Government’s most essential obligation is to protect the people. Thomas Paine, who by any standard was no fan of government (he called it a “necessary evil”) understood this when he advocated a system of social programs by the English government on behalf of the poor and needy.
Glenn Beck dislikes government. He also dislikes social programs – such as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. Those who advocate such programs are, for Beck, “cockroaches.”
Beck, a radical conservative, thinks he channels Paine, an interesting feat considering Paine was a radical liberal. Doubly interesting since Paine has been called, rightly, the “real father of social security” and is therefore by Beck’s definition, a cockroach.
Yes, Beck thinks Thomas Paine was a cockroach.
If you are truly interested in what Paine said, read Paine. Do not read Beck. You don’t see Beck discussing Paine’s view of Christianity and you won’t see him discussing what I am about to discuss here.
Paine’s views on government are not the whole picture: read The Age of Reason (1794) or The Rights of Man (1791-92) for starters.
In the latter, Paine speaks of “practical relief” (p. 335): “To pay as a remission of taxes to every poor family, out of the surplus taxes, and in room of poor-rates, four pounds a year for every child under fourteen years of age; enjoining the parents of such children to send them to school, to learn reading, writing, and common arithmetic…”
“Accepting this method,” he tells us, “not only the poverty of the parents will be relieved but ignorance will be banished from the rising generation, and the numbers of poor will hereafter become less, because their abilities, by the aid of education, will be greater.”
For the purposes of education Paine proposes (p. 338) “To allow for each of these children ten shillings a year for the expense of schooling, for six years each.”
Is Beck pro-education? No, Beck has taken the Pink Floyd song to heart; he says, “We don’t need no education.” He wants to abolish the Department of Education.
Conservatives like Beck see education as an example of “big government excess.” Clearly, Beck is not channeling Paine.
To deal with the problem of the aged, who were often worked to death, Paine argues that at 60 “his labour ought to be over.” Beck has never voiced his opposition to people being worked to death. In fact, he thinks the current retirement age should be raised.
Of course, Paine died penniless and was never rich. According to celebritynetworth.com, Beck made $32 million dollars in 2009.
Beck may not need retirement benefits (or care that others do) but Paine understood that common people were in need (p. 336) and suggests that every person from age 50-60 receive six pounds per year and every person over sixty, ten pounds per year. Paine also feels (p. 339) that newly married couples should receive 20 shillings and 20 more upon birth of a child to “relieve a great deal of instant distress.”
Contrast this Beck’s proposal to do away with Social Security. As well as Medicaid. And Medicare.
This support, Paine says, “is not of the nature of charity, but of a right (p. 337).
Beck shares the current Republican view that the poor and unemployed are poor and unemployed because they are undeserving, not because they are victims of social or economic injustices, or flawed Republican policy during the eight years of the Bush Administration.
Beck does not see Paine’s system of relief as a right at all, but a socialist plot to undermine America.
In Agrarian Justice (1795) Paine further developed the ideas put forward the Rights of Man and puts forward ideas of land redistribution!
Significantly, he states, “[T]he first principle of civilization ought to have been, and ought still to be, that the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if he had been born before that period” (p. 475).
In words that must sting those conservatives who today attempt to co-opt Paine, he states:
“It is not a charity but a right, not bounty but justice, that I am pleading for. The present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust. It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be, and it is necessary that a revolution should be made in it. The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together” (p. 482).
It is no wonder that Thomas Paine argued that the burden of taxation falls unfairly on the poor (Rights of Man, 360). How different from the cry raised by the Tea Partiers and GOP, who claim that the burden of taxation falls unfairly on the rich!
“Government,” Paine said, “even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” Thomas Paine wanted better government. He understood that government is necessary.
But conservatives like Beck seem to interpret Paine as saying that government is not necessary. The Tea Party is not the party of limited government but rather the party of no government. And Beck, who calls “progressivism” a disease, and a “cancer,” who says that progressives must be hunted down, fails to see that Paine himself, whom he claims to be channeling, was a progressive, one of the most progressive men of his time.
Paine cared about social and economic justice. Beck does not: “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.”
Beck does not channel Thomas Paine; he doesn’t understand Thomas Paine. As Bob Cesca writes, “Beck’s wicked awesome plan for saving the economy is to throw poor people and senior citizens over a ledge.”
As you can see, that was not Thomas Paine’s plan at all. He actually cared about the common man. Paine would have pulled them from the ledge, not pushed them over it.
All Paine quotes taken from The Thomas Paine Reader, ed. By Michael Foot and Isaac Kramnick (Penguin Books, 1987).
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.