Common Sense

Government is the badge of lost innocence.”

     These words, written by Thomas Paine in 1776, were the beginning of a discussion regarding the origins of government and raised several important questions. What causes men to form governments? What expectations are there once established? Is there an ideal form? These are very important questions that deserve thoughtful reflection.

     Perhaps the most obvious starting point for this discussion is to understand exactly Paine’s meaning. Two additional comments provide clarification:

 “…the origin and rise of government…a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world.”

 “Society is produced by our wants, government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affection, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions.”

     These two passages make obvious Paine’s opinion as to what necessitates government – the Christian belief in man as a fallen and fallible being, incapable of controlling his worst impulses and instincts.

     If we accept this notion as to why government is needed, what then should government undertake. Paine offers the following:

 “[S]ecurity, being the true design and end of government, whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expence and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.”

     Security, but for/from what? Elucidation of this statement may be found in Paine’s stated reasons for the necessity of governments in the first place. Men are fallible, susceptible to the vices of greed and envy. Hence, governments are instituted to provide security for our “inalienable rights” as Paine understood them – life, liberty, and private property. In this view, the role of government is essentially to maintain order within a society while simultaneously protecting it from outside invasion. If we consider the establishment of a government to be a form of contract, Paine defines government exactly in this manner:

 “…a charter is to be understood as a bond of solemn obligation, which the whole enters into, to support the right of every separate part, whether of religion, professional freedom, or property.”

     Further, Paine insists that government should come with the “least expence and greatest benefit.” Initial reading presents an obvious meaning – government should provide the greatest amount of security at the lowest possible cost to its citizens (i.e. taxation should be minimal). A more thoughtful interpretation, however, might include less tangible costs than merely money. Expense, in this instance, may also be taken to mean the inalienable rights that must be surrendered in order to establish the new government. This interpretation is clearly noted in the following passage:

 “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.”

     It is precisely this surrender of liberties to the government that raises suspicions regarding it. How many liberties should be surrendered? What types? What recourse do citizens have if government gradually strips an increasing amount of liberty from its citizens? Important questions all, and in the case of a democratically elected constitutional Republic like the United States, difficult to answer. Absolute governments may simply strip all liberty from all citizens, excepting those in the good graces of the ruling class. Free and open societies, though, suffer from the incremental reduction in liberties over long periods of time.

     This possibility is, perhaps, the most insidious “expence” of government. Recently, we have seen the Supreme Court of the United States allow the taking of private property from a private individual by the government to give to another merely for the possibility of higher tax revenues to the government (thereby removing the right to private property). Numerous attempts have been made to greatly curtail the right to keep and bear arms, the citizenry’s last line of defense against tyrannical government (imperiling the right to liberty). In the past several months, we have seen government spending rise to levels almost unheard of in human history, leading to debt levels that will eventually enslave all American citizens.

     What then is the form of government that best protects men from the tyranny of an over-active government while protecting its citizens’ inalienable rights? According to Paine, it is the republic the ensures lasting liberty, saying:

 “…when Republican virtues fail, slavery ensues”

 stating further that:

 “…in free countries the law ought to be king”

putting forth the notion that no man is above the law. What is most interesting about both of these sentiments is that the United States constitution established a republic, limited to the enumerated powers listed within.

     Given what has transpired in the last 75 years, it is imperative that we ask ourselves: is our federal government still bound by the constitution? Are all Americans still subject to the law, or do we make exceptions for particular individuals or groups (i.e. elected officials)? In short, do “we the people” still control our government, or does it control us? The answers to these questions say much about liberty in the modern United States and its slow decline in the last several decades, a situation that is ominous in many ways because as Paine writes:

 “The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind”

Published in: on July 1, 2009 at 3:55 pm  Leave a Comment