have been an advocate for commerce, because
I am a friend to its effects. It is a pacific system, operating to cordialize
mankind, by rendering nations, as well as individuals, useful to each
other. As to mere theoretical reformation, I have never preached it up.
The most effectual process is that of improving the condition of man
by means of his interest; and it is on this ground that I take my stand.
By picking this book, Paul must be telling us that he has come over to
my side of the argument and relinquished his socialist ways :-)
Another facet of this that I found interesting is the discussion of the
difference between constitutional government and monarchical government
(as opposed to the simpler question of freedom versus tyranny). I find
that the argument Paine makes in favor of constitutional government is
much the same argument that I make in favor of a simple laws and, more
importantly, explicit laws instead of capricious ones. I think this
argues my way in the recent debate Paul and I have had over how to
enforce SHP and arguments that Pete and I have had about police discressionary
powers. Paine says:
The government of a free country, properly speaking, is not in the
persons, but in the laws. The enacting of those requires no great
expense; and when they are administered, the whole of civil
government is performed -- the rest is all court contrivance. (p. 285)
I think Paine means the king's court and not a court of law when he uses
All power exercised over a nation, must have some beginning. It
must be either delegated, oir assumed. There are no other sources. All
delegated power is trust, and all assumed power is usurption. Time
does not alter the nature and quality of either. (p. 285).
From the want of a constitution in England to restrain and regulate
the wild impulse of power, many of the laws are irrational and
tyrannical, and the administration of them vague and problematical. (p. 295)
Laws difficult to be executed cannot be generally good. (p. 298)
As to Paul's specific contention that Paine opposed inherited power as much
as inherited money, I saw no support for that at all. The only thing at
all that Paine said about inherited property was:
When a man leaves property to his heirs, he does not connect it with an
obligation that they shall accept it. Why then should we do otherwise
with respect to constitutions? (p. 306)
Obviously, this does not directly address the issue, but it circumstantial
evidence that Paine was willing to accept the inheritance of property.
As for Paine's general economic ruminations, I'm less impressed. They
seem more or less an afterthought in any case. After spending book I
attacking monarchy, he spends the first part of book II discussing the
nature of the social contract and the role of constitutions. Finishing
this topic, he closes with a discussion of to spend the extra revenue
that will be available after getting rid of the monarchy:
...there will remain a surplus of upwards of six millions out of the
present current expenses. The question then will be, how to dispose
this surplus. (p. 335)
He would spend this mostly on education for children, most of the rest on
some old age pensions and government work programs. He specifically
wanted the old age pension to be the amount of interest (but not the
principle) on the taxes that people had paid (on average).
The budget of England at the time was about 16 million. So much for any
notion of hard economics. Paine's description of what was wrong and
what to do about it was inspired polemic. His economics of details left
something to be wanted. The introduction to my volume by the editor
says it well:
But it is a mistake to read Paine's radicalism as proto-socialism,
as some have. His merciless indictment of an aristocratic polity
and society did serve the interest of the workers and touched
their souls, but Paine's radical egalitarianism also served, and was
bound up with, the interests of bourgeois liberalism, the principal
architect and benficiary of the destruction of 'chivalric nonsense'.
In his day there was no incompatibility between his democratic
ideals and his defence of individualism, property and business
Government had no positive agency to promote justice or virtue
for these clashing individuals and interests. It was merely
to preside as umpire over a world where individualism was the
central value. Its sole justification was providing a stable
and secure setting for the operation of a commerical society. (p. 22)
(*) - The page number references are from "The Thomas Paine Reader".
In it, the 'Rights of Man', Part I, starts on p. 201 and ends on p.262.
Some chapters of it are not included in this volume. Part II begins
on p. 263, ends on p. 364, and is included in its entireity. If someone
has trouble tracking down particular references, I'll go back and
count paragraphs from the start of the nearest chapter.