Political Ideas and Philosophy of Thomas Paine

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Thomas Paine’s political philosophy has been “unduly neglected” (Lamb, 2014, 636) but the connection between his welfare proposals and his generational philosophy have been further overlooked. Part I of Rights of Man (1791) provides a vehement rejection of Edmund Burke’s highly critical appraisal of the French Revolution in his 1790 work Reflections on the Revolution in France. It is here, in response to Burke’s advocacy of an intergenerational contract and there being an obligation to the past, that Paine expounds his defence of the priority of the present. Paine argued that no generation of people can possess the power to control future generations, there can be no contract between generations as Burke suggested, because the dead can have no governing authority (Paine.). He continued that every generation must be free to act for itself because they will all face different circumstances and must be able to govern themselves to meet their respective needs (Paine.). As Ball explained: “Paine holds that the present generation has no obligations to 'those who have not yet arrived' in the world and that the present generation may act as it sees fit, without regard to past or future generations.” (Ball, 2000,74)

To address this question, Paine’s welfare proposals and the reasons behind them should be explained. Paine’s perceived that his late eighteenth-century world is riddled with poverty with individuals unjustly living in very poor conditions (Lamb, 2015). So, in 1792, Paine laid out a carefully-costed plan for an English welfare state in Part II of Rights of Man and this was developed five years later in Agrarian Justice into a general plan that could be applied to any state (1797). In the Rights of Man, Paine protested against the English Poor Laws, which he referred to as “instruments of civil torture” (cite THIS) and called for their abolition. The plan he lays out is based on the redirection of government spending, where he allocates four million pounds of ‘surplus’ taxes to his welfare project. The majority of the money would be used to ensure education for all; four pounds per child under fourteen per year would be provided to parents who needed it to enable them to send their children to school. Next, Paine turned his attention to the aged remarking: “It is painful to see old age working itself to death, in what are called civilized countries” (PAINE). He suggested that all those over fifty should receive an annual allowance of six pounds and ten pounds for those over sixty. Paine further proposed support for poor middle-class families to send their children to school, to provide a single payment of 20 shillings to women after the birth of a child and to every newly married couple, for the government to cover the funeral expenses of people travelling away from home and to ensure the continued employment for the ‘casual poor’ in London. Agrarian Justice presents the reader with a very early conception of universal basic income. Paine proposed a tax to land owners with a ten percent inheritance tax which he estimated would raise around five million seven hundred thousand pounds at the time (Paine). This fund would be spent on pension payments of ten pounds per year to every person over the age of fifty a fixed one-off payment of fifteen pounds to every person reaching the age of twenty-one and paying the pensions of the handicapped.

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Are these proposals connected to his defence of the priority of the present or are they contradictory? Through examining Rights of Man, Agrarian Justice and Paine’s view on rights, this essay will attempt to demonstrate that his welfare proposals do not contradict his defence of the priority and will contend that Paine’s proposals are connected to his priority of the present because the plans he suggests are intended to ensure the agency of each generation. Lamb claims that despite the individualism invoked by his defense of the priority of the present “we find a vision of politics that stresses the bonds that unite the whole of a community across time” (Lamb, 2015,) For example, the justification for providing for society’s elderly is that the money they receive is no more than what they are entitled to through the interests of a lifetime of tax payments, which will have been made to support the previous generations old, young and vulnerable (Lamb, 2015). So, one could argue that future generations will be obliged to pay taxes to support the previous generation as they (the previous generation) have already paid the taxes to support them (the future generation). This appears incompatible with Paine’s idea of self-sufficient individuals who are enjoying their individual rights (Fennessy, 1963.), unconstrained by rules imposed upon them by previous generations.

