All Commentary
Friday, March 11, 2011

A Revolutionary for All Seasons

Thomas Paine and the Rights of Man

If it hasn’t been done already, I hope someone is translating Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (particularly part 2) into Arabic. People rising up against dictators throughout the Middle East and North Africa should be reading that book; it will come in handy when they’ve driven the dictators from power (as in Egypt and Tunisia) and are wondering what to do next. (It wouldn’t hurt for Americans to read it.)

Paine, the soul of the American revolution, wrote the book in 1791 and 1792 in response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Burke, a Whig member of the British Parliament, had sided with “the American English” in their dispute with King George III (though he argued for reconciliation), but felt differently about the events in France in 1789 and onward because of the revolutionaries’ embrace of abstract rights and their repudiation of what he saw as a society’s bond “not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

Paine, the radical republican, would have none of this, and he directed his renowned writing skills to refuting Burke: “That men should take up arms and spend their lives and fortunes, not to maintain their rights, but to maintain they have not rights, is an entirely new species of discovery, and suited to the paradoxical genius of Mr. Burke,” he wrote in Part I. As for Burke’s belief that past generations can bind future generations, Paine wrote,

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,’ or of commanding for ever how the world shall be governed, or who shall govern it; and therefore all such clauses, acts or declarations by which the makers of them attempt to do what they have neither the right nor the power to do, nor the power to execute, are in themselves null and void.

He added:

The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow.

No supporter of hereditary monarchy he. What would he think of Americans’ fascination with the British royal family?

Rights and Government

In Part II Paine offers his own philosophy about human rights and proper government. Since he favored a modest tax-financed safety net for the poor and the elderly, a libertarian will have difficulty embracing all of the book with enthusiasm. One wonders why he didn’t consider mutual aid as an alternative. Nevertheless, the beginning of Part II contains refreshing and profound insights about society that most people – including most advocates of liberty – fail to fully appreciate it. Specifically, Paine understood what Pierre-Joseph Proudhon would later express: “[L]iberty not the daughter but the mother of order.” ([L]a liberté, non pas fille de l’ordre, mais mère de l’ordre. Hat tip : Shawn Wilbur.)

A few choice quotations will make this clear. Paine begins chapter one with these words:

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. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished.

Here Paine anticipated not only Proudhon but also Bastiat, Menger, Mises, Hayek, and other liberals in pointing out that individuals readily grasp the advantages of peaceful coexistence with one another.

Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government.

In other words, customary law preceded legislative decrees and is driven by gains from exchange and other benefits, which require mutual respect and reciprocity.

If we examine with attention into the composition and constitution of man, the diversity of his wants, and the diversity of talents in different men for reciprocally accommodating the wants of each other, his propensity to society, and consequently to preserve the advantages resulting from it, we shall easily discover, that a great part of what is called government is mere imposition.

Paine, however, conceded a small role for government, stating “Government is no farther necessary than to supply the few cases to which society and civilisation are not conveniently competent;…”

Yet he appears to withdraw the concession quickly: “and instances are not wanting to show, that everything which government can usefully add thereto, has been performed by the common consent of society, without government.”

Why, then, his modest welfare state? Paine then turned to history to substantiate what he has written:

For upwards of two years from the commencement of the American War, and to a longer period in several of the American States, there were no established forms of government. The old governments had been abolished, and the country was too much occupied in defence to employ its attention in establishing new governments; yet during this interval order and harmony were preserved as inviolate as in any country in Europe. There is a natural aptness in man, and more so in society, because it embraces a greater variety of abilities and resource, to accommodate itself to whatever situation it is in. The instant formal government is abolished, society begins to act: a general association takes place, and common interest produces common security….

It is but few general laws that civilised life requires, and those of such common usefulness, that whether they are enforced by the forms of government or not, the effect will be nearly the same. If we consider what the principles are that first condense men into society, and what are the motives that regulate their mutual intercourse afterwards, we shall find, by the time we arrive at what is called government, that nearly the whole of the business is performed by the natural operation of the parts upon each other.

And while society is the source of order, what is the source of conflict?

But how often is the natural propensity to society disturbed or destroyed by the operations of government! When the latter, instead of being ingrafted on the principles of the former, assumes to exist for itself, and acts by partialities of favour and oppression, it becomes the cause of the mischiefs it ought to prevent.

It is tempting to go on quoting Paine, but I will restrain myself and simply recommend the book. (Read it online.) Meanwhile, I continue to hope that Paine’s views on the nature of society will find their way to the Arab people seeking liberation from dictatorship.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.