17A027 Tom's Folly by Jim Davies, 8/15/2017    


Thomas Paine wrote that government is evil.

In 1775 that was a revolutionary idea, and by placing it on the first page of Common Sense, he earned the attention of the whole Colonial population in America. He then, fatally, continued by alleging that it was "necessary" and spent the rest of the book suggesting how government could exist, yet have its evil strictly limited.

Why did he think it necessary? - in order to "supply the defect of moral virtue." In other words he swallowed whole the religious fiction that mankind has a bias towards evil, that he is born in sin. This is right in line with the Pauline doctrine of Romans 5; that "by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned." Paine claimed to be a Deist rather than a Christian; Deists think there is a Creator, but that he plays no part in what and whom he created. It's curious, therefore, that Paine should evidently endorse this doctrine.

He was correct in imagining that as a small primitive society grew, disputes might arise, perhaps on account of a "defect of moral virtue." A zero government society too will encounter the same kind of problem; hence, a justice industry will be in demand. Paine foolishly supposed that justice - the restoration of damaged rights - requires intervention by a non-market body; that in economic terms, the demand for justice would encounter a "market failure" that only government could correct.

This is amazing. It strongly suggests that although Paine began his pamphlet with the ringing, shocking declaration that government is evil, he really failed to think that through; that he didn't appreciate just how deeply evil government really is. Otherwise, he would be saying (he did say!) that an evil institution is needed to correct an evil bias among the people! The total absurdity of that position, the flat contradiction in its logic, simply takes away one's breath. Yet Classical Liberals today share that foolish error with Paine - as do, of course, statists of every variety.

It's not just foolish and contradictory; it flies in the face of the faith common among Colonials, to which Paine was appealing: the Christian one. Nobody more systematically developed doctrine for that faith than Paul, and he wrote to the early Christians in Rome (Romans 3:8): "some affirm that we say, 'Let us do evil, that good may come' - whose damnation is just." The idea that a good result could be achieved by taking an evil action was, to him, anathema. Yet not, apparently, to Thomas Paine - or to the large fraction of the supposedly Christian population that bought, read and approved his pamphlet.

Here's a possible explanation: that Paine didn't err just by prescribing poison to cure poisoning, he failed to understand the nature of the poisoning he was setting out to cure. In other words, although he did write that government is evil, he didn't really understand what he was writing; perhaps he had in mind some lesser or more superficial evil attribute of government than actually applies.

"Evil" is what happens when one person or group takes action that forces a harmless human being to act in a way contrary to his wishes. That's the definition. Notice that it's a far more accurate and meaningful definition than those found at Dictionary.com for example; none of them focuses on the nature of the subject. The closest there is "anything causing injury or harm", which would have to include accidents and destructive storms; however terrible, we don't usually call those "evil." Perhaps the dictionaries available to Tom Paine were equally vague and woolly, and if so we might allow him some excuse.

And why is that definition correct? - because of the SOA, the Self Ownership Axiom. It is a fixed fact that every person has the exclusive right to own and operate his own life. Evil, therefore, is the denial of that absolute right; anything one person does to prevent its practical enjoyment by another.

Properly, then, government is evil because everything it does forces people to act in ways contrary to their wishes, or at least regardless of their wishes. Hence, it is an institution founded on and totally consisting of evil. Nothing it ever does is other than evil. And I suspect that when Paine declared it to be "evil", he didn't understand the half of that.

There's more. A decade after the American revolution (which he certainly helped begin) was complete, he lived in France and warmly endorsed the Revolution there. Now, the overthrow of an incompetent and arrogant monarch is to be celebrated, but Louis XVI was replaced by a government which became more and more evil, morphing by 1793 into a truly vicious, murderous tyranny much worse than the monarchy it had replaced; it did not even have the merit of restoring the national finances but produced hyperinflation and eventually led to the rise of Napoleon whose fix for that bankruptcy was to organize military might to plunder the rest of Europe. Yet Paine participated, from 1791 to 1802. Although all government is evil as above, some are no doubt more evil than others; and there was Thomas Paine, embracing and usually embraced by one of the most evil of all time. When he used the word "evil", therefore, we may reasonably wonder when he supposed it means.

In 1791 he wrote The Rights of Man, which includes many fine insights but also endorses a progressive income tax, one of the ideas later central to the Marxist manifesto and imposed, of course, almost universally today. So although he seems in one breath to champion no more than a minimal government, in the next he endorses a massive program of theft, especially from the most productive members of society. Confusion, contradiction and highly selective moral values; that's Paine.

Having (in Common Sense) declared that government is evil while failing to understand the nature and degree of that evil, Paine proceeds to propose how a new American government might be founded but constrained, so as to limit its power to do evil; that occupies the great bulk of the pamphlet. This was the inspiration for the federal charter known as the US Constitution. Very obviously, it does not work; it fails altogether to limit the evil the FedGov does, and while it may have exercised some constraint initially, it wasn't much; the gross violation of Amendment 1 by the Alien and Sedition Acts took place as early as 1798 and the sinister transfer of supreme power to the Judicial Branch was quietly accomplished almost before its ink was dry, in 1789 - as foreseen and intended by the Founders.

Even if it had worked, rule by a government that obeyed all the Constitution would be unacceptable in any case, but the plain fact is that, very obviously, it did not work. Government today does pretty well whatever it wishes to do.

So Paine's diagnosis was hopelessly inadequate, and his prescription was hopelessly ineffective. Garbage in, garbage out.

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