Friday, 31 May 2013

Plus ça change....

The Rights of Man By Thomas Paine

(This review was written on 4/4/2003 and 7/6/2004. )

I read Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man for the first time in March 2003 (Penguin Classics, 1985). It was published in two parts, the first in 1791 and the second in 1792. It became a best seller and continues to be sold and read. It has become a classic of political polemics.

Paine wrote a devastating critique of the monarchic, aristocratic and non-representative forms of government which existed in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. His vitriol was particularly aimed at the British system with its lack of a popularly supported constitution, its succession of foreign and powerful monarchs, its House of Commons appointed by a corrupt electoral system, and the House of Lords with its hereditary and entirely non-representative membership. The executive lacked fresh minds and talent, and the system encouraged gross corruption. There was no attempt to alleviate a host of national problems, and there was unfair taxation on the poor with little taxation of the rich and of the great land holders. Finally, he complained that the natural resources of the nation were wasted on successive wars and on unnecessary squabbles and divisions with other nations.
George III

Paine’s political philosophy encompassed the principle of fully representative and democratic government in the form of a republic, although, if he could have envisaged a monarch without political power as exists in some countries in Europe to-day, he might have accepted a monarchy with full executive powers in the hands of a representative government.

Paine’s political concepts and philosophy were inspired by the American Revolution of 1776 and the decision of each of the 13 states to establish a representative state assembly which was responsible to the people. The republic concept was confirmed by the union of the13 states to form a national assembly or Congress, with an elected president with limited tenure. Paine lived in America before and during the Revolution and, later, after the fall of the Bastille, he lived in France. He expressed great admiration for the French who had set up a National Assembly without great perturbation, replacing aristocratic power and abolishing the privileges of the monarch, the aristocracy and the leaders of the Church.

In the second part of his treatise Paine continues his thesis in favour of fully representative government, but he also puts forward radical ideas to reform the penal taxation of the common people and to increase taxation on the land owners and others in power. He was in favour of the social policies now prevailing in modern states, including children’s education allowances, widows and old age pensions, birth and marriage grants, soldiers and sailors’ pensions, and financial aid for disadvantaged people. No such services were available at the time and it was not until 1911, with the passage of Lloyd George’s Insurance Bill, that the first steps towards a welfare state were taken by Westminster.

Edmund Burke
Paine was radical, forthright and remarkably far-seeing in his views. He showed extraordinary courage in challenging the long established authority of the British monarch and the two houses of parliament. His diatribes against Edmund Burke, the self appointed spokesman of the British establishment opposed to the French Revolution, occupies much of the text and is a telling exposé of the conservative powers and corruption of the British aristocracy and land-owners. By living abroad during most of his active life, he avoided imprisonment and the clutches of the British authorities.

Paine was clearly obsessed by the need to promulgate his radical ideas and he was naive in believing, as he did, that other European countries would soon follow the examples of America and France. It was to take another 40 years before the House of Commons abandoned the rotten boroughs and other electoral abuses with the Reform Bill of 1832, while the monarchy gradually lost its powers during the nineteenth century and the House of Lords remained intact in its privileges until these were gradually eroded in the twentieth century.

It is said that politics is the art of the possible. Paine must not have been aware of this adage. He faced an all powerful establishment in Britain and an abject, passive and impoverished population. His belief that the republic form of government would lead to reduced taxation was, of course, never realised, although the burden of taxation is now borne by the entire population but still biased in favour of the rich and the privileged. At least this is so if we are to judge from the situation in Ireland where the rich and particularly the tax emigrant are proportionally less taxed. However, his proposals to assist the disadvantaged and the dependants of society have been gradually and fully realised in all European countries to-day.

His support for the democratic system of government has been widely achieved in Europe, North America and the Antipodes, as well as Japan, South Africa and a few other countries. But his belief that democracy would lead to an ideal political system, ensuring the happiness of all, was surely naive when we witness the situation in Ireland to-day. The corruption of the old systems of government, so deplored by Paine, has extended to all branches of current society, and includes politicians, public servants, the police, the professions, business and the public at large. We are an increasingly litigious society with a lust for money, acquisitions, power and privilege. Politicians put party before country and are reluctant to make unpopular decisions which might anger an acquisitive electorate but which may be essential for justice and equity, and for the public good. We need to change the electoral system in Ireland. We should change to the one seat transferable vote to eliminate the worst elements of the current system, and the party whip should be withdrawn except for specific legislation such as finance bills. Unlike Thomas Paine, few of our politicians are radical enough to advocate or to implement such changes.
Aren't we the clever ones?

I believe the fundamental problem in retaining a viable democratic system, where personal freedom is the norm, is that the individual must share with freedom a sense of responsibility to society, the environment and future generations. The problems created in a litigious and corrupt society by powerful and selfish sectional interests, including a selfish public, can only lead to the eventual destruction of democracy and to the desecration of the land which God gave us as a sacred trust to care for nature and future generations. At this very moment in Ireland we have developers who are corrupting the planning policies, we have residents refusing to pay for waste removal and we have a minority who are opposing a more rational hospital system. Even our professions are shedding their vocational principles and their traditional compassion for others. Government must put country before party and must not yield to minority pressures aimed at disrupting the democratic process if parliament approves of legislation which is deemed necessary for the public good. The stark contrast between the privileged and the majority of the Irish population, and the ubiquitous corruption, would surely evoke the anger of Thomas Paine if he lived here to-day. 

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