Tom Paine’s Common Sense (Updated)

After re-reading Tom Paine’s Common Sense recently, it struck me that a paragraph-by-paragraph update of the original, as I have done with Sun Tzu's work, might be useful. This is the first chapter.

Common Sense, Updated

Common Sense, Original (Thomas Paine)

Of the Origin and Design of Government in General, with Concise Remarks on the American Constitution Of the Origin and Design of Government in General, with Concise Remarks on the English Constitution
We tend to confuse civilization and government. We must distinguish between them. They are not only different but they have different causes. Civilization addresses our needs. Government addresses our shortcomings. Civilization promotes our happiness positively by uniting our productive capabilities. The state protects us from unhappiness by restraining our destructive impulses. Civilization encourages transactions while the laws of government control transactions. Civilization is our benefactor while the state is the punisher.
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.

Civilization is a blessing in every nation, but government, even at its best, is only a necessary evil. At its worst, government can be intolerable. We suffer more under a bad government than we would under the anarchy of no government at all. Under a bad government, our suffering is always worse because our own taxes are used to finance our pain.

Government exists because we have flaws. Government is based on our inability to get along with one another. If we could agree on how we should treat one another and could live by those standards, we wouldn’t need government. Unfortunately, this is not the case. So we find it necessary to pay taxes to protect ourselves from one another. We choose to live under government because it seems less dangerous than living unprotect by the state.

Since providing for our safety is the purpose of government, it is easy to describe the best government. The best government secures our liberty and property with the least cost to our liberty and property.

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: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.


To understand the nature of government, let us perform a simple thought experiment. Imagine a small number of people who travel to a distant planet. They start a new civilization, out of contact with Earth. On this earthlike planet, they are the only people.

Given the freedom go anywhere, these people will naturally choose to work together to build a civilization. They would choose live and work together for a million reasons. The primary reason is that they can accomplish more together. They provide valuable companionship for each other. Each person needs the comfort and skills of the group, and the community needs the efforts of each person.

Four of five people, working together could erect buildings, explore their new world, finding and providing what they needed to survive. Where an individual working alone would struggle to survive, a group with a variety of skills might thrive. Even assuming they brought machines and technology with them, only the group would know enough to keep that technology alive.

A person working alone must provide for everything he or she needs for survival. Every event demands his or her limited time, derailing every long-term plan. His or her every misstep would be potentially fatal since he or she has no backup. Given complete freedom, no sane person would choose to sustain their lives alone without the help of others.

In order to gain a clear and just idea of the design and end of government, let us suppose a small number of persons settled in some sequestered part of the earth, unconnected with the rest; they will then represent the first peopling of any country, or of the world. In this state of natural liberty, society will be their first thought. A thousand motives will excite them thereto; the strength of one man is so unequal to his wants, and his mind so unfitted for perpetual solitude, that he is soon obliged to seek assistance and relief of another, who in his turn requires the same. Four or five united would be able to raise a tolerable dwelling in the midst of a wilderness, but one man might labour out the common period of life without accomplishing any thing; when he had felled his timber he could not remove it, nor erect it after it was removed; hunger in the mean time would urge him to quit his work, and every different want would call him a different way. Disease, nay even misfortune, would be death; for, though neither might be mortal, yet either would disable him from living, and reduce him to a state in which he might rather be said to perish than to die.

Our interplanetary pioneers would create their civilization out of their necessity. Like gravity, their needs pull them together. They each need each other, but they wouldn’t need law or government at all if they treated each other perfectly justly.

Unfortunately, being human, our explorers would not be perfect. Conflict among them would be inevitable. While these conflicts might remain beneath the surface as they struggled to survive, once they had met their basic needs, their problems would naturally emerge. Their egotism, laziness, selfishness, jealousy, different priorities, and other differences would create difficulties. At some point our pioneers would have to create some form of government to deal with these conflicts.

