Review of Rights of Man by Thomas Paine

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rightsofmanThe English-American political theorist Thomas Paine wrote Rights of Man in 1791. The pamphlet, written in defense of the French Revolution, became highly influential at the start of the American Revolution. Paine’s ideals persist in the transnational body of human rights organizations dispersed across the globe, all operating under the same Enlightenment-era philosophy.

Rights of Man begins with a note of gratitude written by Paine to George Washington. Paine commends the American President for defending freedom and hopes that America (the New World) universalizes the ideals of unalienable rights (3). Paine thinks that the old world, which is composed of monarchies and religious dictatorships or empires, is stagnant. In the old world, humans are stuck with their fortunes. People obey a king who inherits his throne, and they obey a pope or a priest who also inherits his post by divine right. This is not only unacceptable to Paine, but also unnatural. He states that nature has afforded every population the right to choose their own governments, to hold them accountable for misconduct, and to shape governments that prioritize the people’s prosperity (8). This is the new way of life, or the New World Order, which will be composed of civil societies instead of monarchies or religious governments. This is the enlightened way of life (from light) that will eliminate the ignorance (darkness) spread by old governments (whether monarchies or religious regimes).

The reason the old world is stagnant, Paine explains, is that the men who created the governments of the past are dead yet they expect every new generation to obey the sanctity of their rules and regulations. Paine writes, “That which a whole nation chooses to do, it has the right to do. [ . . . ] I am contending for the rights of the living and against their being willed away, and controlled and contracted for, by the manuscript assumed authority of the dead” (10). To yield to the concept of divine right that makes certain individuals masters (kings or popes) and everyone else a subject, Paine tells us, is irrational. Reason, on the other hand, places only the most adequate individual on a throne according to merit, not bloodline.

Paine’s Rights of Man opposes Edmund Burke’s position in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Unlike Paine who thinks that the destruction of the old world (as in, the governments of the past) is going to benefit all humankind, Burke looks at this project suspiciously. He differentiates between the ideals and the realities of their application and concludes that there lies a conspiracy, a hidden agenda behind the struggle for universal rights (23). How, asks Burke, are we supposed to believe that the revolution in France grew out of ideals and principles and submitted to the highest degrees of reason when the people reacted in the most bestial of manners? He questions the aim of the Revolution itself. Far from benefiting all humankind, Burke assumes that the Revolution targeted a specific caste of rulers merely to replace them with another. Paine warns Burke against his usage of the term “conspiracy.” It is not a conspiracy, says Paine, for an oppressed people to retaliate; it is therefore not a ‘plot’ against the old governments, but a rejection of exploitation (23). In addition, one must separate enlightened intellectuals from the mob: a group of individuals who learned their customs under the old regime. “The outrages,” writes Paine, “were not the effect of the principles of the Revolution, but of the degraded mind that existed before the Revolution, and which the Revolution is calculated to reform” (25).

Because God created Adam before he created societies, He endowed Adam and his whole kin with rights, says Paine (32). The illuminating principle of equal rights, then is “the unity of man”, which means “that men are all of one degree, and consequently that all men are born equal, and with equal natural rights, in the same manner as if posterity had been continued by creation instead of generation, the latter being only the mode by which the former is carried forward; and consequently every child born into the world must be considered as deriving its existence from God” (32). This set of rights (natural rights) precedes the privileges (civil rights) society bestows on its people (33).

Paine writes, “With respect to what are called denominations of religion, if everyone is left to judge their own religion, there is no such thing as a religion that is wrong; but if they are to judge of each other’s religion, there is no such thing as a religion that is right; and therefore all the world is right, or all the world is wrong” (50). The view of human rights’ activists on the fundamental quality of the freedom of belief stems from this particular viewpoint. If religions are a matter of faith, instead of reason, then people will disagree on fundamental matters and they are never going to compromise.

Everyone’s set of natural rights includes the freedom of belief, religion or worship (50). Today, natural rights include the freedom to disbelieve as well, but Paine did not argue for atheism (or agnosticism). Americans reviled him as an atheist, however, until his death in 1809. Furthermore, though he helped Americans to establish their republic, and though he consistently praised America for creating the Universal Rights of Citizenship (50), Americans denied him a citizenship and prevented him from voting (vii).

