on common sense...the pamphlet, not the vital skill
**Before I start, my previous decision-tangled post does have an update.
Not long ago, I embarked upon a reading of Common Sense by Thomas Paine. I was spurred on to read it because of the way it had gained ascendance of mention among the Tea Party and their respective, more right of right legislative counterparts. So I suppose you could chalk it up to wanting to see what all the fuss was about. And also, it is a staple piece of Early American literature, one that was pivotal in the lead-up to the Revolution. That would make it a worthwhile read at any rate. I had been meaning to extend my reading of American lit. Why not start with Paine?
Interestingly, I came to some different conclusions than my far more conservative fellow-citizens have come to. Actually, I was quite surprised at what Paine was actually saying in many parts of his treatise because of the things I’d heard said about it. So, here goes my reflections/review/impressions of Paine’s work as it is and its implications for America today. Now, I need to say at the outset that when I quote Pain, I’m just not going to include “[sic]” at all the places where the rules of capitalization and spelling have changed. Paine was writing during a time when English was a great deal more influenced by its German parent and thus capitalized a lot of nouns that we wouldn’t capitalize today, those nouns being mere common nouns in our language today. He also has a tendency to write things he wanted to emphasize in all caps. I would suppose this presentation of important words in all caps is either something he actually does because you can’t italicize script, or a way for printers to render what he did in script to emphasize those words. I haven’t taken the time to find out which, but I just wanted to explain that I got tired of typing “[sic],” so you can assume that random capitals in the Common Sense quotations are Paine’s own, not mine. And with that disclaimer, off I go.
My idea here is begin by presenting Paine’s main theses with some comment, and then make further comment below. If that makes sense. Hopefully, it does. haha
Paine beings with an introduction on which I will say little. In essence, he uses it to note that he has endeavored to remain objective, and that the American cause is important because it is “in great measure the cause of all mankind.” The only other thing I will note about his intro is that he ends it by stating, “Who the Author of this Production is, is wholly unnecessary to the Public, as the Object for Attention is the DOCTRINE ITSELF, not the MAN. Yet it many not be unnecessary to say, That he is unconnected with any Party, and under no sort of Influence public or private, but the influence of reason and principle.” I just found it interesting that Paine eschewed to recognize his party but felt that his thesis stood outside of party politics. It’s worth noting that party lines were about as distinctly drawn in his day as now, though the use of traitor might have been more liberal back then. It’s hard to say these days.
Section one is entitled “Of the Origin and Design of Government in General, with Concise Remarks on the English Constitution.” Payne begins this section by expressing dismay at the convolution of “society” and “government” in the mind of most citizens. To him, society works positively by uniting our affections while government works necessary by restraining our vices. I’m not precisely sure this distinction is at all viable in the real world. After all, there is negative societal pressure as often as positive, and there are government incentives to positively promote behavior as well as negative consequences to restrain vices. Paine begins by offering what is a very simplistic view of the difference between society and government, and this thread of simplistic thought will continue throughout his work. Not much farther along Paine expresses that government is, even at its best, a necessary evil. We’ll address this idea again a little later, but Paine seems to want to have things more than one way. That said, I do not think that Paine is wrong when he says that government works to restrain our vices; I just think he’s simplistic. He state his case for the necessity of this side of government when he explains, “For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in ever other case advises him out of the two evils to choose the least.” It would seem here (and in later passages) that Paine sees government as that which steps in when society fails to provide what it ought. In this case, he uses the point of taxation to protect property. (1) Pain then goes on to say that “...security being the true design and end of government,...” we ought to seek the greatest possible benefit for the least expense. I think this is a sentiment oft overlooked by those who seek to carry Paine’s banner (nor will it be the only one). Here, Paine does seek the least expensive option but with a parallel requirement: the greatest benefit. He isn’t looking to see the government just choose the cheapest option, the one that requires the least and costs the least. He wants to see the government provide the greatest benefit to its citizenry with good value. He’s not saying that the government should protect your property by sticking a security company sign in the yard and hoping that’ll keep the burglars away; he wants the best deal on a comprehensive alarm system (to apply his sole example to your house). Spending the least amount of money isn’t the goal here. It’s getting the best deal on the thing that offers the most benefit. This is an important thing to consider in discussing Paine.