Thus necessity, like a gravitating power, would soon form our newly arrived emigrants into society, the reciprocal blessings of which would supersede, and render the obligations of law and government unnecessary while they remained perfectly just to each other; but as nothing but Heaven is impregnable to vice, it will unavoidably happen that in proportion as they surmount the first difficulties of emigration, which bound them together in a common cause, they will begin to relax in their duty and attachment to each other: and this remissness will point out the necessity of establishing some form of government to supply the defect of moral virtue.
At first, a meeting place under any convenient tree would give them all the government they needed. They would meet to discuss their problems getting along. Their first laws would be simple rules about standards of behavior. They would need little more enforcement than peer pressure. In this first government, everyone would have their say. "
Some convenient tree will afford them a State House, under the branches of which the whole Colony may assemble to deliberate on public matters. It is more than probable that their first laws will have the title only of Regulations and be enforced by no other penalty than public disesteem. In this first parliament every man by natural right will have a seat.

But as this new space colony grows, their problems would grow as well. As their civilization spread out, it would become more and more difficult for them all to meet all the time. As a matter of convenience, they would choose representatives and give them the authority to represent their interests. Those representatives would speak for those who could not attend any given meeting,

If this space colony continued growing and expanding into new areas, they would increase their number of representatives so the every part of the colony could be represented. Legislative sessions would grow longer, dealing with more complex issues. The colonists would organize their system of representation to represent its increasingly diverse communities. To prevent their representatives from developing own interests separate from those they resented, elections would be frequent. In a few weeks or months, representatives would return to their communities and regular responsibilities. Being a part of that community, they would not make laws that would be a burden on themselves. The frequent changing of representatives would assure that the different interests of every part of each community were heard. Their shared interest in making their lives better would create government under which they could live happily.

But as the Colony encreases, the public concerns will encrease likewise, and the distance at which the members may be separated, will render it too inconvenient for all of them to meet on every occasion as at first, when their number was small, their habitations near, and the public concerns few and trifling. This will point out the convenience of their consenting to leave the legislative part to be managed by a select number chosen from the whole body, who are supposed to have the same concerns at stake which those have who appointed them, and who will act in the same manner as the whole body would act were they present. If the colony continue encreasing, it will become necessary to augment the number of representatives, and that the interest of every part of the colony may be attended to, it will be found best to divide the whole into convenient parts, each part sending its proper number: and that the ELECTED might never form to themselves an interest separate from the ELECTORS, prudence will point out the propriety of having elections often: because as the ELECTED might by that means return and mix again with the general body of the ELECTORS in a few months, their fidelity to the public will be secured by the prudent reflection of not making a rod for themselves. And as this frequent interchange will establish a common interest with every part of the community, they will mutually and naturally support each other, and on this, (not on the unmeaning name of king,) depends the STRENGTH OF GOVERNMENT, AND THE HAPPINESS OF THE GOVERNED.
This then is the purpose of government. This is why it arises. We need it because we are not perfect. We do not perfectly agree on what must be done. The goal of government is to provide for our individual freedom and security. Don’t be dazzled about claims that the government can solve all of the world’s problems. Such claims only confuse us. It is nature not government that dictates how the world works.
Here then is the origin and rise of government; namely, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world; here too is the design and end of government, viz. Freedom and security. And however our eyes may be dazzled with show, or our ears deceived by sound; however prejudice may warp our wills, or interest darken our understanding, the simple voice of nature and reason will say, 'tis right.
The best form of government is the simplest. No one can argue otherwise. The simpler something is, the less likely it is to break. When it does break, it is easier to repair. This is the most important idea behind the American Constitution. It was a noble idea in the dark and slavish times in which it was written. In a world naturally overrun by tyranny, it offered all of humanity a glorious rescue.

No one can deny that we no longer have a simple government. We have created an increasingly complex, broken bureaucracy that handicaps society and is incapable of producing what it promises,

I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature which no art can overturn, viz. that the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered; and with this maxim in view I offer a few remarks on the so much boasted constitution of England. That it was noble for the dark and slavish times in which it was erected, is granted. When the world was overrun with tyranny the least remove therefrom was a glorious rescue. But that it is imperfect, subject to convulsions, and incapable of producing what it seems to promise is easily demonstrated.

Absolute tyranny is terrible but at least it is simple. People suffering under it know the source of their suffering. They also know how to end their suffering. They are not bewildered by a variety of social causes and government programs.

