Saturday, March 4, 2023

Quote of the Day (Thomas Paine, Foreseeing the Need for Social Security)

“The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together. Though I care as little about riches as any man, I am a friend to riches because they are capable of good. I care not how affluent some may be, provided that none be miserable in consequence of it. But it is impossible to enjoy affluence with the felicity it is capable of being enjoyed, while so much misery is mingled in the scene. The sight of the misery, and the unpleasant sensations it suggests, which, though they may be suffocated cannot be extinguished, are a greater drawback upon the felicity of affluence than the proposed ten per cent upon property is worth. He that would not give the one to get rid of the other has no charity, even for himself.”—English-born American patriot and pamphleteer Thomas Paine (1737-1809), Agrarian Justice Opposed to Agrarian Law, and to Agrarian Monopoly; Being a Plan for Meliorating the Condition of Man (1797)

Thomas Paine is most famous for laying out the case for American independence in Common Sense, then sustaining that cause through “the times that try men’s souls” in The Crisis Papers. Less well-known is his advocacy for bridging the growing gap between rich and poor through something like the modern welfare state.

Indeed, he has been called “The Father of Social Security,” and Agrarian Justice, one of his last great pamphlets, can be found on the Website of the Social Security Administration.

Paine was appalled not just by the wretched poverty he had seen in France and his native England, but also by religious rhetoric regarding it as the natural order of the world. (Indeed, he had thought of withholding publication until war had ceased between the two countries, but decided to express his thoughts immediately when he heard of a sermon by an English bishop entitled, “The Wisdom and Goodness of God, in having made both rich and poor.")

The French mathematician and philosopher Condorcet had preceded Paine in recommending a social insurance scheme for the aged and for young people just starting out in life, but Paine demonstrated for the first time how it might be economically feasible with a proposal for a 10% tax on inherited property.

His thinking was all the more remarkable because, as implied by the second and third sentences in the passage above, he had not in the slightest abandoned his belief in the right of private property.

It would take the worst excesses of the Industrial Revolution and the need to defuse the rising labor radicalism it unleashed for others to lay the political foundation for Paine’s prescient economic idea.

Now, it has taken such root with the American public that Senator Rick Scott was forced to exclude Social Security and Medicare from his proposal to “sunset” federal legislation, once it became a potential campaign target for the Democratic Party.

For more information on the background to Paine’s pioneering pamphlet, I recommend Bernard Vincent’s discussion in The Transatlantic Republic: Thomas Paine and the Age of Revolutions, and a 2014 interview with Brown University political scientist Alex Gourevitch on “The Junto,” a group blog on early American history.

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