Paine begins Common Sense at, well, the beginning. He sets out to explain why we in fact have societies and government. He states that we need society to positively provide for our wants. Solitary men can not provide the same way they can when joined together. Fair enough, sounds good. But then the trouble starts.
While society provides for our needs in a positive fashion, we need government to provide in a negative fashion. That is, men are not angels and therefore need to be policed. Government provides this function. It is an evil, as it is a limiting force, but it is a necessary evil as that limiting force can protect the liberty of others.
When the government ceases to be a protective force and in fact becomes a self serving entity is when problems arise. The worst part is we often do not even notice it happening until it is too late.
Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not YET sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour; a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.- Introduction to Common Sense.
This quote seems prescient when looked at through the eyes of a 21st century American. How many ideas and customs have we made superficially RIGHT simply because we have chosen not to think of them as WRONG. What could we put in this category?
Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness has taken on a meaning that is a far cry from what was originally intended. Originally it meant that we should have the Freedom to live out our lives trying to become the best men we could become. It did not mean, guaranteed retirement plans, universal health care, vacation cruises, a home for every family and two cars in every garage. Yet, today, that is exactly what we have become accustomed to expect.
The first real section of Paine’s Common Sense is entitled: OF THE ORIGIN AND DESIGN OF GOVERNMENT IN GENERAL. WITH CONCISE REMARKS ON THE ENGLISH CONSTITUTION
On the surface this section shouldn’t give us cause to critique our own government, after all, we formed our government in direct opposition to what Paine is complaining about. And yet…
Here is how Paine describes a good government in plain English-
I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature, which no art can overturn, viz. that the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered; and the easier repaired when disordered.
This sentiment should be familiar to us all. That government which governs least governs best. Simpler is better. While we have many advantages today over the British monarchy of the 1700’s, simplicity would not be one of them.
Paine goes on to discuss what specifically is wrong with the British system. He mentions the ineffectiveness of the checks and balances that the English constitution provides for. Emphasis mine:
But the provision is unequal to the task; the means either cannot or will not accomplish the end, and the whole affair is a felo de se; for as 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; and though the others, or a part of them, may clog, or, as the phrase is, check the rapidity of its motion, yet so long as they cannot stop it, their endeavours will be ineffectual; the first moving power will at last have its way, and what it wants in speed, is supplied by time.
This it would seem to me is the crux of the matter today. Most of us realize the need for dramatic change, yet all either side can really accomplish is a stalling tactic. No one is fundamentally stopping or changing course. We do for a time of course, but it is only temporary.
Regan temporarily halted the great society mentality. 20 years later Bush/Obama have changed course back again. But behind all of this the machine continues to roll on. No one seems to have the power to make sustained changed.
The next section of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense deals with the concept of monarchy and how it is fundamentally against human nature. He spends a considerable amount of time using scripture to make his point. One can trace behind his argument the ever present influence of the Age of Reason and philosophers such as John Locke. While we take it for granted today, that every man is created equal is a relatively new and shining idea to many of the intellectuals of this period and they defend it with everything they have.
Yet at the same time this is an era of slavery and this paradox can not be ignored. It seems especially apropos with the newly elected congress having sanitized their reading of the Constitution aloud in the opening session. (They neglected to cover the 3/5th compromise among other more controversial or unseemly parts of the document.)
Once Paine has sufficiently made the case against monarchy in general, he moves on to critique the idea of heredity of power in particular.
To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and an imposition on posterity. For all men being originally equals, no ONE by BIRTH could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and though himself might deserve SOME decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them. One of the strongest NATURAL proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ASS FOR A LION.
This seems much more pertinent to a modern political discussion. While we do not have official heredity when it comes to political office, certainly the concept of political dynasties are not foreign to us. While on the one hand, having a politician who has in a sense come of age in the game, as in a Jeb Bush, has some clear advantages. Yet this idea can also lead to legacy seats as in the case of Patrick Kennedy, former Rhode Island congressman.
Now we come to the section where finishes up his critique of the concept of hereditary monarchy and begins to discuss the relationship between Britain and the American Colonies. He is attempting to refute those who wished to reconcile with Britain claiming a special relationship with the mother country. His argument is a strong one; he claims that Britain has always treated the colonies special due to its own self interest.
Alas, we have been long led away by ancient prejudices, and made large sacrifices to superstition. We have boasted the protection of Great Britain, without considering, that her motive was INTEREST not ATTACHMENT; that she did not protect us from OUR ENEMIES on OUR ACCOUNT, but from HER ENEMIES on HER OWN ACCOUNT, from those who had no quarrel with us on any OTHER ACCOUNT, and who will always be our enemies on the SAME ACCOUNT. Let Britain wave her pretensions to the continent, or the continent throw off the dependence, and we should be at peace with France and Spain were they at war with Britain. The miseries of Hanover last war ought to warn us against connections.
In other words, it is through trade that we secure ourselves. By countries having a mutual interest in the stability of trade routes they have a mutual interest in peace. Here is where the idea becomes applicable to our modern and all the more interconnected world. We are now a nation of consumers, not producers. Have we lost one of the characteristics that have made us safe for over 200 years?