Thomas Paine (January 29, 1737 – June 8, 1809) – America’s 1st Democratic Socialist?
Contemporary America’s sunshine soldiers and Tea Party patriots like to occasionally drag out Thomas Paine quotes – accompanied by an airbrushed drawing of his ravaged, dour, pockmarked face – and pretend like Thomas Paine would have been their buddy if he’d only lived another 200 years. The quotes are usually along the lines of “no taxation without representation” and government “being a necessary evil at best.” Stuff like that. Never mind that Americans have taxation with representation (at least they did, before most of Congress and the majority of state legislatures got completely bought off by the filthy rich and the big corporations) and that the government Paine was usually talking about – in his Revolutionary propaganda pamphlets – was the government of England.
(They stop short of claiming Paine as a fundamentalist Christian, one of the founders of the Christian Nation, because … you know, The Age of Reason.)
The most vehement pretend-populists among American conservatives also like to talk a lot about “common sense” – sometimes ascribing their deep meditations on the subject to Thomas Paine or was it Thomas Jefferson? … somebody named Tom – and they like to say how common sense is the only qualification a person really needs to do this government stuff. The inference being, I suppose, that Joe the Plumber could have written the Declaration of Independence if he’d just gotten around to it and hadn’t been so busy doing real American work like unclogging toilets and drinking beer.
(Speaking of which, where is Joe the Plumber this election cycle? Shouldn’t Trump and Cruz and company be vying for his endorsement to go along with Sarah’s? Is he Joe the Senator now and nobody told me? Is he the Fox News American history correspondent?)
But I don’t want you to think I have anything against plumbers … when my drain is clogged, they’re the first people I call … I don’t just stop some guy off the street at random and pay him to fix it. Because knowledge and experience actually do count for something. And you need more than common sense to unclog a drain. Uh-oh, does that fancy opinion make me an “elitist”? Sacre bleu, does it make me French?!
Let’s consider this common sense stuff a moment longer … what dictionaries say it is, what some folks mean when they say it, and what Thomas Paine meant. Here are three general dictionary definitions of common sense:
- The ability to think and behave in a reasonable way and to make good decisions.
- Sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.
You get the idea and I think you’ll agree with me that when Sarah Palin or Trump or Cruz or some other pseudo-populist Republican talks about common sense, their idea most closely resembles definition 3 and they broaden its application to just about everything. All that book learning just screws you up. Messes with your common sense. We were all born knowing more than Barack Obama. And Trump was born knowing more than everyone else.
When Thomas Paine used the term common sense, however, he was mostly referring to definition 2 and he was also joining a philosophical discussion that dates back as far as Aristotle. And the judgment that Paine thought common sense would assist his fellow Americans in reaching (based on a simple perception of the situation and facts) was that Britain was in violation of the Colonists “natural rights” and, not to put too fine a point on it, had to go. I hasten to add, however, that Paine believed there was a learning curve attached to simple perceiving and that it was necessary to use your brain to reason your way toward a conclusion. You couldn’t just “know” stuff. You had to learn the situation and facts. You still had to think.
Based on this analysis, I conclude that, if Thomas Paine’s drain had ever been clogged, he would have called a plumber (i.e., someone with specialized knowledge and training). Maybe Joe the Philadelphia Plumber in waistcoat and powdered wig. Which I guess makes Paine an elitist. And possibly means he is French. He did, after all, journey to France to foment revolution there – Paine was sort of the Che of American liberty – but landed in prison and nearly ended up on the guillotine because he opposed the Reign of Terror.
Here are a few more of Thomas Paine’s beliefs that would disqualify him from Tea Party membership. I present them in no particular order and imagine that a few might come as a surprise, particularly if you think Paine was a no-tax nut or an antigovernment guy:
- A maternity benefit for poor children that amounted to a kind of Head Start program
- Public education for all up to and including higher education
- Public assistance and training for young people seeking work
- Health benefits for the poor
- Other welfare programs that amounted to a guaranteed minimum income
- Extensive veterans benefits, starting with veterans of the Revolutionary War
- Social security (beginning at age 50, but people died earlier then)
- Public burial (and we’re not talking a plywood pauper’s coffin in a kiln)
And how did Tom Paine propose that we pay for all this stuff? Uh, by taxes. Specifically by heavy taxes on the rich and propertied classes. And, as far back as the American Revolution, Paine proposed a federal tax to pay for the war and its expenditures.
Thomas Paine had done his research on his “social agenda” for America – he’d thought long and hard about his ideas – but he also decided they made good common sense.
To which the Tea Partiers don’t have a whole lot to say … except maybe “Oops.”