Thoughts on Paine’s Common Sense: Part 2

We now get into the meat of Thomas Paine’s discourse on Common Sense. Here is the beginning of the section entitled “Of the origin and design of government in general, with concise remarks on the English Constitution.” My thoughts are interjected within the text:

SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

He provides a needful distinction between patronage and punishment, as we are presently told (by those who would keep us all safe from ourselves) that government is to be the patron of all citizens. Despite Mr. Paine’s avowed Deism, he understood that wickedness, as he termed it, was part and parcel of the human existence.

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expence and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.

With regard to the necessary evil statement, I am reminded of Israel under Samuel. Samuel was a judge who oversaw which might be called a limited government. The people yearned for all the trappings of real rulers, upon which request Samuel told them how that change would intrude deeply into their lives. They voted for it anyway. Things went largely downhill from there.

“[W]hatever form [of government] appears most like to ensure [security] to us, with the least expence and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.” Indeed. Understanding that we need government, it is not difficult to understand that the need must not simply be filled with whatever comes most quickly to hand. An arbitrary and sloppy  government is the easiest to impose and the simplest to perpetuate: it requires only that we allow entropy to trump all other votes. A government which is strictly bounded and responsible for providing security with the least interference and cost is a much more difficult proposition and requires attacking entropy as though it were the ever-encroaching kudzu–unceasingly and will full knowledge that victory is never completely procured.

In order to gain a clear and just idea of the design and end of government, let us suppose a small number of persons settled in some sequestered part of the earth, unconnected with the rest, they will then represent the first peopling of any country, or of the world. In this state of natural liberty, society will be their first thought. A thousand motives will excite them thereto, the strength of one man is so unequal to his wants, and his mind so unfitted for perpetual solitude, that he is soon obliged to seek assistance and relief of another, who in his turn requires the same. Four or five united would be able to raise a tolerable dwelling in the midst of a wilderness, but one man might labour out the common period of life without accomplishing any thing; when he had felled his timber he could not remove it, nor erect it after it was removed; hunger in the mean time would urge him from his work, and every different want call him a different way. Disease, nay even misfortune would be death, for though neither might be mortal, yet either would disable him from living, and reduce him to a state in which he might rather be said to perish than to die.

It is almost though we were created with a need for each other, isn’t it? There are no self-made men or women. Even those of us who think we have succeeded by our own merit would do well to consider that we have done very little (if anything) which was not founded upon that which others did first. Inventions, no matter how marvelous, do not come from the mind of infants–but from the rich soil of life experiences (ours and others).

This necessity, like a gravitating power, would soon form our newly arrived emigrants into society, the reciprocal blessing of which, would supersede, and render the obligations of law and government unnecessary while they remained perfectly just to each other; but as nothing but heaven is impregnable to vice, it will unavoidably happen, that in proportion as they surmount the first difficulties of emigration, which bound them together in a common cause, they will begin to relax in their duty and attachment to each other; and this remissness, will point out the necessity, of establishing some form of government to supply the defect of moral virtue.

There is that notion of vice or wickedness cropping up again. And, with the relaxation of which he speaks we have good old entropy coming into play. See, nothing remains in a perfectly static or unchanging state. Everything is moving, no matter how insignificant that movement may appear in the moment. One only needs to observe a dwelling which has been unoccupied for a number of years to see how the structure itself relaxes and becomes remiss with regard to providing shelter.

Some convenient tree will afford them a State-House, under the branches of which, the whole colony may assemble to deliberate on public matters. It is more than probable that their first laws will have the title only of REGULATIONS, and be enforced by no other penalty than public disesteem. In this first parliament every man, by natural right, will have a seat.

But as the colony increases, the public concerns will increase likewise, and the distance at which the members may be separated, will render it too inconvenient for all of them to meet on every occasion as at first, when their number was small, their habitations near, and the public concerns few and trifling. This will point out the convenience of their consenting to leave the legislative part to be managed by a select number chosen from the whole body, who are supposed to have the same concerns at stake which those have who appointed them, and who will act in the same manner as the whole body would act were they present. If the colony continues increasing, it will become necessary to augment the number of the representatives, and that the interest of every part of the colony may be attended to, it will be found best to divide the whole into convenient parts, each part sending its proper number; and that the elected might never form to themselves an interest separate from the electors, prudence will point out the propriety of having elections often; because as the elected might by that means return and mix again with the general body of the electors in a few months, their fidelity to the public will be secured by the prudent reflexion of not making a rod for themselves. And as this frequent interchange will establish a common interest with every part of the community, they will mutually and naturally support each other, and on this (not on the unmeaning name of king) depends the strength of government, and the happiness of the governed.

“[P]ublic disesteem” only works if people are individually connected with each other. When groups grow too large, it is simpler in many cases to ignore those who would object to our behavior than to alter the behavior. With regard to that, and the section above where Paine covers the need for representatives, I am reminded of some changes which have come to our system of representation which have made it simpler for elected officials themselves to be unconcerned with “public disesteem.”

The population of the United States in 1790 was about 3,929,000. Based on the 1790 census, the total number of persons in the U.S. House of Representatives was set to 105. This gives us one representative per roughly 40,000 people, however since only white men who owned property were permitted to vote, that meant that as a matter of practicality perhaps only 1 in 25 to 1 in 50 people could/did vote in a given election. Therefore, each representative was answerable to about 1,000 to 2,000 people. In other words, a representative was physically capable of meeting and speaking in person with every voting constituent.

Based on 2008 numbers, 75% of the U.S. population is over 18 (voting age). Removing from this group those who are unable to vote because of incarceration, status as illegal immigrants, and all the other groups which may not vote, one would still expect that 50% of the US population is legally permitted to vote–and is therefore able to be directly represented in the House of Representatives. Based, once again, on the 2008 numbers, that would mean that 435 representatives are the voices of roughly 150 million people. Breaking this down, it would mean that each representative is to represent about 350,000 voting constituents instead of 2,000.

It’s not hard to see where a representative could become rather disconnected from the individual voter.


Thoughts on Paine’s Common Sense: Part 1

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