“Some writers have so confounded society with government as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron; the last a punisher.”
— Thomas Paine, 1776
This opening paragraph of Paine’s 1776 revolutionary pamphlet, “Common Sense,” is one of the best statements of a libertarian credo I have encountered. Rather than view government as an extension of society, Paine chooses to distinguish the two. They become mutually exclusive, opposing, and even inimical counterparts to each other. The dichotomy that follows is equally poetic.
I do take some issues with Paine’s characterizations. Not so much what he says, but how he says it. For example, I don’t believe Society is produced by wants; it is more like a natural state of human existence (which, Paine explains on the next few pages, inevitably replaces the State of Nature). Government attempts to replace society by doing away with natural institutions and processes and replacing them with artificial ones.
Does government restrain our vices? Possibly. Certainly it makes it hard to pursue impulses to kill, cheat, lie, or harm others. But perhaps Paine could not foresee how Government would soon come to create the very vices it was meant to restrain. Vices such as a sense of entitlement created by the welfare state come to mind.
Murray Rothbard, in For a New Liberty, argues that government is an entity that has a monopoly on criminal activity in a geographical area. When Paine says that government restrains vices, perhaps what he should have said was that government prevents citizens from engaging in vices, but then goes on to commit those vices itself. In those terms, a government is an entity which prevents citizens from killing, assaulting, robbing, extorting, and other crimes, but then commits those acts itself in order to pursue its illegitimate ends.
Paine’s statement that “[government] creates distinctions” is right on. When government fails to protect the liberty and property rights of every individual equally, it creates warfare between different interest groups. We see this with affirmative action programs, with the Sotomayor confirmation hearings, and with Obama’s plan to tax top earners to fund his socialist healthcare bill. Government that fails to protect all life, liberty and property rights equally–like ours–is bound to create distinctions.
But my favorite line completes the paragraph. “The first is a patron; the last a punisher.”
I will let that line speak for itself. When will government be a protector rather than a punisher of human greatness? Such a government has never existed, but hopefully someday it will.