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June 2014

Thomas Paine Versus Edmund Burke, Part 9

Smith explains some of Paine’s ideas about the nature of a republic and the benefits of a representative form of government.

As noted in a previous essay, I disagree with the common assessment that Thomas Paine was a mere popularizer of ideas rather than an original thinker. This essay presents some reasons for my opinion that Paine was a political philosopher with considerable merit who did far more than market standard libertarian ideas to a popular audience. Paine frequently brought a fresh perspective to old controversies in political philosophy. Whether we agree with Paine or not, we can appreciate his many insights and novel twists on traditional arguments.

In Rights of Man, while explaining the nature of a republic, Paine invoked the distinction between the principle of a government and its form. (This distinction is also found in the Declaration of Independence and other writings in the Lockean tradition.) The principle of a government refers to its basic purpose or function – “the purport, matter, or object for which government ought to be instituted,” as Paine put it.

In the Federalist Papers (#10), James Madison had described a “republic” as a “government in which the scheme of representation takes place.” Paine regarded this common conception as flawed because it defines “republic” in terms of form rather than principle: “What is called a republic, is not any particular form of government.” Paine pointed out that the word “republic” derives from the Latin res-publica; it means “the public affairs, or the public good; or literally translated, the public thing.” Thus “republic,” properly understood, refers to the fundamental principle, or purpose, of a government – namely, to further the public good.

Every government that does not act on the principle of a republic, or in other words, that does not make the res-publica its whole and sole object, is not a good government. Republican government is no other than government established and conducted for the interest of the public, as well individually as collectively. It is not necessarily connected with any particular form [of government].

Paine used other terms, such as “general happiness,” to signify the “object” of a republic, but all such terms meant basically the same thing in the libertarian tradition that Paine exemplified. The public (or common) interest was contrasted with partial (or particular) interests – or special interests, as we might say today. And “general happiness,” which signified the equal right of every individual to pursue happiness in his or her own way, was contrasted with the pursuit of happiness by privileged elites who use government to further their individual purposes.

Paine divided the forms of government into four basic types: “the democratical, the aristocratical, the monarchical, and what is now called the representative.” He condemned monarchical and aristocratic forms of government because their purpose is to further the good of rulers and their minions rather than the public good. Neither form of government can qualify as an authentic republic, regardless of how governments may characterize themselves.

We now turn to Paine’s discussion of the two other forms of government: the democratic and the representative.

It was a popular piece of political wisdom in Paine’s day that republics are suited only to small geographical areas with small and relatively homogeneous populations. James Madison had famously criticized this notion in Federalist Paper #10, but Paine approached the problem from a different angle. To those who mistakenly treated a republic as a form of government and insisted that this form is inappropriate for “countries of great extent,” Paine replied that such critics “mistook…the business of a government for a form of government.” Furtherance of the public good, which is the defining characteristic and animating principle of a republic, “appertains to every extent of territory and population.” In other words, the proper function of government – to protect individual rights as a means to attain the goal of the public good – always remains the same, regardless of the size of the territory or population within its jurisdiction.

Therefore, according to Paine, the traditional argument against large republics resulted from a conceptual confusion. To clarify what is involved here, we need to differentiate between the democratic and representative forms of government. Although it is correct to say that a pure (or direct) democracy, such as found in ancient Athens, would be unwieldy and ultimately unworkable in a large republic, the same is not true of a representative form of government. Unlike a relatively small community in which individuals can participate personally in almost every governmental decision, large republics rely instead on the election of representatives; and nothing in this representative form is hindered by the extent of a territory or by the size of its population.

The case therefore, is not, that a republic cannot be extensive, but that it cannot be extensive on the simple democratical form; and the question naturally presents itself, What is the best form of government for conducting the res-publica, or the public business of a nation, after it becomes too extensive and populous for the simple democratical form?

In the course of answering his own question, Paine developed an ingenious and original defense of the representative form of government. His discussion resembles and anticipates what has become known, in economics and political theory, as the knowledge problem.

