Thomas Paine’s Brickyard

Thomas Paine died 199 years ago yesterday (yes, I had to look that up). I’ve been thinking a lot of about Paine lately. Partly because I recently read a book about him by Harvey Kaye and partly because I’ve had some of my political instincts questioned rather rigorously by an inner voice in the past couple of years and it made sense to go back to perhaps the one founding American who inspired me most (or most concretely) as an adolescent just beginning to develop a political self.

In some sense I can trace my political roots to Paine more than to any other of my (many) heroes of American history. He reinforced and justified the sort of automatic patriotism and idealism I felt as a child of immigrants (especially immigrants with Gandhian-liberal sensibilities: wary of too much government, but also of too much private accumulation of power; equally interested in individual liberties and collective values).

My Paine “phase” was before I developed any modern policy-wonkish tendencies, before middle school honors classes with such titles as “American Political Behavior” and certainly before I (very briefly) called myself a “communist” (mostly to shock people and partly to show off the fact that I’d actually read Marx but also partly because it did have some appeal – aside from the violent overthrow aspect – as a possible way for communities to share their wealth and successes).

I never consciously revisited Paine as an “influence” but as I examine my most deeply held political values and hopes for our country (and really the world), it’s very clear to me that it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to think of myself as a “Painean.”

But what would that mean in the 21st Century? If government “governed least” how would we keep a check on today’s unbelievably behemoth “wealthy merchant class” (of whom Paine had a healthy suspicion)?

Like most well-meaning American liberals, I have long accepted that democratic government can and should be used as an instrument for righting many social wrongs, as long as we hold it accountable and make certain it doesn’t intrude in those areas of life in which it has no business. But I’ve been wondering, very seriously, how possible that is.

I have relatively high hopes for an Obama administration, but I have a nagging fear that it’s misplaced. I know a little (from a bit of exposure to legislative process as well from studying and practicing law) about the layers of bureaucracy and arcane processes (not to mention patronage and corruption) that are entrenched within the apparatus of government at almost every level.

Also, I read two very illuminating books late last year: “The Death of Common Sense” by Philip K. Howard and “The Big Ripoff” by Tim Carney, both written by conservatives with agendas I don’t necessarily share, but nonetheless instructive about the extent of ineptitude and structural corruption and privilege-brokering that goes on in our government. Carney presented, from a conservative perspective, essentially the usual liberal concern that government is too close to the industries and big financial interests it is supposed to police. But unlike many liberal exposés, Carney’s thesis is basically that government by its very nature and government alone (rather than its corporate beneficiaries) creates the conditions for this corruption, because of its power to tax and its monopoly on the use of force.

A friend of mine who writes a popular Libertarian blog characterized growing government power as “a creeping socialism” for which (despite the last seven years) he roundly blamed liberals.

Nothing unusual. Libertarians and conservatives do tend to equate “liberal” with “government-centered.” They’re wrong, of course. As I’ve written before: liberals’ primary preoccupation tends to be with specific, practical, public benefits for which they often are willing to accept the use of government as a tool. The mischaracterization of this acceptance as a per se pro-government stance comes, I believe, from the conservatives and libertarians projecting their own preoccupation with “government” and its role.

But there is something to this “creeping socialism” charge. The liberal ideals of the public interest aren’t always so well served by government just because we call it the “public sector” any more than the cause of “freedom” is in any meaningful way served by conservative, non-interventionist (and thus “freedom-giving”) policies that are based on indifference to inequality and human suffering.

In any case, I am getting tired of gigantic government and I might be in the market for a new ideology. Or maybe I’ll fashion one myself from the wealth of old raw materials and building blocks left to us by Thomas Paine.

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