Monday, July 20, 2009

Tax Justice in History: Thomas Paine, Citizen of the Enlightened World

At length came a cart . . . on the flake of which behind, was placed the figure of a man, which I thought was a real living being. A rabble which followed the cart kept throwing stones at the figure and shouting "Tum Pain a Jacobin", "Tum Paine a thief" . . . whilst others with guns and pistols kept discharging them at the figure.
They took care to stop when they came to the residence of a reformer (Samuel Bamford recalling an anti-Paine demonstration in 1793)

Thomas Paine, who died two hundred years ago, was an honest man living in dishonest times. Son of a master craftsman staymaker (stays are the heavily ribbed undergarments worn in the 18th century by ladies of fashion to create a heavy bosomed, light waisted shape) he progressed, via grammar school and a brief period as crew member on the privateer The King of Prussia, to becoming one of the most successful pamphleteers of all time, author of amongst others Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason.

Paine was ahead of his time on many things, not least in arguing, as he did in The Rights of Man, that "a body of men, holding themselves accountable to nobody, ought not to be trusted by anybody." This argument, alongside the call for no taxation without representation, which Paine supported closely, is central to tax justice: there is a huge, and growing, body of evidence that tax lies at the nexus between citizens and state and helps foster stronger accountability and better governance.

Paine's writings and extraordinary charisma inspired revolutions in both America and France. But he did more than inspire; he also enlisted alongside George Washington in the colonialists' struggle for independence, and, that done, returned to England to try his hand at design and engineering. And he could have prospered at doing this, had Edmund Burke not provoked him into coming to the defence of the French Revolution in a manner which caused the hysterical British Establishment to issue a warrant on the grounds that Paine was inciting unrest against the English monarchy. In September 1792 Paine fled via Dover to France and was almost immediately elected to the Revolutionary National Convention. Those were exciting times.

A few years ago this blogger was invited to address the Headstrong Club in Lewes, the town in Sussex, England, where Paine was posted during a stint of working as an exciseman. Paine regularly took part in the club's events at the White Hart Inn, and frequently emerged as its General of the Headstrong War. More importantly, however, in Lewes he began to learn his craft as a writer and pamphleteer, drafting a petition on behalf of underpaid tax collectors - The Case of the Officers of Excise - which includes the argument, extraordinarily modern for its time, that even if governments don't want to tackle poverty for moral reasons, they should do it on the purely pragmatic grounds that it would lower crime rates:

Poverty, in defiance of principle, begets a degree of meanness that will stoop to almost anything . . . He who has never hungered may argue finely on the subjection of his appetite; and he who never was distressed may harangue as beautifully on the power of principle. But poverty, like grief, has an incurable deafness, which never hears; the oration loses all its edge; and 'To be, or not to be' becomes the only question.

These words resonate in many developing countries today, not least with tax officials and other government officials whose salaries have been pegged at ludicrously low levels by IMF imposed fiscal constraints, and who are forced to "stoop to almost anything" to keep their families fed. Some lessons are apparently never learnt, above all by those ideologists who argue that the rich need to earn more to incentivise their efforts, whilst the poor should be paid less to get them to work harder.

Unfortunately for Paine his petition failed miserably, so, armed with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, he upped-sticks to Philedelphia in the United States, where he successfully re-launched himself as editor of the radical Pennsylvania Magazine, attacking a wide spectrum of injustices, not least slavery:

That some desperate wretches should be willing to steal and enslave men by violence and murder for gain, is rather lamentable than strange. But that many civilized, nay, Christianized people should approve, and be concerned in the savage practice, is surprising. (March 1775)

The roots of what we know as the American Revolution lie in the chronic debt of the British state. Despite having won the Seven Years War, His Majesty's Exchequer found itself indebted to the tune of a cool £140 million -- equivalent to £30 billion in today's money -- and the government's annual expenditure had more than doubled during the war. The First Lord of the Treasury at that time, George Grenville, was caught between a rock and a hard place. Attempts to increase excise duties in Britain, for example a new duty on cider, had brought rioting mobs out onto the streets, causing much stress amongst the London property owning class.

