Interdum stultus opportuna loquitur...

Monday, July 14, 2008

GovRant, or: WTF, Paine?

Note - from June 24th 2009, this blog has migrated from Blogger to a self-hosted version. Click here to go straight there.

There is much to be said for reading the oeuvre of men whose writings have shaped history; there is much also to be gained be reading stuff which was published clandestinely at (or about) the same time.

At the minute I am making my way - slowly, as I have never been able to read quickly - through a re-reading of Thomas Paine's "The Rights of Man - Part the First" (1791).

Now do not get me wrong, Dearest Reader - your beloved GT is of a mind with much of what Paine had to say - but only up to a point. Paine wrote the very first anti-slavery treatise to be penned in the United States, and his work was instrumental in providing the philosophical motivations for the revolutions in both the United States and France. He was a man of some vision - and very much an auto-didact.

And perhaps therein lies the problem - when one is an auto-didact one may unwittingly have chosen a fool for a tutor. Were Paine alive and blogging I would be sending him an e-mail pointing out a flagrant bloomer.

You see, he castigates (and rightly so) Edmund Burke for his (Burke's) repudiation of the French Revolution. Burke relied on a very bizarre declaration of Parliament from the 1680s in which Parliament declared

The Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, do, in the name of the people aforesaid most humbly and faithfully submit themselves, their heirs and posterities, for EVER.

and furthermore Burke quoted an Act of Parliament whereby the British people's representatives agreed to...

bind us" (meaning the people of their day), "our heirs and our posterity, to them, their heirs and posterity," (meaning the Crown as personified by William and Mary) "to the end of time."

Paine gave a perfect disembowelling of this effort of Burke's effectively to repudiate the doctrine of Natural Rights on the basis that (in England at least) the Parliament had pledged eternal fealty to the Crown (and had thereby abrogated all rights of present and future generations). As Paine pointed out, the idea that one generation can make an agreement which binds those not yet born, and does so in perpetuity, is presumptuousness bordering on lunacy (my words, not Paine's).

OK - so Thos. and I are on the same page up to this point; when Paine talks of the primary Natural Right as being -

...those which appertain to man in right of his existence. Of this kind are all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind, and also all those rights of acting as an individual for his own comfort and happiness, which are not injurious to the natural rights of others.

I didn't try to paraphrase, because I could not have put it better myself. Paine then goes on to discuss rights which arise when folks organise into society, and that's all well and good so far as it goes.

But then the bloomer...

After pointing out that humans predated government (by some significant period of time) he points out that governments can not issue from a compact between those who govern and those who are governed, since there must perforce have been a time when 'those who govern' was an empty set. Thus, quoth Paine -

The fact therefore must be that the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.

Still nothing to disagree with... EXCEPT...

When was the last time you were asked to sign a compact with the government which claims a monopoly of force over the land you live on? I have never done so, and would not do so if asked. I have never been asked, nor have I ever sought, to enter into any such compact. It seems that governments the world over simply take as read that their populations are part of such a compact, and that's all there is to it. And if you decide that you're not, and you do anything concrete to advertise the fact (such as refusing to pay taxes, refusing to vote where it is compulsory, or - in places like France and Australia - calling into question things which you're not allowed to call into question) you will in relatively short order find ourself confronting an armed man (sometimes an armed woman, but always in the company of another armed man). This armed man will express the strongly-held opinion that you should accompany him from your abode to a place of incarceration.

And so it goes for livestock that gets above its station - that tries to behave as if all this talk of Liberty is to be taken at face value.

So to recap, Mr Paine's material is must-read stuff for anybody who is interested in liberty - although as Paine's later experience showed, his faith in the noble aims of the French revolutionaries was misplaced, as they subsequently went on a murder rampage (to which Paine objected - and for which objection he was imprisoned and missed out on being executed by dumb luck). Likewise, ten years after the American Revolution, George Washington was leading an army to crush a bunch of tax protesters in Massachusetts.

All this is leading somewhere, dear Reader, I promise.

It is leading to this: we will never as a race, get anywhere approaching Liberty while we insist that we can exchange one set of parasites and vagabonds for some other, better set. Once the 'principled' chaps we fight for get their bums on the throne and get accustomed to life in the palace, they turn their armed goons onto anyone who tries to mess with their stuff (they soon tend to view it as 'theirs' rather than part of any national patrimony).

It is for this reason that the only political system that can possibly work (if a system is deemed necessary to accommodate the idea of Public Goods) is Sortition - the appointment of political officeholders by selection at random from the adult members of a society, for strictly limited terms (of which, I will blather in a later post).

Better yet, do away with the whole artifice and let us keep the 50c in the dollar that governments (State, Federal and local, counting indirect taxes) take from society's productive bounty.