Glenn Beck recently had a segment on his show featuring a Thomas Paine impersonator — complete with authentic Brooklyn accent — who delivered a 2 minute commercial rant in support of today’s teabagging revolution. While I’m sure that Thomas Paine’s head would explode if he could witness today’s America, the idea that he’d agree with Glenn Beck and his merry band of anti-taxation teabaggers is beyond hilarious.
I’d invite Glenn to actually read some of Thomas Paine’s writings; it’s a good antidote to the common Republican disease of projecting your own political perspectives and culture war values onto the “founding fathers.” Beck suffers deeply from this delusional experience of history. He’s particularly afflicted today, imagining Paine as an avuncular figure who took him fishing and then, seconds later, imagines Paine as his “great, great, great, great, great . . . grandfather.” This kind of “choose your own adventure” approach to history is a mainstay of the Republican mind and has been used to support a range of hagiographic absurdities such as the little-known fact that Thomas Jefferson was the nation’s most strident opponent of the separation of church and state. Such caricatures of reality would be an object of scorn and pity were they not broadcast to millions of lizard-brained viewers every night on Fox television.
A good place for Beck to start would be Paine’s essay entitled “Agrarian Justice” which examines how to make our civilization more just and equitable. Beck would be shocked to learn that the essay claims that private property is the cause of evil and suffering in the world. And certainly Beck would begin pouring gasoline on everything in sight (perhaps even himself) when he discovers that the essay articulates a detailed plan whereby wealth would be redistributed from wealthy property owners to poor, landless Americans.
In the essay Paine argues that in order to understand how our civilization ought to be organized, it is helpful to understand its true nature and origins:
To understand what the state of society ought to be, it is necessary to have some idea of the natural and primitive state of man; such as it is at this day among the Indians of North America. There is not, in that state, any of those spectacles of human misery which poverty and want present to our eyes in all the towns and streets in Europe.
Poverty, therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state. On the other hand, the natural state is without those advantages which flow from agriculture, arts, science and manufactures.
The life of an Indian is a continual holiday, compared with the poor of Europe; and, on the other hand it appears to be abject when compared to the rich.
Civilization, therefore, or that which is so-called, has operated two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state.
Unlike our current-day high priests of laissez-faire capitalism, Paine sees that while the accumulation of wealth carries great benefits, it also invariably creates misery since it makes some people rich while making others desperately poor. Paine claims that these poor, miserable people would have been better off in the state of nature — living like Indians — than sleeping on the cold-hard cobblestone streets of civilization.
To Paine, this problem of inequity begins with the dawn of civilization, which he links to the cultivation of land and the creation of private property:
There could be no such thing as landed property originally. Man did not make the earth, and, though he had a natural right to occupy it, he had no right to locate as his property in perpetuity any part of it; neither did the Creator of the earth open a land-office, from whence the first title-deeds should issue. Whence then, arose the idea of landed property? I answer as before, that when cultivation began the idea of landed property began with it, from the impossibility of separating the improvement made by cultivation from the earth itself, upon which that improvement was made. [. . .]
Cultivation is at least one of the greatest natural improvements ever made by human invention. It has given to created earth a tenfold value. But the landed monopoly that began with it has produced the greatest evil. It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss, and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before.
This is pretty much the inversion of Republican talking points and other efficient-market fetishists. Paine argues that private property does not exist in the state of nature: men did not create land and God did not hand out deeds to property to be held forever. Paine even goes as far to claim that land is actually the “common property of the human race.” In the original state of nature “every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with the rest [of mankind] in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.”
Again, Paine thinks creating wealth is a wonderful thing. It has made our civilization possible and produced “agriculture, arts, science and manufactures.” But it is in the nature of private property to create disparities as a small minority accumulates a monopoly over the land and all the wealth it is capable of producing. To Paine, this arrangement is a “dispossession.” A class of landed individuals have taken away the “natural inheritance” of other people and have not provided them any form of compensation for their loss. And the “poverty” and “wretchedness” that have emerged from this are therefore a grave injustice.
As a consequence, Paine argues that these individuals should be compensated for their loss of the land, stating that “Every proprietor . . . of cultivated lands, owes to the community ground-rent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds . . .” And while Beck and his teabaggers see such thinking as robbery or “subsidizing the losers” or “punishing success,” Paine clearly states that this is simply a question of justice:
In advocating the case of the persons thus dispossessed, it is a right, and not a charity, that I am pleading for. But it is that kind of right which, being neglected at first, could not be brought forward afterwards till heaven had opened the way by a revolution in the system of government. Let us then do honor to revolutions by justice, and give currency to their principles by blessings.
Having thus in a few words, opened the merits of the case, I shall now proceed to the plan I have to propose, which is,
To create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property:
And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.
And there you have it. Thomas Paine, rabid leftist commie fascist socialist eat-the-rich spread-the-wealth teabagger who thought it was consistent with the spirit and principles of the revolution to provide for the welfare of every citizen.
At least Beck is right about one thing: Paine was a great American.