Thursday, December 13, 2012

Where Thomas Paine Really Messed Up

By, Chris Rossini
Email | Twitter

I admire the role that Thomas Paine played in America's Secession from the English Empire, so it's not easy to pick someone like him apart. But he made a tragic error in his most famous work Common Sense. And the error occurred right at the beginning. It wasn't buried in the middle or end.

He wrote:
Society 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;...
The big blunder was calling government a "necessary" evil.

What a mistake!

Evil is never necessary. The exact opposite is true. It is the good that is necessary for life to carry on.

To say that evil is necessary is like saying that a shoplifter is necessary for the merchant to live. Or, that a parasite is necessary for the host to survive.


The merchant would do just fine without the existence of shoplifting, and a host can surely survive without the parasite.

The same cannot be said about the parasite. It needs the host to survive and feed off of.

Paine (surely without intending to) did governments a huge favor. His statement is very famous and many people believe it. And what a gift for the politician. You see, the politician can care less if he does evil. However, the fact that enough citizens believe that it's necessary that he do it, means everything in the world.

A lot of minds need to be changed about this famous blunder. An institution that relies on the theft of taxation to exist, is not necessary. An institution that has a monopoly to use aggressive (i.e. not defensive) force against individuals, is not necessary.

One does not have to look far, or even pay money, to read why. It's only a few mouse-clicks away. If a person were to read (for free) the works of just Murray Rothbard and Walter Block alone, the superstition would most likely be wiped from that individual's eyes.

What is necessary for our survival, is the good: voluntary association, voluntary contracts, voluntary agreements, and respect for one another's person and property. You may not agress against your neighbor's property, and he may not agress against yours.

Once the poison of coercive force is introduced, and accepted as necessary, it can only spread like a cancer, eating away at everything that is vital organ at a time. After 200 years pass, the realization starts to set in that the disease has become life-threatening.

So with all due respect for Mr. Paine, I'd like make my own statement to correct his error. Even in its best state, a coercive government isn't a necessary evil.

It's just evil.


  1. Has Rossini had some sort of awakening?

    Another excellent article.

  2. Agreed. Paine had some good insight into spontaneous order and that society predates government. I just finished reading through Paine's Rights of Man last month after hearing Roderick Long discuss it on the LRC podcast. It's clear that he was incredibly naive about the virtues of representative democracy--but that's forgivable because it was a "new" system of govt. What's even more illuminating are his critiques of monarchy. Almost every single critique of monarchy can be used to similarly critique representative democracy--and usually democracy is worse for all of the reasons outlined by Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

  3. Bravo. And I like how you qualified government as being evil as "coercive" government. Under Hoppe's Private Law Society, it seems to me perfectly all right for government to continue provided that it submits to the decisions of for-profit arbitration courts just like any private person. It will be fun watching them compete for service business without having courts in their back pocket.

  4. It's more appropriately considered an inevitable evil despite the claims of some anarchists. There always has been and always will always be, in every established society, a group of people who rule over everyone else.

    1. @James: You are incorrect. We currently have anarchy amongst countries of the world. There is no world court. Yet. Furthermore, in For a New Liberty, Rothbard cites Ireland in the middle ages as another example of a society functioning with no government. I concede it may be hard to imagine anarchocapitalism (aka a private law society) functioning just as it may be hard to imagine daily mail delivery or education of children with zero government involvement. Hard to imagine does not mean "inevitable" never to exist though.

    2. Remember, there is a HUGE difference, between government, and lordship, between government and statehood.

      An archon, a Lord, is someone who tells others what to do, but does not obey the same strictures placed upon everyone else. In modern lingo, this is called "sovereign immunity" - basically saying, "since I am the one that enforces the law, no ne can enforce it upon me; I may follow it as a courtesy, but if I don't it's no big deal."

      Anarchy, is not the absence of law, but the absence of archons, or Lords.

    3. @Arthur Krolman, CFA: Building on your last remarks, it is sad that you say "it may be hard to imagine daily mail delivery or education of children with zero government involvement," since that's the way life went before the Industrial Age, and the modern, totalitarian State.

      In a like manner, people are forgetting that other services, such as roadways, fire fighters, water rescue and radio station allocation, were well-provided, before the State intervened. The same with drug abuse and today's latest hullabaloo, marriage license.

      I find it ironic, being black, since historically, the State had no say concerning marriage, before US States felt the need to prevent race mixing in the early 1800's, and outlawed the practice, except for certain favored participants, to which they granted license.

