May 10, 2005
Rights of Man by Thomas Paine
Review by Thom Hartmann
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Some people think that FDR invented the progressive income tax when he raised income tax rates on the super-rich to 90 percent. Some believe that LBJ invented anti-poverty programs when he more than cut in half severe poverty in the US by introducing Medicare, housing assistance, and food-stamp programs in the 1960s. Some believe that Jack Kennedy was the first president to seriously talk about international disarmament, a conversation that Richard Nixon carried on in pushing through and getting ratified the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty so recently discarded by George Bush Jr. Some believe that Teddy Roosevelt - the Republican Roosevelt - was the first to seriously discuss the "living wage," or ways that corporate "maximum wage" wink-and-nod agreements could be broken up. Some believe the inheritance tax to prevent family empires from taking over our nation was the idea of Woodrow Wilson, or that FDR was the first to think up old-age pensions as part of a social safety net known today as Social Security.
But it was actually Thomas Paine who first developed all these themes in their modern political context. He did so in his book "The Rights of Man."
Thomas Edison is largely responsible for our knowledge today of Thomas Paine and his writings. In July of 1925, Edison rescued Paine from the dustbin of historic obscurity, when he wrote a widely-read plea to return Paine to our schools:
"Tom Paine has almost no influence on present-day thinking in the United States because he is unknown to the average citizen. Perhaps I might say right here that this is a national loss and a deplorable lack of understanding concerning the man who first proposed and first wrote those impressive words, 'the United States of America.' But it is hardly strange. Paine's teachings have been debarred from schools everywhere and his views of life misrepresented until his memory is hidden in shadows, or he is looked upon as of unsound mind.
Thomas Edison was successful in moving the writings of Thomas Paine into the mainstream of American education, influencing a generation that a decade later brought us the many progressive reforms of the 1930s.
"Rights of Man" by Thomas Paine was written as an answer to a correspondence and debate Paine was having with Sir Edmund Burke, the famous British nobleman who is revered by modern conservatives (Russell Kirk, Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley, Jr.) as the founder of modern conservative thought. In some ways, it's a classic debate between conservative and liberal worldviews, with Paine presenting the liberal side of the equation. (Burke's words are not found in Paine's book.)
Liberals, after all, founded our nation. They were skeptical of the power of any institution - be it corporate (the Boston Tea Party was an anti-globalization protest against the world's largest transnational corporation, the East India Company), religious (Ben Franklin left Massachusetts for Philadelphia during his childhood in part because they were still hanging witches in the outlying regions), or governmental (the "kingly oppressions" such as the power of a king to make war, referred to by Madison and later quoted by Lincoln).
Although modern conservatives like to say that Burke was occasionally progressive in some of his opinions, it was a progressivism that never threatened his lifestyle or that of his wealthy and powerful British peers. He'd come around to supporting American independence, although he was skeptical of our potential for survival without an aristocratic class; he supported the British takeover of India through the East India Company, but felt British rule should be "benevolent" and so prosecuted a man who had "abused" Indian citizens (in a fashion similar to the show-trial of Sgt. Charles Grainer for Abu Ghraib, with no mention of civilian command or national policy); as an Irishman, he supported Irish emancipation.
But in his heart and soul Burke was a true conservative, and a staunch supporter of the sort of hierarchical "government" that Paine rails against in "Rights Of Man."
Burke and Paine were acquainted, and Paine, after the Revolutionary War, had returned to England where he was hailed as the bestselling author of "Common Sense" ("These are the times that try men's souls...") and heralded as one of the true fathers of the American Revolution. (It would not be an exaggeration to say that without Paine there may not have been a Revolution.) Paine had stayed at Burke's home, and the two corresponded.
When the French Revolution broke out, Paine went to France where, despite the fact that he spoke hardly a word of French (he'd dropped out of school at age 12), he was elected to the National Convention. He was initially fortunate to be in France, as during this time "Rights Of Man" was published in England, and the book was considered so radical that he was put on trial and convicted in absentia for seditious libel against the Crown.
But then he publicly crossed swords with Maximilien Robespierre and suggested that King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette should be exiled to America. For this, he was sentenced to the guillotine and thrown into prison.
