To follow up on Paine not being an anarchist nor a libertarian, let’s examine the famous “necessary evil” quote from Common Sense: “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first a patron, the last a punisher. 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…”1
Paine defines government as separate from society, and indeed if society functioned perfectly there would be no need for government. “The more perfect civilisation is, the less occasion has it for government…”2, an early withering away of the state statement. Keane states that the separation of society and government originated with Paine3 – that is not true. Several authors postulated it before Paine, but only by assuming the distinction, including Locke, Montesquieu, Price, and Burgh. Paine emphatically separated society and government because monarchy sought to unite its oppressive regimes with society itself, depicted in the Arthur legend where the health of the king determined the health of the land and people. Paine expanded on these differences which had been assumed by previous writers. He was preparing the grounds for a change in the form of government which requires eliminating the old, and letting society stand on its own while the new government is instituted. He is allaying possible fears that civilization will cease if a corrupt government is torn down in support of the right to revolution.
Paine introduces government as a necessary evil because he plans on changing its meaning. The prevailing attitude towards government in 1775 was negative, given the despotic rule Americans were dealing with. At best, Americans were clamoring for a share in British government to ameliorate their grievances. In Common Sense, Paine had to reconstruct the purpose of government even before he symbolically dethroned the king by asserting the equality of humankind: “Mankind being originally equals in the order of creation, the equality could only be destroyed by some subsequent circumstance…”4 Before he takes down the king he must resurrect the equality of all, again preparing the ground for the seeds of a new philosophy of government.
He introduces a thought experiment where people begin life anew on some vacant land. They naturally and instinctively form the threads of their society:
“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 in proportion as they surmount the first difficulties of emigration, which bound them together in a common cause, 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.”5
The defect of moral virtue makes government necessary, and that moral virtue consists in the commitment to society, their “common cause”, an equitable society, their “attachment to each other”. Once this newly formed community creates its representative government based on complete equality of participation, “They will mutually and naturally support each other, and on this (not on the unmeaning name of king) depends the strength of government, and the happiness of the governed.”6 The strength of government lies in the mutual dependence and common cause of the people.
The rhetorical structure of part one of Common Sense begins where his readers are, and leads them to a new path, a new form of government and a new purpose based on the affirmation of the readers’ equality. We can see this in what he calls “the ends of government” (meaning the goals of government). Paine introduces the goal of government in this first section with “Security being the true design and end of government.”7 That was the conventional wisdom of philosophers and the public – philosophers (all of which, until Paine, were from the upper classes) to secure their property (as opposed to the king’s); and the public, fearing the dangers of an oppressive world without the means of transforming it, succumbed to government which had provided security for the upper classes.
After the society is established by our hypothetical group, “vice” emerges: the conditions that bound them together in a common cause waned, and they begin to lose “their attachment to each other”. The bonds of society are loosened and the need for government to take up the slack is necessary. The moral virtue of the good of the many is threatened by private interest above other’s interests or society’s interest.
Paine concludes this section by redefining the goals of government: “Here then is the origin and rise of government: namely, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world; here too is the design and end of government, viz., freedom and security.”8 The purpose of government, after describing the better way to form governments by equal representation, is now freedom as well as security. Too little weight is given this transformation of the goal of government to now include freedom, and it is here that Paine brings in the unstated principle of rights that has been denied to exist in Common Sense. He is not asking concessions of old governments, he is asking for a replacement in fundamental ways of old government, and the change in philosophy that must accompany it. “Our style and manner of thinking have undergone a revolution more extraordinary than the political revolution of the country.”9 The government of Britain was not providing this “freedom”, and Americans (enough of them) agreed. That government can be something different is a seed Paine plants before disassembling the inherited prejudices of old government, and asserting that freedom is a positive outcome of just government, not a negative. “The independence of America, considered merely as a separation from England, would have been a matter but of little importance, had it not been accompanied by a revolution in the principles and practice of governments.”10
Dissenting philosophers and the conventional wisdom had asserted that freedom resulted from government leaving people to tend to their own affairs, because they could not see past monarchism. Here Paine introduces government as insuring freedom. Government is turned upside down. Freedom is not absence of government, freedom becomes possible through a democratic government. Paine popularized this new conception. The claims of libertarianism and anarchy about Paine grow dim in such light, even before considering his later works which expand on this theme. The “necessary evil” quote merely introduces the opposite concept of what is claimed by libertarians and anarchists, bringing his readers from their accepted possibilities into thinking of a new age.
Next Part, Where does the Defect of Moral Virtue come from?
- Foner, The Complete Works of Thomas Paine, pg. 4.
- Foner, ibid., Rights of Man Part II, pg. 358.
- Keane, John, Tom Paine: A Political Life, Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1995, pg. 117.
- Foner, ibid., Vol. I, Common Sense, pg. 6.
- , pg. 5.
- , pg. 6.
- Foner, ibid., pg. 5.
- , pg. 6.
- Foner, ibid., Vol II, Letter to Abbe Raynal, pg. 243.
- Foner, ibid., Vol I, Rights of Man Part II, pg. 354.