Paine maintained that it is a fairly simple matter to “lay down a system of principles, on which government shall be constitutionally established to any extent of territory.” Such abstract reasoning can be undertaken by a single mind. But the practical problem of how to apply those principles to specific cases – to “agriculture, manufacture, trade, commerce, etc.” – is far more complicated and difficult. To apply principles to practice “requires a knowledge of a different kind.” Even free people who agree in their general principles will sometimes view their own interests as conflicting with the interests of others; and if a republican government is to serve as an objective arbiter with the task of resolving legal conflicts, a society must have some way of gathering adequate knowledge of the multitudinous interests that generate those conflicts, whether real or apparent.

No single person can possibly possess the “assemblage of practical knowledge” that is essential if governments are to apply abstract principles to complex practical problems. This is why even well-intentioned monarchs will necessarily be hindered by an “incompetency of knowledge” when pursuing the public good. Even if we suppose that a monarch acts with the purest motives, he will never possess the disparate bits of knowledge needed for governing in the public interest, especially when dealing with a vast territory and a large population with varied interests. Only a representative form of government can deal adequately with this problem by coordinating knowledge of different interests in a manner conducive to the public good.

That which is called government, or rather that which we ought to conceive government to be, is no more than some common center, in which all the parts of society unite. This cannot be accomplished by any method so conducive to the various interests of the community, as by the representative system. It concentrates the knowledge necessary to the interests of its parts, and of the whole….It admits not of a separation between knowledge and power….A nation is not a body, the figure of which is to be represented by the human body; but is like a body contained within a circle, having a common center, in which every radius meets; and that center is formed by representation.

This reasoning explains, at least in part, why Paine objected vehemently to vesting the power to declare war in a monarch (or in any other single executive, for that matter). Only a popularly elected legislature should have this authority, because only this procedure will greatly lessen the frequency of wars. Let’s take a look at Paine’s thoughts on this important topic.

Although it is customary to associate civilized life with “felicity and affluence” and to contrast this condition with the “hardship and want” of uncivilized life, those relationships were not apparent in eighteenth-century Europe. On the contrary, “a great portion of mankind in what are called civilized countries, are in a state of poverty and wretchedness.” Why was this so? As Paine saw the matter, the problem lay not “in any natural defect in the principles of civilization” but in the fact that governments had prevented civilized principles from operating universally. European governments, including the English government, had smothered their peoples in “a perpetual system of war and expense, that drains the country, and defeats the general felicity of which civilization is capable.”

In contrast to the inhabitants of a country, who “easily associate together,” governments are “like so many individuals in a state of nature” relative to other governments. And while in this uncivilized state of nature, rulers engage in frequent wars that benefit themselves at the expense of the taxpayers who must finance those wars. By thus imposing the costs of their savage behavior on the people, governments “pervert the abundance which civilized life” would otherwise produce. In an exhibition of disgust that may cause modern readers to long for the good old days, Paine noted that “more than one-fourth of the labor of mankind is annually consumed by this barbarous system.” (My emphasis.)

What has served to continue this evil, is the pecuniary advantage which all governments of Europe have found in keeping up this state of uncivilization. It affords them pretenses for power and revenue, for which there would be neither occasion nor apology, if the circle of civilization were rendered complete.

As Paine put it in a striking passage from Part One of Rights of Man, war “is the art of conquering at home.”

[T]he object of it is an increase of revenue; and as revenue cannot be increased without taxes, a pretense must be made for expenditures. In reviewing the history of the English government, its wars and its taxes, a bystander, not blinded by prejudice, nor warped by interest, would declare, that taxes were not raised to carry on wars, but that wars were raised to carry on taxes.

Paine’s opposition to war was tied to his defense of low taxes, commerce, and free trade. I shall discuss these and related matters in the next – and final – installment of this series. I shall also consider the last part of Rights of Man, in which Paine outlines his plan for what has often been depicted as a mini-welfare state. That part, which has puzzled many libertarians and gladdened the hearts of socialists and other left-leaning intellectuals, is not quite what it may appear to be, so this series will end on a revisionist note.

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