“The Father of the American Revolution” Was an Unlikely Supporter of Universal Basic Income

Chuckles Freely

Thomas Paine, the intellectual architect of the American Revolution, made a logical and impassioned plea for providing everyone with guaranteed income.

Thomas Paine is often quoted by anti-government enthusiasts, although he was in favor of Universal Basic Income(Laurent Dabos, Public Domain)

Thomas Paine arrived in the colonies in 1774 in the middle of rising tension between the British crown and the New World colonists. The Boston Tea Party had already happened, and the colonists were suffering from the resulting Intolerable Acts imposed to punish and humiliate them. The idea of revolution was circulating, but it was not taken seriously until Thomas Paine published his seminal Common Sense which laid out the arguments for a complete-and violent if necessary-separation from Britain.

Published anonymously as a pamphlet in January, 1776, Common Sense spread to the masses Paine’s reasons for opposing monarchies and hereditary land rights, as these directly contradicted the Enlightenment ideas of people being born equal and having equal rights. Paine saw that monarchies intentionally kept people in poverty by restricting their rights, and he made it clear how the British monarchy was doing the same to their own citizens (including the colonists). Therefore, he reasoned that the only way forward was an unconditional break with the crown. His arguments were so persuasive and well-crafted that Paine is credited with providing the intellectual justification for revolution and propelling the colonists into their war for independence.

For nearly 250 years, Paine has been a favorite of small government advocates, as he is known for quotes likeSociety 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” and “Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise.” However, years after the revolution, Paine became an unlikely advocate of universal basic income. In his famous 1791–1792 book Rights of Man and in his 1797 pamphlet Agrarian Justice, he used the same reasoning for revolution to justify the government providing everyone with unconditional income, an idea most small government advocates are staunchly against.

State of Nature and the First Industrial Revolution

The foundation of Paine’s reasoning, like many Enlightenment thinkers, was John Locke’s social contract theory. This states that every person has a natural right to defend his or her “life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Government, according to Locke, was a necessary means of protection, although it inevitably meant imposing limits on some of these basic rights. Therefore, they though of society as an agreement between its members to sacrifice some rights to guarantee that others were preserved. Locke saidMen being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.”

For Paine, this meant that society should be improving the lives of its members. That is, they gave their consent to join society, to live by its rules, and to have some of their rights limited, with the expectation of having a better life than if they remained independent. However, after his many travels across Europe, he found that this was not true. He saida great portion of mankind, in what are called civilised countries, are in a state of poverty and wretchedness.” This demonstrated that the social contract was not being fulfilled: “Man did not enter into society to become worse than he was before, nor to have fewer rights than he had before.” Something had gone awry.

Paine blamed technology, specifically the advancement of crop cultivation. He believed inventions like Andrew Meikle’s threshing machine, Jethro Tull’s seed drill, and Joseph Foljambe’s Rotherham plough led to the concentration of land ownership, while also providing the sustenance to support a burgeoning population.

“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.”
-Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice

Paine also spent time with Native Americans, allowing him to see people living in a more natural state. In Europe, land was controlled by the few, leading to the impoverishment of millions, while Native Americans had no such concept and no such poverty. Paine had a lot to say on the subject:

  • The fact is, that the condition of millions, in every country in Europe, is far worse than if they had been born before civilization began, or had been born among the Indians of North America at the present day” -Agrarian Justice
  • 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.” -Agrarian Justice
  • 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.” -Agrarian Justice
  • 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.” -Agrarian Justice

Therefore, as a product of the Enlightenment and as a keen observer of European society, Paine understood that the two were in contradiction. The terms of Locke’s social contract had been breached.

Having Our Cake and Eating It Too

Thomas Paine did not want to redistribute land ownership, nor did he think Europeans should’ve adopt the practices of Native Americans. He knew that human progress was a one way street. He saidIt is always possible to go from the natural to the civilized state, but it is never possible to go from the civilized to the natural state” because when “a country becomes populous by the additional aids of cultivation, art, and science, there is a necessity of preserving things in that state; because without it there cannot be sustenance for more, perhaps, than a tenth part of its inhabitants.” He wanted to keep the benefits of modern society, while reducing the suffering of the millions in poverty on the streets Europe by returning their natural rights. In other words, he wanted to enforce Locke’s social contract.

This is Thomas Paine’s logic:

  1. People were promised a better life by signing the social contract
  2. Society was not fulfilling the terms of this contract, as most people were worse off
  3. The reason for the failure of the social contract is landed monopolies, as they deprived people of their natural rights
  4. Therefore, land owners were obligated to give some of the rewards of land ownership back to the people

His plan for doing so was essentially UBI: “Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated land, owes to the community a groundrent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds; and it is from this groundrent that the fund proposed in this plan is to issue.” Along with redirecting a portion of the military budget, he believed this would stop child labor, allow the elderly to retire, fund public schools, fund public hospitals, and raise millions from abject poverty.

Therefore, Paine was not exactly the anti-government hero he is portrayed as. Rather, he was very much in favor of the government taxing the wealthy to ensure basic levels of education, medical care, income, and dignity.

Originally published at https://thehappyneuron.com on August 17, 2021.

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Politics and science writer at The Happy Neuron

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