But the government of the US has become so complex, that we suffer for years without being able to clearly identify what aspect of government is failing us. So will say the problems are too much regulation. Others will say the problem is too little. Every political physician will offer a different prescription.

Absolute governments, (tho' the disgrace of human nature) have this advantage with them, they are simple; if the people suffer, they know the head from which their suffering springs; know likewise the remedy; and are not bewildered by a variety of causes and cures. But the constitution of England is so exceedingly complex, that the nation may suffer for years together without being able to discover in which part the fault lies; some will say in one and some in another, and every political physician will advise a different medicine.
I know it is difficult to get over long standing political prejudices, but if we really look at what the components of our government have become, we shall find them to be more like the ancient tyrannies they replaced than their original constitutional component.
I know it is difficult to get over local or long standing prejudices, yet if we will suffer ourselves to examine the component parts of the English Constitution, we shall find them to be the base remains of two ancient tyrannies, compounded with some new Republican materials.
First. — The federal system of departments and programs that remains regardless of who is elected. First. — The remains of Monarchical tyranny in the person of the King.
Second. — Government-dependent unions, corporations, organizations, and professions (in the law, academia, accounting, etc.) that staff, supply, and lobby the government.
Secondly. — The remains of Aristocratical tyranny in the persons of the Peers.
Third. — The incumbent representative of both parties who are continually reelected by exchanging taxpayer dollars for political contributions.
Thirdly. — The new Republican materials, in the persons of the Commons, on whose virtue depends the freedom of England.
All three are benefactors of growing the power of government. Their interests are different from those of the people and in opposition to our freedom. The two first, by being hereditary, are independent of the People; wherefore in a CONSTITUTIONAL SENSE they contribute nothing towards the freedom of the State.
To say that the American Constitution is a balance of three powers checking each other is farcical. Either these words have no meaning, or they are flat contradictions.
To say that the constitution of England is an UNION of three powers, reciprocally CHECKING each other, is farcical; either the words have no meaning, or they are flat contradictions.
First. — Our laws have grown so numerous, so dense, and so complex that the legislators cannot even read the bills on which they are voting, much less any one understand the rule of law.
First. — That the King it not to be trusted without being looked after; or in other words, that a thirst for absolute power is the natural disease of monarchy.
Second — The officials in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches all depend upon the same bureaucracy and dependent special interests for their information and expertise.
Secondly. — That the Commons, by being appointed for that purpose, are either wiser or more worthy of confidence than the Crown.
The American Constitution gives Congress the power of passing budgets, which limits the power of the Executive branch, increasingly the budget goes directly to the bureaucracy, and no power restricts government from spending more money than it has. The volumes of money are so large and the bureaucratic structure so complex that no one even pretends that money isn’t lost. It is absurd!
But as the same constitution which gives the Commons a power to check the King by withholding the supplies, gives afterwards the King a power to check the Commons, by empowering him to reject their other bills; it again supposes that the King is wiser than those whom it has already supposed to be wiser than him. A mere absurdity!
Attempting to run a country the size of the USA from a central government is ridiculous. First, we insulate our elected officials from the people and our everyday matters. Then the government makes increasingly intimate decisions about those everyday matters. The lives of the political class separate them from the world but the decisions that they make require godlike knowledge of the world. The whole pretense that life-long politicians know how to spend our money for our benefit better than we do is absurd and useless.
There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition of Monarchy; it first excludes a man from the means of information, yet empowers him to act in cases where the highest judgment is required. The state of a king shuts him from the World, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly; wherefore the different parts, by unnaturally opposing and destroying each other, prove the whole character to be absurd and useless.
Some say the American Constitution offers a progressive view of government. They claim that since the government operates for the common good that what is good for the government is good for the nation. They make this sound very pleasant, yet, if we examine this view, it is meaningless.

Politicians are in the profession of making bigger government under the justification of saying that it is making government better. They are in the business of constructing phrases that make all growth sound very beneficial, whether their solutions work or not and whether their words makes sense or not.

Why were the founders so concerned about keeping the government in check if the government always promotes the common good? Such a power was not intended by our wise founders, neither can any power, which needs checking, always be for the common good, yet the “common good” provision of the constitution supposes such a power to exist.