It was in prison that he wrote his book promoting Deism and attacking organized religion, "The Age Of Reason." It so infuriated churchgoing Americans that when Paine later escaped France and returned to America, he died in obscurity in Greenwich Village, with only six people attending his funeral. As Thomas Edison wrote, "His Bible was the open face of nature, the broad skies, the green hills. He disbelieved the ancient myths and miracles taught by established creeds. But the attacks on those creeds -- or on persons devoted to them -- have served to darken his memory, casting a shadow across the closing years of his life. ... If Paine had ceased his writings with 'The Rights of Man' he would have been hailed today as one of the two or three outstanding figures of the Revolution. But 'The Age of Reason' cost him glory at the hands of his countrymen -- a greater loss to them than to Tom Paine."
Burke promoted the world-view that animates today's conservatives: That people are essentially evil and need a strong external controlling force to prevent them from acting out their evil nature; that such a force should most appropriately come from those who have inherited or lawfully obtained wealth, religious power, or political power; that a permanent large underclass with little power and a permanent small overclass with great power will produce the greatest social good because it will ensure social stability.
In 1790, following up on his conversations with Thomas Paine, Burke wrote a letter/pamphlet titled "Reflections on the Revolution in France." In it, Burke laid out some of his most important philosophical points, many of which are still quoted by American conservatives.
Burke noted his belief in the danger of true democracy.
"The occupation of an hair-dresser, or of a working tallow-chandler [candle maker], cannot be a matter of honour to any person to say nothing of a number of other more servile employments," he wrote. "Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression, if such as they, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule. In this you think you are combating prejudice, but you are at war with nature."
This so incensed Paine, that he had to respond, and that response is the book "Rights of Man."
Ironically, Burke's analysis of the French Revolution - at least over the short term - was more accurate than Paine's. Burke wrote:
"When I see the spirit of liberty in action, I see a strong principle at work; and this, for a while, is all I can possibly know of it. The wild gas, the fixed air, is plainly broke loose: but we ought to suspend our judgment until the first effervescence is a little subsided, till the liquor is cleared, and until we see something deeper than the agitation of a troubled and frothy surface. I must be tolerably sure, before I venture publicly to congratulate men upon a blessing, that they have really received one."
Paine, in response, wrote nearly the entire first half of "Rights of Man." He initially believed the French Revolution would turn out the way the American Revolution had, and was shocked when Robespierre began the Terrors and the nation devolved into a horrific and bloody purge.
In defense of democracy and self-government, Paine wrote:
"When I contemplate the natural dignity of man, when I feel (for Nature has not been kind enough to me to blunt my feelings) for the honour and happiness of its character, I become irritated at the attempt to govern mankind by force and fraud, as if they were all knaves and fools, and can scarcely avoid disgust at those who are thus imposed upon.
Burke strongly defended rule by the rich, enforced by corporate and chartered state power. He wrote:
"Let those large proprietors be what they will, and they have their chance of being amongst the best, they are at the very worst, the ballast in the vessel of the commonwealth. For though hereditary wealth, and the rank which goes with it, are too much idolized by creeping sycophants, and the blind abject admirers of power, they are too rashly slighted in shallow speculations of the petulant, assuming, short-sighted coxcombs of philosophy.
Paine, on the other hand, believed that neither government nor corporations should have rights, and that the rich should be so taxed that hereditary aristocracies couldn't emerge. In this regard, the last chapter of "Rights Of Man" is perhaps the most important. Paine wrote:
"I begin with charters and corporations.
But the cornerstone of conservative philosophy is the belief that control of government by a corporate elite and those with inherited wealth will ensure a stable society. It's the core of Reagan's "greed is good" philosophy that led Republicans in the 1980s to stop enforcing anti-trust laws and to lower taxes on the super-rich. In this, Burke was equally consistent:
"The power of perpetuating our property in our families is one of the most valuable and interesting circumstances belonging to it, and that which tends the most to the perpetuation of society itself. It makes our weakness subservient to our virtue; it grafts benevolence even upon avarice. The possessors of family wealth, and of the distinction which attends hereditary possession (as most concerned in it) are the natural securities for this transmission."
Paine's rebuttal was to propose what he called "progressive taxation." The last chapter of "Rights of Man" has several tables, showing specifically how the more wealthy an estate would be, the more heavily it should be taxed. Paine pointed out that most of the taxes then paid in England were consumption taxes, such as sales taxes, which fell most heavily upon the working class and the poor, while the vast land holdings of the wealthy were relatively free of taxes.