    4. @bmeph: Yes, it is sad how the wise voting public is increasingly unaware of how many services were once provided privately. They are propped up by our leaders as being wise enough to enter the voting booth and be free to choose...but apparently not wise enough to be free to choose in hundreds of new areas every the "correct" race of spouse at one time as you say. Sigh.

  5. Chris, is your gripe against government, or against the state?

    The reason that I ask is that even in a stateless libertarian society, there is still going to be a form of governance. Sure, it's based upon the NAP, private property, and the market (i.e. voluntary action and exchange); but it is my opinion that this is still a form of governance, it just isn't a state-form of governance.

    I find that not many libertarians make the distinction between government and the state-- governance being a separate distinction from its specific form-- though I think that they should. After all, libertarianism is not in favor of nihilism and lawlessness.

    1. Joe, it's against the state...not governance in general.

      I made sure to put the word "coercive" in front of government as the evil.

    2. Many libertarians are familiar with the distinction. Especially if they have read Nock's book Our Enemy, The State.

    3. The state without government - an anarchic state. Government 'governs' or acts preemptively with violence or by threats (social primalism). Justice is reactive. A just state by definition cannot have government.

      If you haven't read, I suggest Herbert Spencer "Man versus the State and Essays" and "Social Statics" to understand how civilization progresses (via use-inheritance) and why government must impedes it by its inherent nature.

      Spencer wrote, "It is a mistake to assume that government must necessarily last forever." Not only is this a truism I think but it is essential that government disappear as primitive tribalism did if humanity is to survive beyond our capacity to destroy ourselves.

    4. I wonder if the two ideas weren't often mixed up in 18th century writings. For example, if "government" truly derives its just powers from the consent of the governed as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, then we are talking about a government subject to market competition with no monopoly on force at all.

  6. Rothbard had his messups as well... in ethics of liberty he completely contradicted himself on property rights when it came to IP...Block is sound though.

  7. I must disagree with the premise of this article. If the author you will nitpick at Paine then I must nitpick at him. The key is that Paine says, "government AT ITS BEST STATE is a necessary evil." The key phrase being "At its best state". Paine is using hyperbole. Like Jesus saying "if your hand causes you to sin, but it off". Paine is simply saying "Even the best governments are evil" (exaclty what Rosinni wants him to say)... Additionally, evil is necessary. If we are to love, then we must have free will. If we are to have free will, then we are to have evil. I agree with the spirit of what Rossini is saying, but he is missing what Paine is saying....

    1. Paine should have said "Even the best governments are evil."

      But he did not.

      He said a "necessary" evil.

      I didn't miss what he was saying.

    2. Paine was not making a philosophical point about the necessary existence of evil; he was conceding that governments are necessary as a prelude to advocating for a Continental Charter -- essential arguing that the power of government must be limited. By 2012 it should be clear that the American experiment in limited government has failed. Thomas Paine can perhaps be excused for not realizing limited government must fail, but we cannot be.

      For much of my life, I've heard the phrase "government is a necessary evil" uttered to justify existence of the state, and hadn't noticed that Paine is either the source of that woefully erroneous idea or, at least, endorsed it at the very beginning of Common Sense. It's not nitpicking to point out his error, in view of how the phrase has echoed down through history. Mr. Rossini has performed a valuable public service.

  8. Keep pushing your anarcho-capitalism. I reject the notion that libertarians must believe in anarchism to be "true" libertarians. Clearly that isn't the case on this blog.

    1. Imagine 100 families moving to a new planet. Someone has an idea to keep law and order: "Let's hand all our weapons over to the Jones family and they will have a monopoly on the use of violence. And if we have a dispute with them, a Jones family run court will decide who's right."

      Would you vote with the Jones family here or the anarchists? What's different about where we are now?

    2. Waah. Don't worry about that scorpion you're carrying; he won't sting you.

      Libertarianism is about property rights and the shunning of non-defensive aggression. There is no other kind.

      Art, I'm pretty sure he thinks a consitution or some other easily ignorable, pointless document will magically keep everything in order.

    3. By definition, wouldn't anarcho-capitalists NOT be "pushing" anything, other than back? ;รพ

  9. Ugh, really Chris? You're going to take issue with Paine writing that the best government can ever do is to be a necessary evil? Surely you jest. Thomas Paine isn't anarchist enough for you? Hmm... I wonder why you don't garner a larger following. If only there were a more valid target for your criticism...