Thomas Paine and the Role of the State4 min read

Thomas Paine starts Common Sense with an amazing concept.

Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness

After reading on, I can conclude society is great. That great society requires government to sustain it.

Society and Government

Paine paints the picture of someone living in the wilderness on their own. What would they need to survive? Could they do any great works while sustaining themselves alone?

It becomes obvious that people need to work together to survive. That working unit could be a family or a village. Regardless, you must create a system to manage it. How do you settle disputes? You need a system. You also need a way to enforce that system.

Paine proposes that the simplest form of government would be everyone in the society meeting frequently. They would discuss issues that matter to them and resolve them as a community.

Once a society becomes large enough, that can no longer be done.

As society grows and its capability expands, the complexity of that society grows as well. With this complexity comes a requirement for more and more complicated government.

Paine states this simply.

the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered; and the easier repaired when disordered

Paine continues to discuss details on systems of government. I believe he is correct that you can’t have a society without some form of government.

My Thoughts on Anarchism in Regards to Paine

There are arguments that you can have different forms of anarchist societies, and I don’t believe Paine refutes those.

I do think that anarchist societies require people to be very high functioning. Anarchism puts a significant pressure on everyone in that society. You must participate in both government and society itself. You have to be productive, control your vices, and help mediate or mitigate the vices of others.

I am not sure how all of those work at a large scale. I’ve seen discussions on how they might, but it is all in theory.

I feel that I would be successful in an anarchist society. I also believe others may not be.

Monarchism

Paine has a lot to say about the monarchy. I believe his message is very powerful.

Yet I should be glad to ask how they suppose kings came at first? The question admits but of three answers, viz. either by lot, by election, or by usurpation.

Paine goes on to discuss all of these methods of taking a crown. None of them result in the idea of heredity as a legitimate system of determining who should rule.

  • If a king usurps a crown, he has no legitimacy to claim his sons should sit on the throne after him.
  • If a king is elected, the contract with the electors is invalid once they are dead or no longer want him. A new election must be held.
  • If a king inherited the crown, how did his predecessor come to sit on the throne other than one of the two methods above?

It is obvious then that a monarch that holds power over people cannot be legitimate unless they will it. Paine discusses God as a means of legitimacy, and debunks this completely.

How came the king by a power which the people are afraid to trust, and always obliged to check? Such a power could not be the gift of a wise people, neither can any power, which needs checking, be from God; yet the provision, which the constitution makes, supposes such a power to exist.

Paine on Power Begetting Power

the greater weight will always carry up the less, and as all the wheels of a machine are put in motion by one, it only remains to know which power in the constitution has the most weight, for that will govern

Paine states that whatever part of government has the greater power will always get more power.

My Thoughts on Power Centralizing

I think it is easy to see this in the United States. The federal government has continued to grow and increase in power. It was given supreme power over the states. On a long enough time line, it will take all power out of the system.

This can be seen with all branches of government. The legislative can pass a law that overrules the states. The supreme court oversees all other courts. The president’s office has been given more and more power with broad legislation allowing for executive orders.

The result is a federal government that sees all of its offices increase in power. There is no inherent method to decrease the power of the federal government in the system.

It’s interesting to end on the idea that the Republican party may have a point in this regard.

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