Moreover, the more anticipatory proposals Paine makes such as providing for newly married couples, covering the funeral expenses for travellers and pledging funds to wanting new mothers surely indicate some obligation to provide for the future. Furthermore, his proposal to ensure continued employment for the ‘casual poor’ presents a vision of workhouses where labour is traded in part for food and lodgings for the urban unemployed. Again, for these establishments to be successful and function surely there is an implied invocation of the future generations to keep them open to ensure continuous employment for those who need it. Therefore, it can be argued that many of Paine’s proposals oblige future generations or create obligations to future generations, which causes tensions with his defence of the priority of the present. However, Ford highlights that Paine’s faith in the “universality of reason through deliberation” convinced him that people would vote for welfare because as well as being in their interest it is rationally right (Ford, 1998, 558). Indeed, Fiet also claims that Paine expects the living to act in ways that will benefit future generations (Fiet, 2016).This may seem idealistic but if Paine believed future generations would continue to support such welfare proposals once they had been reasonably deliberated then Paine would not have seen any contradictions in the above proposals.

Furthermore, Paine’s ideas about the priority of the present can be taken to mean that the living do not owe owing any consideration to future generations (Feit, 2016). However, his emphasis on generational independence is more consumed with issues pertaining to past generations unjustly exercising control over current and future generations. Feit asserts that “Paine rejects any obligations between generations not out of indifference to future generations, but because he worries about the living’s likely paternalism vis-à-vis future generations” (Fiet, 2016, 67). In the Rights of Man Part 1 his discussion of the priority of the present is inherently linked to his rebuttal of Burke’s “doctrine of prescription” (Ford, 1998, 574). “Burke is contending for the authority of the dead over the rights and freedom of the living” whereas he is “contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away and controlled and contracted for by the manuscript assumed authority of the dead” (Paine). He seems far more concerned with countering Burke than advocating a disregard for the future; Paine repeatedly emphasises that he is for the rights of the living and against those of the dead being prioritised but only goes as far to suggest that there cannot be an obligation to act for the future (Paine). Actions taken by the living such as the heeding Paine’s welfare proposals may benefit future generations, but as long as the establishment of such a system is mainly for the purpose of benefitting the present then there is not a contradiction in Paine’s argument that the present take priority. It will later be explained that Paine’s welfare proposals are directly related to benefitting the present by ensuring agency.

Moreover, Paine is careful not to bind a generation into a system of welfare that was established by a previous one. Indeed, he called the presumption of governing beyond the grave the “most insolent of all tyrannies” (Paine). But, he acknowledges that “laws that are made in one generation often continue in force through succeeding generations” (Paine). Crucially, these laws are still legitimate and can be enforced because the living consent to them (Paine). Even tacit consent in the form of not repealing a law legitimises these transgenerational laws (Paine). Would Paine’s welfare system be treated as law in the democratic system he envisions? Ford argues that his welfare proposals are part of his conception of economic liberty and given that Paine sees the claim to welfare as not a charity but a right, then these rights must be included in the constitution (Ford, 1998). This would imply that the responsibility of raising taxes for redistribution would fall to the courts, which could override a democratic assembly’s right to determine taxation (Ford, 1998).

However, it is the people of the present who hold ultimate sovereignty, have the right to reform or overthrow the constitution (Ford, 1998)(Paine.). Paine wrote, “that which a whole nation chooses to do it has a right to do” (Paine). Therefore, if a future generation did see a previous welfare system as still necessary for their society then they would consent to it by not changing it, because they have deemed its persistence remains in their interest. On the other hand, if a welfare system is seen as not fit for purpose anymore it could be changed or repealed; “The circumstances of the world are continually changing, and the opinions of men change also” (Paine). So, if a future majority deemed it necessary, they could expand Paine’s original welfare proposals. Or, as indicated by the collapse of the twentieth-century welfare state, where a country’s majority is well enough off enough, the rights of the poor minority may be ignored (Ford, 1998). Such circumstances almost certainly could not have been anticipated by Paine but he concedes that what may be thought of as “right and convenient in one age” may be seen as wrong and inconvenient in another age” (Paine). Paine developed his welfare proposals based on his experiences of inequality in the eighteenth century, but fully allows for these to be altered or removed in-line with the will of future generations and thus would not seek to bind them to any system of welfare.

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