Society Is a Blessing, But Government Is Evil

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This excerpt
from the writings of Thomas Paine can be found in the third chapter
of Liberty
and the Great Libertarians
, edited by Charles T. Sprading.

great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect
of government. It had its origin in the principles of society, and
the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government,
and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The
mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has in man and
all the parts of a civilized community upon each other create that
great chain of connection which holds it together.

The landholder,
the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every
occupation prospers by the aid which each receives from the other,
and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and
forms their laws; and the laws which common usage ordains, have
a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine, society
performs for itself almost everything that is ascribed to government.

To understand
the nature and quantity of government proper for man it is necessary
to attend to his character. As nature created him for social life,
she fitted him for the station she intended. In all cases she made
his natural wants greater than his individual powers. No one man
is capable, without the aid of society, of supplying his own wants;
and those wants acting upon every individual impel the whole of
them into society, as naturally as gravitation acts to a center.

But she has
gone further. She has not only forced man into society by a diversity
of wants, which the reciprocal aid of social affections, which,
though not necessary to his existence, are essential to his happiness.
There is no period in life when this love for society ceases to
act. It begins and ends with our being.

If we examine,
with attention, into the composition and constitution of man, the
diversity of talents in different men for reciprocally accommodating
the wants of each other, his propensity to society, and consequently
to preserve the advantages resulting from it, we shall easily discover
that a great part of what is called government is mere imposition.

is no further necessary than to supply the few cases to which society
and civilization are not conveniently competent; and instances are
not wanting to show that everything which government can usefully
add thereto, has been performed by the common consent of society,
without government.

For upwards
of two years from the commencement of the American war, and a longer
period in several of the American states, there were no established
forms of government. The old governments had been abolished, and
the country was too much occupied in defense to employ its attention
in establishing new governments; yet, during this interval, order
and harmony were preserved as inviolate as in any country in Europe.
There is a natural aptness in man, and more so in society, because
it embraces a greater variety of abilities and resources, to accommodate
itself to whatever situation it is in. The instant formal government
is abolished, society begins to act. A general association takes
place, and common interest produces common security.

So far is it
from being true, as has been pretended, that the abolition of any
formal government is the dissolution of society, it acts by contrary
impulse, and brings the latter the closer together. All that part
of its organization which it had committed to its government, devolves
again upon itself, and acts as from reciprocal benefits, have habituated
themselves to social and civilized life, there is always enough
of its principles in practice to carry them through any changes
they may find necessary or convenient to make in their government.
In short, man is so naturally a creature of society that it is almost
impossible to put him out of it.

Formal government
makes but a small part of civilized life; and when even the best
that human wisdom can devise is established, it is a thing more
in name and idea than in fact. It is to the great and fundamental
principles of society and civilization – to the common usage
universally consented to, and mutually and reciprocally maintained
– to the unceasing circulation of interest, which passing through
its innumerable channels, invigorates the whole mass of civilized
man – it is to these things, infinitely more than anything
which even the best instituted government can perform, that the
safety and prosperity of the individual and of the whole depends.

The more perfect
civilization is, the less occasion has it for government, because
the more does it regulate its own affairs, and govern itself; but
so contrary is the practice of old governments to the reason of
the case, that the expenses of them increase in the proportion they
ought to diminish. It is but few general laws that civilized life
requires, and those of such common usefulness, that whether they
are enforced by the forms of government or not, the effect will
be nearly the same. If we consider what the principles are that
first condense man into society, and what the motives that regulate
their mutual intercourse afterwards, we shall find, by the time
we arrive at what is called government, that nearly the whole of
the business is performed by the natural operation of the parts
upon each other.

Man, with respect
to all those matters, is more a creature of consistency than he
is aware of, or that governments would wish him to believe. All
the great laws of society are the laws of nature. Those of trade
and commerce, whether with respect to the intercourse of individuals
or of nations, are laws of mutual and reciprocal interest. They
are followed and obeyed because it is the interest of the parties
so to do, and not on account of any formal laws their governments
may impose or interpose.

But how often
is the natural propensity to society disturbed or destroyed by the
operations of government! When the latter, instead of being engrafted
on the principles of the former, assumes to exist for itself, and
acts by partialities of favor and oppression, it becomes the cause
of the mischiefs it ought to prevent.

If we look
back to the riots and tumults which at various times have happened
in England, we shall find, that they did not proceed from the want
of a government, but that government was itself the generating cause;
instead of consolidating society, it divided it; it deprived it
of its natural cohesion, and engendered discontents and disorders,
which otherwise would not have existed. In those associations which
men promiscuously form for the purpose of trade or of any concern,
in which government is totally out of the question, and in which
they act merely on the principles of society, we see how naturally
the various parties unite; and this shows, by comparison, that governments,
so far from always being the cause or means of order, are often
the destruction of it. The riots of 1780 had no other source than
the remains of those prejudices that the government itself had encouraged.
But with respect to England there are also other causes.