Pages 72-74 list the seventeen rights (of Man and of Citizens) granted by France’s National Assembly. I would like to focus on two points because they concern Kuwait. The first pertains to the economy’s role in the perfectibility of human kind. The second pertains to mixed governments.

Digression: The Magical Properties of Taxes

The introduction of taxes is currently a hot topic in Kuwait. Because of oil revenue, Kuwait created a super welfare state that offers its citizens free education, free healthcare, unemployment funds, housing, subsidized electricity, water, oil and food. Recently, Kuwait’s Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Mubarak Al Sabah discouraged the continuity of the country’s economic policy that offers cradle-to-the-grave type welfare to 1.2 million Kuwaitis. The list of suggestions to improve Kuwait’s economic “problems” include the usual neo-liberal favorites (the darlings of the Washington Consensus or IMF stratagems): privatize as much of the public sector as possible, decrease public spending (for sectors that cannot be privatized, such as defense), increase cost of services offered to the public (to increase efficiency of course) and introduce taxes.

Most Kuwaitis now believe that the country should introduce taxes. Their reasons are always the following: a) because taxes will improve the quality of the public sector, and b) because taxes will magically implant the population with moral codes and an ethos of responsibility.

If a Kuwaiti gives back part of his or her salary to the government, they often argue, then he or she will be more vigilant. Taxpayers are thus viewed as the moral vanguard against government waste and corruption.

In November 2013, I attended a lecture on the historical origins of Kuwait’s super-welfare state at the American University of Kuwait: “The Creation Of A Super-Welfare State: A Glimpse Into The Making Of A Modern Kuwait.” The lecturer Dr. Saleh Al-Nafisi listed three solutions to ward off Kuwait’s impending fiscal disaster.

The first was the imposition of taxes. The second was the creation of productive industries that would generate profit outside of oil. The third was a change in leadership.

I asked Dr. Al-Nafisi two related questions at the end of the lecture.

First, whether or not imposing a fiscal tax was the best method to eliminate corruption especially after the way that the US had handled its part in the global economic crisis. The corporations that had mishandled public funds, corporations which laid off workers (while cashing in millions of dollars’ worth of bonuses themselves), were actually bailed out by increasing taxes on the people whose funds had been mishandled. Hence, taxes are not the automatic or even manual method of moral reformation. George Bush’s $700 billion dollar bailout–ironically titled Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008–was later followed by Barrack Obama’s own bailout plan because the corporations that received the first bailout decided to withdraw the people’s taxes as bonuses instead of subsidies to stabilize the economy, exacerbating the financial situation even further. Thus, taxes, as seen in this example, can function as additional instruments of corruption precisely because they do not actually change, influence or improve anybody’s moral values.

My second question was whether or not Kuwait possessed lessons from its own national past that did not involve a fiscal solution, such as taxes, to help cultivate a more egalitarian and well-managed society. In other words, if the problem Kuwait faces today is moral in nature, might the solution reside in education, or awareness-raising campaigns and workshops, instead of the economy? If Kuwaitis have not always been neo-liberal (competitive, all about the money, and individualistic), what lessons in our own culture might teach us how to rectify the problem?

I asked this question because during the lecture, Dr Al-Nafisi told us that when oil became a primary mode of economic prosperity, the British agent in the country asked Kuwait’s ruler, Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem, to impose taxes. Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem said no, and explained that taxes contradicted our Arab traditions.

First, Dr. Al-Nafisi said, I should not compare Kuwait to the United States. (Just to be clear, I wasn’t comparing Kuwait to The United States. I was providing an example for my argument that taxes do not magically reform moral or ethical codes; so far from inculcating an apathetic population with responsibility, taxes might be used as instruments of further corruption. The United States’ two massive bailouts were merely examples of my argument.) Kuwait is unlike the United States, explained Dr. Al-Nafisi, because they have neoliberal politics; we don’t. (That is true. We do not yet have neo-liberal politics, but the introduction of taxes is the first among a list of neoliberal policies, such as privatizing the public sector, decreasing public spending for sectors that cannot be privatized, and increasing the cost of services offered to the public in the name of efficiency – all of which are mentioned not only in the IMF’s recommendations, but also in the Prime Minister’s report. So yes, even though we’re heading there, we cannot compare our economic state with US neoliberalism yet; but what has that got to do with my argument itself: that taxes can be used to enhance corruption, so are there no national or local methods to modify the population’s moral values?).

