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The Common Sense Entitlements of Thomas Paine

05/14/2013 04:59 pm ET | Updated Jul 14, 2013

"More and more able bodied people are becoming dependent upon the government...it will bankrupt the nation." -- Paul Ryan

"The poll found strong opposition to reductions in Medicare and Social Security benefits and strong support for taxing the rich." -- Kaiser Family Foundation poll

"Simply eliminating the payroll tax earnings cap would, according to the Congressional Budget Office, solve the financial crisis facing the Social Security system." -- New York Times

In 1797 Thomas Paine's Agrarian Justice was published, perhaps the final chapter in the development of his understanding of the path from revolution to social action. It was presented to a world of great cruelty and injustice, a world, not unlike ours, of great wealth and great poverty. The "corporations" of the 1790s were mainly agricultural estates, where lucky individuals reaped huge profits from the produce of the lands that they "owned." The poor, with little or no land to call their own, struggled to grow or barter enough to stay alive. And this was a world that controlled its poor through debtors' prisons, workhouses (sweatshops for the destitute) and harsh sentences, from flogging to prison to exile to death, for stealing even life's basic necessities.

In 1776 Paine had written the much-quoted line in Common Sense that "Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil," a line so loved by America's political conservatives. What they happily ignore is the fact that Paine, one of the world's greatest propagandists (in the positive sense of the word) was writing a pamphlet to rouse up the colonists against the rule of a distant and oppressive British government. He used anything at his command, including quotes from the scriptures that he would later attack as "a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind" and the idea that we, society, could do a better job of governing than a disinterested English monarch 3000 miles away.

But when the American and then French Revolutions did not lead to Paine's vision of true democracy, he turned his pen, in Rights of Man and Agrarian Justice, to specific ways to create more economically and socially just societies. And it would be through the actions of government.

"I had come to realize the importance of the Nation, and of shared, communal, social responsibility, to be held as equally important as individual concerns. The elderly, the widowed, newly married couples, the poor, the unemployed, disbanded soldiers and children, who would be required to attend school, must be provided for from state funds. And all this support is not the nature of charity, but of a right." -- Rights of Man, Part the Second, 1792

In other words, the people would receive Social Security, including widows' benefits, welfare, unemployment benefits, veterans' benefits and free education, plus a sum to every married couple to help them start out in life, and these would be rights, things that you were ENTITLED to. Not in any way a charity! Paid for through general taxation.

AND that our purpose in life was to help our fellow human beings:

"The greatest offence of all to the great Father is when we seek to torment and render each other miserable." -- Rights of Man, Part the Second, 1792

"There will be a National Fund to pay ever person at age 21 a sum as a compensation in part for the loss of his or her natural inheritance of land, and a sum per year to every person at age 50, and to those, blind and lame, who cannot provide income themselves, for the rest of their lives."

And how would these entitlements be financed?

Paine said, 75 years before Karl Marx:

"When land is improved through cultivation, it is the value of the improvement only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property. Every proprietor of cultivated land, therefore, owes the community a ground-rent for the land he holds. The Fund will also be financed by a tax of a tenth part on the value of all estates when they are passed on to relatives due to death. And this will be not a charity but a right, not bounty but justice." -- Agrarian Justice, 1797

So, again, these are ENTITLEMENTS, not in any way a charity. And Paine would tax corporations and family estates to raise the money, far more radical than our present system!

And today we have debate about cutting Social Security and Medicare, the entitlement programs paid for by, not corporations or family estates, but by working people out of their paychecks all through their working life. These people are OWED the money back from these programs. And when we read that the government will soon be paying out $6 to seniors to every $1 to children, it is somehow not mentioned that the seniors who will now receive it BACK have been paying it in for decades. This is yet another fine example of the Mark Twain quote

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

What is true is that Thomas Paine would be appalled by the continuing lack of equality in America, by the ever-growing power of corporations and the ever-increasing difficulty of maintaining life as a "middle class" American. And he would be appalled by the suggestion that entitlements lead to dependency, and by the fact that the very rich continue to do all they can to make sure that less goes to everyone else.

Again, as the Deist, NOT atheist, Paine said "The greatest offence of all to the great Father is when we seek to torment and render each other miserable." We still have some way to go.

Ian Ruskin is the Director of The Harry Bridges Project and The Life of Thomas Paine and will be performing his one-man plays about these two radical forgotten heroes in Los Angeles in May and June. Ticket information