He continues by offering an example of how society and government develop. Using a hypothetical group of isolated settlers. Of course, survival is their first goal and end. In order to survive, they must form community (society). They necessarily unite for the purpose of surviving. (I would take some exception to the necessity of their uniting by simply noting that it was not in the slightest bit a natural and necessary development in the colony of Jamestown. They needed government, in the form of John Smith, in order to unite for survival.) Over time, of course, survival becomes less necessary as they “surmount the first difficulties of emigration,” and “...they will begin to relax in their duty and attachment to each other; and this remissness will point out the necessity of establishing some form of government to supply the defect of moral virtue.” Here Paine becomes more explicit with regards to security. These fictitious colonists “relax in their duty and attachment to each other” and this “defect of moral virtue” must be addressed by the establishment of a form of government.(3) Paine goes on to describe how at first this government would be citizens all meeting together to discuss ways to deal collectively with societal problems. Eventually, as the settlement increases and spreads, representatives and scheduled sessions must enter the picture. At this point, the colony ought to be divided into convenient parts with a number of representatives appropriate to its part who will be sent to legislative gathering. Hm. Sounds a lot like our representative democracy. Paine does well in creating an illustration of the circumstances with would organically give rise to a representational government. And I think his description is strong. I also think that as the citizen of a country with (albeit atrocious and corrupt at the time) parliamentary representation, the idea of a representative government would seem organic. He will get to an argument against the monarchial portion of his native government, which shows some self-awareness, but I think it is important to note that the idea of a representative government was seeded. Here in a comparatively isolated colony, it had the chance to grow itself, in the organic way he envisioned, so to speak. He also outlines well the argument for recurring elections: “...and that the ELECTED might never form to themselves an interest separate from the ELECTORS, prudence will point out the propriety of having elections often; because as the ELECTED might by that means return and mix again with the general body of the ELECTORS in a few months, their fidelity to the public will be secured by the prudent reflection of not making a rod for themselves.” He concludes his explanation of the origin and rise of government by envisioning that “...this frequent interchange will establish a common interest with every part of the community, they will mutually and naturally support each other, and on this...depends the STRENGTH OF GOVERNMENT, AND THE HAPPINESS OF THE GOVERNED.” (4)
***All right. I think that’s a pretty good place to take a pause in this. No, I’m not even through the first section, but there are only four main sections to his work, so I feel okay stopping in the middle of the first. haha. This will be a multi-part posting. Hope nobody minds.
(1)Now, Paine specifically uses the example of taxation to protect property as an example of how government steps in where society is unable. Is it not just as justifiable to stretch that further--to say that a social safety net provided by government when society cannot or will not protects property from thefts of necessity and envy whilst also protecting property value by maintaining economic stability? Property is vulnerable to economic threat as well as physical threat. The economic health and stability of the entire nation contributes either positively or negatively to an individual’s property. Paine doesn’t specify what he envisions “the protection of the rest” to mean. While I wouldn’t wish to put words in his mouth, I think it’s just as foolhardy to assume that he mean the barest bones of protection, ie military and police.
(2) This, of course, raises the question: what do we determine security to be? I think that Paine is correct is asserting that security is the highest role of government to which all it’s actions aspire. Then, it seems, we need to determine what that word entails. Again, just military security? Or do we aspire to something more than merely that? Does ensuring security have further implications than that. As I mentioned long ago in connection with my examination of what came to be the Affordable Care Act, Jefferson felt that universal education was a necessity for the continuing security of our nation and it’s civil structure. If this is true, then is it not the true and proper role of government to ensure that all children have a uniform education? (By uniform, I mean one meeting a set form of standards, not necessarily identical throughout all schools and classrooms.) It is an important question, if we are to attempt applying Paine’s ideas in modern American society.
(3) Hamelessness? Poverty? Could it be said that societal ills are in fact societal neglect that must be addressed? Paine is not specific as his point is to illustrate the path to forming a government, but he speaks of the need for forming government as a way to redress societal neglect, lack of duty and attachment to others. Certainly, as well, at the larger level, they become issues that society isn’t well equipped to handle on the larger scale--while individual/private charity may keep Plymouth Plantation on an even socio-economic foundation, it cannot maintain a nationwide balance when you add 300,000,000 people spread over hundreds of millions of miles of habitable land, particularly when you consider that economic hardship in one region cripples the majority of people in the region--the need the support of those outside of the region to get back on their feet.
(4) Note what he says here: it is the mutual and natural support between government and community that ensures strength and happiness. Not mutual distrust, not personal bootstraps, not minimal government that stays out of our lives. The mutual and natural support built upon frequent interchange. This seems vitally important to me, esp. coming from someone very influential in the independence and establishment of this nation.