Thursday, May 10, 2007

Progressive Liberty Basics - Thomas Paine & "Common Sense"

In reflecting upon Liberty as the backbone principle of America's founding and constitutional framing, it's instructive to read again "Common Sense" and "Rights of Man," Thomas Paine's bombshell 1776 and 1791-94 works.

Historian Sidney Hook suggests Paine's philosophy "inspired two of the greatest revolutions in human history – the American Revolution and the French Revolution”; and fellow-historian Jack Fruchtman comments on "Common Sense's" impact in America: "[It was] the January heat of 1776 that balanced the July light of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.... George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and many others praised it…. It might even be said that while Jefferson’s abstract diction justified rebellion, Paine’s explosive words got rebel men and muskets into the field.”

In plain language, Paine spoke of the relationship of government to the individual and vice-versa:

"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…. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence."

"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 well then represent the first peopling of any country, or of the world. In this 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…."

"Thus necessity, like a gravitating power, would soon form our newly arrived emigrants into society, the reciprocal blessings 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 … 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…."

"Then, as populations increase and become more dispersed, a just government naturally evolves from pure democracy into a representative republic, with frequent elections to maintain accountability."

So, in Paine's description, government is necessary to protect humans from themselves, in order to protect the preeminent value: liberty.

This notion of "progressive liberty" - i.e., recognizing individual liberty's preeminent position while also acknowledging government's indispensable role in protecting that liberty - is the very sentiment expressed by James Madison in The Federalist No. 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

These ideas are further developed in my forthcoming Essay entitled "Government as Liberty's Servant: The 'Reasonable Time, Place and Manner' Standard of Review for All Government Restrictions on Liberty Interests" (click here to view abstract or download full essay).