One of the abiding failures of Thomas Paine has to do with his ardent support for the French Revolution. This was not the first revolution he championed. That sobriquet falls upon the American War for Independence or the American Revolution. But being on “the right side” of history with respect to America shaking off English imperialism was due to a deep sense of mistrust of government on the American side and the the need to keep a measure of control over those who rule. Hence the development of the “American system” of limited government, its division of powers, and being bound to a constitution.
When it came to the French Revolution a few years later, Tom Paine was, once again, in boots’n all. Human rights, human freedom–and the power of a just state to command both at will, justified by appealing to a “higher law”, namely, “the will of the people”. But without the checks and balances of American colonial society, the whole enterprise soon turned bloody.
Tom Paine was consequently discredited. Yet, now we find him resurrected and the ideological victor in our day. The West has largely followed in Paine’s train. We do not mean that the West has descended into an orgy of totalitarian bloodletting, abortion notwithstanding; rather, we refer to Paine’s latter day view of the state as a welfare institution. In later life, Paine developed the idea of a state with vastly expanded powers, existing to satisfy the “demand rights” of humans.
In a short essay titled Thoughts and Details of Scarcity . . . Burke expresses a profound mistrust of government interference in the economy, especially on behalf of the poor: “My opinion is against an over-doing of any sort of administration, and more especially against this most momentous of all meddling on the part of authority; the meddling with the subsistence of the people”.
The needs of the poor are of the utmost importance, he argues, but they should be addressed by charities, which should be amply supported by the wealthy and the noble. Government cannot take that care upon itself, as doing so would never work and, in the process, would disrupt the social order. Care of the poor is not in this sense a public obligation, but a private one. [Yuval Levin, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (New York: Basic Books 2014), p. 119.]
By contrast, initially Paine had agreed with Burke, and argued for a very much constrained and limited role for the state. As time passed, however, he moved more and more to argue for a vastly expanded role and responsibility of the state. Levin describes Paine’s position in later life as follows:
But by 1791 . . . Pain was writing with eloquent passion of “the moral obligation of providing for old age, helpless infancy, and poverty. Meeting this obligation . . . is a key purpose of government. “Civil government does not exist in executions; but in making such provision for the instruction of youth and the support of age, as to exclude, as much as possible, profligacy from the one and despair from the other.” He calls for provisions for poor parents when a child is born, for government support in paying for elementary education, for pensions to the elderly who cannot work, and even for public help with funeral expenses for those who cannot afford them. “This support,” he then argues, “is not of the nature of a charity but of a right.” Public assistance to the poor turns out to be a true social obligation. [Ibid., p. 121.]
Following Paine, Western states have grown into Leviathans before whom citizens are subjugated and dependant. For the present, at least, Paine has won.
President Nixon once said, with respect to economist John Maynard Keynes, as the United States was moving away from the gold standard, “We are all Keynsians now.” Far more historically accurate and true would be the aphorism, “We are all Paineans now.” Well, most of us.
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