Excess and
inequality of taxation, however disguised in the means, never fail
to appear in their effect. As a great mass of the community are
thrown thereby into poverty and discontent, they are constantly
on the brink of commotion; and, deprived, as they unfortunately
are, of the means of information, are easily heated to outrage.
Whatever the apparent cause of any riots may be, the real one is
always want of happiness. It shows that something is wrong in the
system of government, which injures the felicity by which society
is to be preserved.

Having thus
endeavored to show, that the social and civilized state of man is
capable of performing within itself, almost everything necessary
to its protection and government, it will be proper, on the other
hand, to take a review of the present old governments, and examine
whether their principles and practice are correspondent thereto.

It is impossible
that such governments as have hitherto existed in the world, could
have commenced by any other means than a total violation of every
principle, sacred and moral. The obscurity, in which the origin
of all the present old governments is buried, implies the iniquity
and disgrace with which they began. The origin of the present governments
of America and France will ever be remembered, because it is honorable
to record it; but with respect to the rest, even flattery has consigned
them to the tomb of time, without an inscription.

It could have
been no difficult thing in the early and solitary ages of the world,
while the chief employment of men was that of attending flocks and
herds, for a banditti of ruffians to overrun a country, and lay
it under contribution. Their power being thus established, the chief
of the band contrived to lose the name of robber in that of monarch;
and hence the origin of monarchy and kings.

The origin
of the government of England, so far as it relates to what is called
its line of monarchy, being one of the latest, is perhaps the best
recorded. The hatred which the Norman invasion and tyranny begat,
must have been deeply rooted in the nation, to have outlived the
contrivance to obliterate it. Though not a courtier will talk of
the curfew bell, not a village in England has forgotten it.

Those bands
of robbers having parceled out the world, and divided it into dominions,
began, as is naturally the case, to quarrel with each other. What
at first was obtained by violence was considered by others as lawful
to be taken, and a second plunderer succeeded the first. They alternately
invaded the dominions which each had assigned to himself, and the
brutality with which they treated each other explains the original
character of monarchy. It was ruffian torturing ruffian.

The conqueror
considered the conquered not as his prisoner, but his property.
He led him in triumph rattling in chains, and doomed him, at pleasure,
to slavery or death. As time obliterated the history of their beginning,
their successors assumed new appearances, to cut off the entail
of their disgrace, but their principles and objects remained the
same. What at first was plunder assumed the softer name of revenue;
and the power they originally usurped, they affected to inherit.

From such beginning
of governments, what could be expected, but a continual system of
war and extortion? It has established itself into a trade. The vice
is not peculiar to one more than to another, but is the common principle
of all. There does not exist within such governments a stamina whereon
to engraft reformation; and the shortest and most effectual remedy
is to begin anew.

What scenes of horror, what perfection of iniquity, present themselves
in contemplating the character, and reviewing the history of such
governments! If we would delineate human nature with a baseness
of heart, and hypocrisy of countenance, that reflection would shudder
at and humanity disown, it is kings, courts, and cabinets that must
sit for the portrait. Man, as he is naturally, with all his faults
about him, is not up to the character.

Can we possibly
suppose that if government had originated in a right principle,
and had not an interest in pursuing a wrong one, that the world
could have been in the wretched and quarrelsome condition we have
seen it? What inducement has the farmer, while following the plow,
to lay aside his peaceful pursuits and go to war with the farmer
of another country? Or what inducement has the manufacturer? What
is dominion to them or to any class of men in a nation? Does it
add an acre to any man’s estate, or raise its value? Are not conquest
consequence? Though this reasoning may be good to a nation, it is
not so to a government. War is the faro table of governments, and
nations the dupes of the game.

If there is
anything to wonder at in this miserable scene of governments, more
than might be expected, it is the progress that the peaceful arts
of agriculture, manufactures, and commerce have made, beneath such
a long accumulating load of discouragement and oppression. It serves
to show that instinct in animals does not act with stronger impulse
than the principles of society and civilization operate in man.
Under all discouragements, he pursues his object, and yields to
nothing but impossibilities.

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 trade of
governing has always been monopolized by the most ignorant and the
most rascally individuals of mankind.

7, 2008

Thomas Paine
(1737–1809) was an English pamphleteer, revolutionary, radical,
and classical liberal. Born in the market town of Thetford, England,
he migrated to the American colonies at the age of 37, just in time
to take part in the American Revolution. His main contribution was
as the author of the powerful, widely read pamphlet, "Common
Sense" (1776), advocating independence for the American colonies
from Great Britain. He is also known for "The American Crisis"
(1776–1783), a series of pamphlets supporting the American
Revolution, and "The Rights of Man" (1791) defending the
early French Revolution.

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