Dr. Al-Nafisi argued that taxes are aspects of our national identity (despite what Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem might have believed). In 1938, he said, when Kuwait was poor and people were literally starving to death, a group of Kuwaiti intellectuals convinced Kuwait’s ruler, Shaikh Ahmad Al-Jaber, to raise taxes so that the government offers the people certain services.

(Earlier in the lecture, Dr. Al-Nafisi mentioned two details that contradicted his point. First, that in 1938 Kuwait was under Great Britain’s protection. Hence, this example isn’t quite “national,” but rather, “colonial” or “quasi-colonial” in nature. Second, he exalted the intellectuals who suggested this to the ruler as graduates of foreign universities. This means that their ideas about taxes are obviously imported. What I did not understand at that point is why the lecturer continued to defend the imposition of taxes instead of considering alternatives. My question after all wasn’t “Are taxes a Western invention?” Rather, I asked the professor whether or not we possessed in our own history examples of a different method that would make the population more responsible. The passionate defense of taxes today stems from a point I want to underscore in Paine’s book: the belief in the economy.)

In a free market, Adam Smith explains, an invisible hand will regulate supply and demand, ensuring that everyone receives whatever one desires. The result of global commerce is eventually global peace, because everyone will be happy and prosperous, everyone will become moral. Wars will be nothing more than memories of a monarchic and religious past.

Paine sings the accolades of commerce with the same idolatrous fervor as Smith. “If commerce,” writes Paine, was “permitted to act to the universal extent it is capable, it would extirpate the system of war, and produce a Revolution in the uncivilized state of Governments” (166). It should be worth noting, however, that even though Paine assumed that the spreading of commerce would eventually yield world peace, he rejected the conceptually magical properties of taxation.

The British government had defended the idea of taxes particularly because, it argued, it made people moral. Paine contends that the only way for people to become moral is if their governments adopt better moral codes of conduct. He writes, “Notwithstanding the taxes of England amount to almost seventeen million a year, said to be for the expenses of Government, it is still evident that the sense of the nation is left to govern itself, and does govern itself, by magistrates and juries, almost at its own charge, by republican principles, exclusive of the expense of taxes” (87).

For Paine, it is rather modification of government policies that is required. “A Mixed Government,” he writes, “is an imperfect everything, cementing and soldiering the discordant parts together by corruption” (101). By mixed government, Paine means the triad structure of Britain’s government (somewhat similar to Kuwait’s). Britain at the time had a monarchy, and a parliament that was composed of two parts. In House of Commons, the common public elected themselves (akin to our own parliament). In House of Lords, the hereditary aristocracy elected themselves (akin to our ministries). At the end of the day, the hereditary king (akin to our prince) had legal power over both houses.

“In Mixed Governments” Paine warns, “there is no responsibility: the parts cover each other till responsibility is lost; and the corruption which moves the machine, contrives at the same time its own escape” (101). Hence, according to Paine, in order to eliminate corruption, and in order to teach the people responsibility, one must reform mixed governments, not to impose taxes.

In short, this is a remarkably influential book. I find it pertinent today, especially after the Arab Spring, to understand the implications of the doctrine of human rights. However, I also highly encourage its reading historically, or in context, that is, to go against Paine’s own vision and eschew disinterested idealism for engaged pragmatism. For instance, to recognize that in the very argument for freedom of worship is a very specific glorification of the Abrahamic religions. Paine, after all, claims that it is precisely because God had created Adam, before He had created societies (nations, empires, parishes, etc.), that we are all endowed with unalienable human rights. The freedom of worship itself is premised on a very singular understanding, which conceptually undermines the very argument for the unalienability of human rights. Additionally, one need to be very conscious of the separation of ideals and practice. Paine, after all, died declared an atheist by the United States and he was persistently forbidden to vote. There is something, though, in Paine’s discussions of mixed governments, hiding corruption by the murky dispersal of responsibilities across various bureaucracies. But herein lies the utmost conundrum. Does one then argue for reform or revolution?

rightsofmanTitleRights of Man

Author: Thomas Paine

Publisher: Wordsworth Classics

Year of Publication: 1997

Format: Paperback

Where to get it



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