Some writers have explained the English constitution thus: the King, say they, is one, the people another; the Peers are a house in behalf of the King, the commons in behalf of the people; but this hath all the distinctions of a house divided against itself; and though the expressions be pleasantly arranged, yet when examined they appear idle and ambiguous; and it will always happen, that the nicest construction that words are capable of, when applied to the description of something which either cannot exist, or is too incomprehensible to be within the compass of description, will be words of sound only, and though they may amuse the ear, they cannot inform the mind: for this explanation includes a previous question, viz. HOW CAME THE KING BY A POWER WHICH THE PEOPLE ARE AFRAID TO TRUST, AND ALWAYS OBLIGED TO CHECK? Such a power could not be the gift of a wise people, neither can any power, WHICH NEEDS CHECKING, be from God; yet the provision which the constitution makes supposes such a power to exist.
But the common good doesn’t justify this work. A constantly growing federal government either cannot or will not promote the common good. It is suicide. A greater weight will always over balance a lesser. All the wheels of a car are driven by a single engine. To understand the power of the government, we must only understand whose interests carry the most weight. That controls the rest. The people’s interest in freedom may slow the machine or check how quickly it grows, but so long as we cannot reduce its scope and power, our efforts will be meaningless: The interests of those benefiting from more government will win. The process may be slow but they have all the time they need.
But the provision is unequal to the task; the means either cannot or will not accomplish the end, and the whole affair is a Felo de se: for as the greater weight will always carry up the less, and as all the wheels of a machine are put in motion by one, it only remains to know which power in the constitution has the most weight, for that will govern: and tho' the others, or a part of them, may clog, or, as the phrase is, check the rapidity of its motion, yet so long as they cannot stop it, their endeavours will be ineffectual: The first moving power will at last have its way, and what it wants in speed is supplied by time.
That the federal government has become dominant force in America is obvious. Its power comes entirely from using taxpayer money to perpetuate itself. This is self-evident. If we have been wise, we would prevent elected officials from distributing funds to those who support their re-election and government programs from spending taxpayer money to promote their growth. We have been foolish in letting them use our money to further their own interests.
That the crown is this overbearing part in the English constitution needs not be mentioned, and that it derives its whole consequence merely from being the giver of places and pensions is self-evident; wherefore, though we have been wise enough to shut and lock a door against absolute Monarchy, we at the same time have been foolish enough to put the Crown in possession of the key.
The respect of Americans for their political parties arises as much or more from pride than reason. Individuals are undoubtedly still freer in America than in some other countries: but the power of the government is growing as great here as it is under some dictatorships. Instead of being rules by a single man, we are ruled by an oligarchy and its attendant occupations. Its control over us is more subtle — not more just. The prejudice of Englishmen, in favour of their own government, by King, Lords and Commons, arises as much or more from national pride than reason. Individuals are undoubtedly safer in England than in some other countries: but the will of the king is as much the law of the land in Britain as in France, with this difference, that instead of proceeding directly from his mouth, it is handed to the people under the formidable shape of an act of parliament. For the fate of Charles the First hath only made kings more subtle — not more just.
Laying aside our pride and prejudice in favor of our political party and our representatives, the plain truth is that America’s success of it is wholly owing to the American people not the federal government. Wherefore, laying aside all national pride and prejudice in favour of modes and forms, the plain truth is that IT IS WHOLLY OWING TO THE CONSTITUTION OF THE PEOPLE, AND NOT TO THE CONSTITUTION OF THE GOVERNMENT that the crown is not as oppressive in England as in Turkey.

We need to discuss the structural problems of the federal form of government. We cannot do this successfully if we need defend one political party over another. To do so is like a man who only associates with prostitutes discussing the characteristics of a good wife. ­­

An inquiry into the CONSTITUTIONAL ERRORS in the English form of government, is at this time highly necessary; for as we are never in a proper condition of doing justice to others, while we continue under the influence of some leading partiality, so neither are we capable of doing it to ourselves while we remain fettered by any obstinate prejudice. And as a man who is attached to a prostitute is unfitted to choose or judge of a wife, so any prepossession in favour of a rotten constitution of government will disable us from discerning a good one.