So Grenville embarked on a tax cutting agenda in Britain, but to balance the books he opted for a tax raising agenda for the colonies. In 1765 he introduced a colonial Stamp Act instituting an excise on paper products - newspapers included - which added fuel to a fire ignited a year earlier by the imposition of higher tariffs on sugar, molasses and rum. These higher tariffs, on rum in particular, led to an increase in smuggling, which in turn led to the trial of two alleged Bostonian smugglers, whose defence lawyer James Otis took a head-on line of defence by announcing at the trial that "taxation without representation is tyranny!"

The 1765 Stamp Act triggered a successful boycott of British goods, organised by Samuel Adams. Adams, like Paine a former British exciseman and progressive thinker, enforced the boycott by labelling merchants who did not sign up as "Enemies to American Liberty", and organised direct actions against the offices of crown agents.

Paine supported the boycott, arguing that since the Americans had right and justice on their side, and were sufficiently economically independent to be able to afford to break from Britain, they should seize the moment to push for full independence. Independence was justified, he said, because the ancien regime imposed by the British was so corrupt and unjust that it could only be imposed on the colonies by coercion and force - the "armed banditti" he spoke about in The Rights of Man.

The time had come, said Paine, to dispense with government by tyranny, and its replacement with government by elected and properly accountable representatives of the people. Unlike his later protagonist Edmund Burke, who favoured gradual, organic changes, Paine recognised how adept ruling classes were (and still are) at co-opting newly emerging interests into supporting their privileges. The old ways, he argued, fostered 'old corruption', sustaining a status quo that favoured the rentier classes over all others. No wonder the British ruling class felt itself so threatened by his pen that they fell back on the time honoured way of silencing critics: Paine was charged with seditious libel "being a wicked, seditious, and ill-disposed person, and wickedly, seditiously, and maliciously intending to scandalise, traduce, and vilify the character of (the monarch), and the said Happy (Glorious) Revolution, and the Parliament of England . . ."

Challenged by opposition leader Charles James Fox to justify this charge, Prime Minister William Pitt (the Younger) answered that "principles had been lain down by Mr Paine which struck at hereditary nobility, and which went to the destruction of monarchy and religion, and the total subversion of the established form of government." Pitt was prepared to stop at nothing to stamp out Paine's progressive ideas. In response to The Rights of Man his officials incited the mobs (see the opening section above) and supported the "Association for Preserving Liberty and Property Against Republicans and Levellers" (a group which sounds rather like our old friends, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity) in sponsoring riots and general mayhem targeted at reformers in general and Thomas Paine in particular.

Studying this period of history for A Level I was struck by the wild divergence of views on Paine. His enemies, and boy did he have an address book full of them, described Paine as "cocksure", a rabble rouser, "egotistical", a "disastrous meteor", a "dirty little atheist" (that from nice, cuddly 'Teddy' Roosevelt), and portrayed him as a drunkard and lower class upstart. To friends and supporters, however, he was a brilliant hero of outstanding integrity. Bertrand Russell said this of him:

To all these champions of the oppressed Paine set an example of courage, humanity and single-mindedness. When public issues were involved, he forgot personal prudence. The world decided, as it usually does in such cases, to punish him for his lack of self-seeking; to this day his fame is less than it should have been if his character had been less generous. (The Fate of Thomas Paine)

Given the appalling circumstances of the current moment - the chronic levels of public and private debt, the endless meddling in the affairs of other countries, the corrupt and rotten nature of so many of our institutions, the shocking levels of inequality, and the long-standing neglect of the ecology that sustains us, Paine's proclamation that "we have it in our power to begin the world over again" is a message of hope for us all.

So let's hear it for Thomas Paine, citizen of the Enlightenment.


Blogger Physiocrat said...

Begin the world over again - hmm. Let's start by ending the assumptions that (1) so-called ability to pay tax systems are what they claim to be and (2) that the taxation of human labour is just.

7:34 am  
Blogger TJN said...


OK. Let's explore this further. How would you like to write a blog for us on Henry George and the Georgist ideas as part of our Tax Justice in History series?

best wishes


7:10 am  
Anonymous グリー said...


5:31 am  

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