Saturday, January 7, 2012

Thomas Paine, tea-partier, ur-blogger, socialist

What would he write now?

Edmund Burke wrote a famous attack on the French revolution. While he thought King George's "American war" was unwise, he defended monarchy and all the peculiarities of the English government against the winds of rationalism and popular revolution blowing over the Channel (and from the colonies). Much of his vitriol was lent by the influx of French nobility who successfully stoked the fires of royalist counter-revolution throughout Europe. The later horrors of the French revolution certainly justified some of Burke's critique. And many aspects of his conservatism stand the test of time, such as the basic principle that measured reform (or even stasis) is often preferable to sudden revolution, out of humility before the many unknowns inherent in tinkering with a functioning social organism.

Yet the reply he got from Thomas Paine attained greater fame and influence. Paine's Rights of Man pursues multiple themes, including ridiculing Burke, defending the French revolution in rather glowing terms, (before the terror got underway), fomenting anti-tax revolt in Britain, and even proposing a comprehensive system of welfare and good works by an enlightened British government, using all the revenue left over once it had defunded the royal court.

Paine's surest avenue of attack is on Burke's defense of the English "constitutional" monarchy. In contrast to France, which had just written itself a constitution, Britain had none and still has none. Paine goes to great lengths to explain the difference between a proper constitution that explicitly sits above and controls the rest of the political system, and the regular laws and indeed unwritten customs & practices which Britain relies on to perpetuate its political system. Obviously what Burke meant as "constitutional" was the legal controls on the monarchy that had grown into the parliamentary system and continue to this day to progressively neuter the royal family. Especially Coke's Petition of Right. But without a formal consitution, it is hard to defend a "constitutional" monarchy.

More damning were Paine's various witticisms about royal government:
"Admitting that government is a contrivance of human wisdom, it is must necessarily follow that hereditary succession, and hereditary rights (as they are called), can make no part of it, because it is impossible to make wisdom hereditary; and on the other hand, that cannot be a wise contrivance, which in its operation may commit the government of a nation to the wisdom of an idiot. The ground which Mr. Burke now takes, is fatal to every part of his cause. ... To use a sailor's phrase, he has swabbed the deck and scarcely left a name legible in the list of Kings; and he has mowed down and thinned the House of Peers, with a scythe as formidable as Death and Time. [i.e. the requirement that they embody wisdom]."
"As the republic of letters brings forward the best literary productions, by giving to genius a fair and universal chance; so the representative system of government is calculated to produce the wisest laws, by collecting wisdom from where it can be found. I smile to myself when I contemplate the ridiculous insignificance into which literature and all the sciences would sink, were they made hereditary; and I carryt he same idea into governments. An hereditary governor is as inconsistent as an hereditary suthor. I know not whether Homer or Euclid had sons: but I will venture an opinion, that if they had, and had left their works unfinished, those sons could not have completed them."
"It could have been no difficult thing in the early and solitary ages of the world, whle the chief employment of men was of attending flocks and herds, for a banditti of ruffians to overrun a country, and lay it under contributions. Their power being thus established, the chief of the band contrived to lose the name Robber in that of Monarch, and hence the origin of Monarchy and Kings."
And in a prescient word to the British...
"As it is not difficult to perceive, from the enlightened state of mankind, that hereditary Governments are verging to their decline, and that Revolutions on the broad basis of national sovereignty, and Government by representation, are making their way in Europe, it would be an act of wisdom to anticipate their approach, and produce Revolutions by reason and accommodation, rather than commit them to the issue of convulsions."

Thankfully, barring Syria, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea, hereditary monarchy has mostly ended its reign on earth. Democracies rule the world. Are they doing a good job?

Paine represents an interesting blend of progressive and tea-partier. He rails throughout the book in best blogger fashion against the oppressive taxation that supports royal courts and their hangers-on, clearly trying to incite the British against their system. But in the most detailed part of the book, he proposes specifically that most British taxes be retained and their revenue diverted to various socialistic ends, such as old-age pensions, educational allowances, and publicly-sponsored factories where anyone without employment could be employed as long as desired, among others. Really, a very forward-looking program, much of which has come to pass. The employment guarantee is particularly interesting and appropriate to bring back into our present-day discussion.
"Civil government does not consist in executions; but in making that provision for the instruction of youth, and the support of age, as to exclude, as much as possible, profligacy from the one, and despair from the other. Instead of this, the resources of a country are lavished upon kings, upon courts, upon hirelings, impostors, and prostitutes; and even the poor themselves, with all their wants upon them, are compelled to support the fraud that oppresses them."
"When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy, neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are no in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am the friend of its happiness; when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government."
"Revolutions, then, have for their object, a change in the moral condition of governments, and with this change the burden of public taxes will lessen, and civilization will be left to the enjoyment of that abundance, of which it is now deprived."

But what would Paine write about our current system?  What is our moral condition? Despite all our progress, I think he would characteristically diagnose a deep and corrupting problem. Our representatives serve two masters- the voters, and separately, the moneyed and corporate class. As Lawrence Lessig has noted, our putative representatives spend about 70% of their time grubbing for money- from corporations, from the rich, from mass mailing missives, and the like. This time is not just lost from service to their consitutents and from cogitation on better policy, but is explicitly opposed to the public interest, as every payment is a quid pro quo, well understood by all sides, for favors that otherwise would not occur.