"Before the coming of the Hanoverians, the taxes were divided in nearly equal proportions between the land and articles of consumption, the land bearing rather the largest share: but since that era nearly thirteen millions annually of new taxes have been thrown upon consumption. The consequence of which has been a constant increase in the number and wretchedness of the poor, and in the amount of the poor-rates. Yet here again the burthen does not fall in equal proportions on the aristocracy with the rest of the community. Their residences, whether in town or country, are not mixed with the habitations of the poor. They live apart from distress, and the expense of relieving it."
Much like today, corporations and the super-rich paid relatively little in taxes as a percentage of their assets.
Progressive taxation, Paine said, would cure both the problem of inherited wealth corrupting government, and the continuous drag of taxes on the working class and the poor:
"On small and middling estates it is lighter (as it is intended to be) than the commutation tax. It is not till after seven or eight thousand [Pounds] a year that it begins to be heavy. The object is not so much the produce of the tax as the justice of the measure. The aristocracy has screened itself [from taxes] too much, and this serves to restore a part of the lost equilibrium.
Burke, of course, saw things differently. How dare the working-class "many" think of taxing the rich "few"? It would threaten his beloved aristocracy, and therefore threaten the very core of society.
"It is said," wrote Burke, "that twenty-four millions ought to prevail over two hundred thousand. True; if the constitution of a kingdom be a problem of arithmetic. This sort of discourse does well enough with the lamp-post for its second: to men who may reason calmly, it is ridiculous. The will of the many, and their interest, must very often differ; and great will be the difference when they make an evil choice."
Burke and his conservative friends in the House of Lords had run up a huge national debt in England, and used this as an excuse to slash spending on programs for the poor. Since they held much of the debt bonds themselves (like the Bush and Cheney families being heavily invested in US Treasuries), they profited from the nation being in debt.
Paine considered exploiting national debt in this way to be both intolerable and unpatriotic.
"There now remains only the national debt to be considered," he wrote. "The present scheme of paying off the national debt appears to me, speaking as an indifferent person, to be an ill-concerted, if not a fallacious job. .... The debt, therefore, is not reduced one farthing to the public by all the millions that have been paid; and it would require more money now to purchase up the capital, than when the scheme began."
But if taxes were raised and the debt paid off, he noted, the money then freed up by the government no longer having to pay interest to the rich would be substantial:
"But after paying the interest, abolishing the tax on houses and windows, the commutation tax, and the poor-rates; and making all the provisions for the poor, for the education of children, the support of the aged, the disbanded part of the army and navy, and increasing the pay of the remainder, there will be a surplus of one million."
Burke was not fond of the poor, however. He was a strong believer in the conservative dictum, badly misappropriating and twisting the meaning of Jesus' words, that "The poor you always have with you..."
Paine, on the other hand, thought that the best way to build a strong democracy was to use his tax on the wealthy to give the poor bootstraps by which they could pull themselves up. He proposed helping out young families with the expense of raising children (a forerunner to our income tax exemptions for children), a fund to provide housing and food for the poor (a forerunner to housing vouchers and food stamps), and a reliable and predictable pension for all workers in their old age (a forerunner to Social Security). He also suggested that all nations should reduce their armaments by 90 percent, to ensure world peace. Summarizing, Paine noted:
"When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am the friend of its happiness: when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government."
This, Paine hoped, was the fate of America. And, he believed, when our nation had achieved such an egalitarian and liberal way of life, other nations of the world would naturally emulate us. (He thought he was seeing this in the French Revolution, remember.) Thus, he predicted that Burke's beloved "benevolent rule by the rich" was doomed to the ash heaps of history:
"The fraud, hypocrisy, and imposition of governments, are now beginning to be too well understood to promise them any long career. The farce of monarchy and aristocracy, in all countries, is following that of chivalry, and Mr. Burke is dressing for the funeral. Let it then pass quietly to the tomb of all other follies, and the mourners be comforted."
"Rights of Man" by Thomas Paine is one of the foundational and seminal documents of modern liberalism. It's an important book to read, and to have in your library for reference.
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Thom Hartmann (thom at thomhartmann.com) is a Project Censored Award-winning best-selling author and host of a nationally syndicated daily progressive talk show. www.thomhartmann.com His most recent books are "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight," "Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights," "We The People: A Call To Take Back America," and "What Would Jefferson Do?: A Return To Democracy."