The candidates in last week’s presidential election offered competing ideas about the role of government in American society.
Republicans such as Mitt Romney want a federal government that is as small as possible – lower taxes, less federal spending (except for military spending) and less regulation.
Democrats such as President Obama think the government has a positive role to play – funding government programs and enforcing regulations that level the playing field and promote the well-being of all citizens.
When Americans debate the role of the government, we often look back to America’s founders for guidance. Lately, Thomas Paine has become a popular figure with tea party supporters and Republicans who espouse smaller government.
In 2009, Glenn Beck published his own version of “Common Sense,” claiming that if Paine were alive today he would be in the tea party movement.
Beck’s fellow conservative, Bob Basso, has posted several videos on YouTube, where he dresses up as Paine and rails against virtually every policy supported by President Obama.
Basso’s videos have been viewed more than 14 million times.
But are founders such as Paine really on the side of smaller government? It’s true, Paine did say in 1776 that “government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.”
He advocated limited government, was a staunch patriot and thought America’s revolution should serve as an inspirational model for the rest of the world. To that extent, Beck and Basso have got Paine right.
But Paine has also served for the past 200 hundred years as a great hero for political progressives in Europe and America. Progressives admire Paine because he argued that democratic governments should take positive steps to reduce economic inequality and improve the lives of the poor and the vulnerable
In 1776, the same year he described government as a “necessary evil,” he and his fellow Philadelphia radicals fought (unsuccessfully) for the following line to be inserted into Pennsylvania’s state constitution: “An enormous Proportion of Property vested in a few Individuals is dangerous to the Rights, and destructive of the Common Happiness of Mankind; and therefore any free State hath a Right by its Laws to discourage the Possession of such Property.”
In the “Rights of Man” (probably the most widely read book of the 1790s in both Britain and the United States), Paine proposed the Western world’s first progressive system of taxation.
Those who possessed under £500 would pay a tax rate of 1.5 percent. All wealth that exceeded £23,000 would be taxed at the rate of 100 percent. These taxes would fund public education and direct payments to the elderly, disabled and the poor.
Put into today’s political lingo, Paine favored taxing the 1 percent in order to create a welfare state that would improve the lives of the 99 percent.
A few years later, in “Agrarian Justice,” he proposed taxing the wealthy so every citizen could receive a payment of £15 (the rough equivalent of around $23,000 in today’s money) when they turned 21 years old.
The idea was to help young adults buy land or the tools of a trade so they could embark on an economically independent adulthood.
Just because Paine said these things in the 18th century, it doesn’t necessarily make them good ideas in the 21st century. But it does mean that founders such as Paine can be claimed not only by today’s small government conservatives, but also by progressives.
The founders were a diverse lot, just like contemporary Americans. We should use their writings not as argument-enders (a la Glenn Beck), but rather as invitations to re-engage our never-ending argument about the proper role of government in American society.
Seth Cotlar, Ph.D., is a history professor at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. His book, “Tom Paine’s America,” was selected as the best new book by the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. Cotlar grew up in Ebensburg and graduated from Central Cambria High School. He is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Cotlar.
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