Right now, the financial industry has thoroughly corrupted both parties, forstalled prosecution and evaded regulation of its highly damaging gambling addiction, and indeed corrupted the economic profession itself through its web of consultancies. sinecures, and parroting institutions, to the point that the public doesn't yet thoroughly understand the basic nature of the crisis. Too big to fail, among many other ills of the financial casino, remains the law of the land, and another crisis is inevitable if nothing further is done, though it may take a decades to attain a sufficiently bubbly economic state.

To Paine, the proposition would be simple. Voters have been displaced as political actors in a system where our media and academic elite are for sale, or already owned by corporations with interests frankly opposed to the public interest, and where our erstwhile representatives sell themselves daily for the money they need, while contorting more (Democrats) or less (Republicans) to suit a publicly salable ideology of the public good. One might say that we support two wasteful and fawning royal courts- those of the two parties, each ostensibly vying for public favor while vying more energetically for funds from well-hidden and corrupting private interests. It is a constitutional crisis.

Paine's revolution was one of fairness- that state and politics should not be run by the few for the few, milking the many, but of the people, by the people, and for the people. In his world, money spoke loudly, but the media and elite leadership were not quite as thoroughly for sale as they are now. His media was not as technologically sophisticated, as pervasive, as distracting, as thoroughly corporatized, nor as powerful as it is today. We are a far cry from Benjamin Franklin's printing press and Paine's pamphlets.

The answer is to restore to the people critical levers of representative power, especially the lever of funding the nation's political life directly. Lessig's plan is to provide vouchers to all citizens that they can then contribute to politicians. All levels of government would disburse tax money to candidates in proportion to vouchers contributed by citizen supporters. Candidates would then be able to gain funds in direct proportion to their popularity, and cut their private money grubbing entirely. Perhaps vouchers could be dispensed continually, so that momentary swings in popularity wouldn't lock up a race prematurely.

We marvel at the amounts spent on modern political campaigns, but our political system is important and deserves generous funding, so that voters and candidates can interact effectively and learn each other's views. Systems of full and generous public funding will decouple our representatives from some of today's worst corruption.

But more needs to be done, especially to improve the media environment. Aside from campaigns, money now buys unlimited political speech and what is more, unlimited political flack-power from "think" tanks and other media / front / spin / astroturf organizations. On its own, that wouldn't be so bad. But where else can one turn for (balanced!) political coverage and insight if the rich own all the media megaphones? Our TV and radio spectrum is limited, and stations are sold to the highest bidder. Newspapers have become one-per-town monopolies due to the high-cost structure of the modern paper and to winner-take all network effects we have come to know so well from the computer and internet industries. Even if non-political commercial interests alone rule the airwaves, where does that leave citizens that advertisers are not interested in, like the unemployed and minorities?

While Paine would surely be pleased by the wide freedoms of the contemporary internet, he might be pained by the degraded and virtually inarticulate show of political soundbites, lying, and scare-ads that characterizes politics in the mainstream media (which masks the more salient hidden competition between moneyed interests). What to do? Here public interest and public funding should be advanced as well. Examples like the BBC and CBC show that major public media can be consistently neutral and effective in broadening access and raising the level of debate (excepting, for the moment, "Thought for the day", and also the entire Euro crisis political theater, and ...).

In short, public media deserves to be strengthened in the US. Ideally, all spectrum-using media would be compelled to provide commercial-free public interest programming, whether oriented to children, or to political coverage, or the arts. Secondly, public broadcasting support would be expanded so that second channels could be established nationally and coverage broadened. At our house, intriguingly enough, we get TV signals from stations funded by Russia and China, but the US government supplies only a pittance to fund our own public media- PBS and NPR.

Lastly, the loss of diversity and investigative motivation in newspaper monopolies could to be addressed by funding local newsgathering on a non-profit basis, perhaps as part of the above expansion of existing public media. With web publication as cheap as it is, minimal amounts of public money could create a grassroots investigative and newsgathering network that gives citizens important information and alternate perspectives on their local affairs, unencumbered by commercial imperatives. (This might be called the crank blogger employment act!) Obviously, there is risk in letting the government dabble in media sponsorship, but it has been done well, here and elsewhere, and the new media age provides enormous opportunities at relatively low cost, if the government is not otherwise corrupted.
Paine even had a prescient word about the EU:
"Government ought to be as much open to improvement as anything with appertains to man, instead of which it has been monopolized from age to age, by the most ignorant and vicious of the human race. Need we any other proof of their wretched management, than the excess of debts and taxes with which every nation groans, and the quarrels into which they have precipitated the world?
Just emerging from such a barbarous condition, it is too soon to determine to what extent of improvement government may yet be carried. For what we can foresee, all Europe may form but one great republic and man be free of the whole."

  • Outstanding article on Roger Williams, who defended Rhode Island from invasion by Massachusetts!
  • For those not following Krugman's blog, Hungary is heading towards one-party rule.
  • We need global governance.
  • A late-breaking Xmas song...
  • Montana, at least is holding out against corrupt practices.
  • Economic quote of the week, from Bill Mitchell:
"As I explained in this blog – 'Historically high budget deficits will be required for the next decade' – the reason that Japan continued to grow despite the “massive loss of wealth” is because the government stepped in and maintained the flow of spending."
  • Economic graph of the week- employment from Fed data.

Note how the proportion of the population employed is still at bottom at the end of 2011, and how the unemployment rate belies the lack of progress or recovery in actual employment, due to an imaginary decline in the "labor force"- we remain in a catastrophic situation for roughly 4% of the population, or ten million people, who are involuntarily unemployed, and whose situation has cascade effects throughout the labor markets.


  1. Burk, yet another excellent post. I'd love to discuss it, but then, what is there to discuss? The system is broken and we need to fix it from the ground up. Paine would agree.

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