Lessons from Thomas Paine: Our Democratic Aristocracy

O to have more Paine's Common Sense among us today; more nonpartisan, equal-opportunity debunkers of elitism and privilege and power, of left and right, of government and corporate interests, Camp says.

We need to recover and adapt Thomas Paine's critique of political power.

Paine delivered a devastating blow to the notion of the British monarchy, and its attendant aristocracy, with his "Common Sense."

Just as the granting of a monarchy in the Old Testament was a "curse in reserve" to the Israelites, so the setting up of a monarchy had been its own sort of curse to the British, and her colonies: the taxation, conscription and confiscation of property and men and women, leading to indulgence and ineptitude on the part of those who were supposed to govern.

To make matters worse, the British monarchy was propagated by hereditary succession: the accident of birth was the key to being the next monarch, and yet more stupidities unfolded from this inanity.

Born into a sense of privilege, succeeding generations were yet more removed from connections with real people with real concerns, thus ever more inept and indulgent.

Last, some maintained that monarchy and hereditary succession could foster peace and avoid civil war. But for Paine, this was "the most bare-faced falsity ever."

Instead, "monarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes. 'Tis a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against, and blood will attend it."

What if, instead of targeting "monarchy," we were to update Paine's sort of critiques?

What if instead of making the king the target of such criticism, we asked Paine's question of political power in our own day? Of the democratic aristocracy? Of the power of money?

Consider the "curse in reserve." Samuel's gloomy prognostication indicated that the Israelite monarchy would take 10 percent of everything: money, land and sons. O to have Samuel's problem. The average American effective tax rate is perhaps three times more.

We may have no king, but our presidency can assuredly out-do any old-world-monarch in pretension, security apparatus and lavish expenditure.

O for the good old days when the luxury entailed a mere array of great horses and carriages, a great cohort of attendants and nobility.

Our king's carriage has become a 747, his attendants the great host of the Secret Service, and his knights the capacity to push a button and destroy the earth.

A single one of Obama's trips to Palm Beach, Florida? Some $3 million. Trump's trips to Mar-a-Lago? $1 to $3 million each.

The cost of a brand-new ultra-secret bomber with brand-new-whiz-bang-blow-'em-up capabilities? We mere mortals are not permitted to have access to this super-secret information. But initial engineering and manufacturing development on this one bomber is more than $21 billion.

The annual cost of maintenance of the U.S. nuclear arsenal? $33 billion per year.

The solution to the "curse in reserve," of course, is not as simple as on paper tax cuts. This overlooks the mechanisms of power at work. The structure of tax policies has a profound impact upon who gets leverage and thus more power.

Consider the problem of accidental birth. While for Paine it was a rather idiotic conception that the child of a king should be assumed to be the next king, we might ask what such an observation might say to us today.

The whole notion of aristocracy - being born into privilege - is fundamentally problematic. Thankfully, we have no principle of hereditary succession.

Yet, clearly, we have democratic aristocracies. And these democratic aristocracies appear quite indebted to hereditary succession: one need only say "Bush." Or family connections: one need only say "Bill" and "Hillary," or "Trump" and "Kushner."

Consider too the elitism entailed in simply running for office: A single run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives is reported in numerous sources to run around a half-million dollars, and a run for U.S. Senate around $1.5 million. Spending for the 2016 campaigns - presidential, House and Senate races - totaled some $6.5 billion.

Perhaps more troubling are the disparities in wealth. A January 2016 report revealed "in 2015, just 62 people in the world had the same wealth as the poorer half of humanity - 3.6 billion people."

Meanwhile, the gap between the very wealthy and the poor continues to grow rapidly.

Globalization and change in technology are often cited for the inequalities. But Paine's "Common Sense" keeps pushing us to ask about inequitable concentrations of power.

And so asserts Robert Reich in his book, "Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few," "But this common explanation overlooks a critically important phenomenon: the increasing concentration of political power in a corporate and financial elite that has been able to influence the rules by which the economy runs."

Last, consider "the most bare-faced falsity ever" that the political power has "laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes. 'Tis a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against, and blood will attend it."

Again, what if we take the same sort of critique of the democratic aristocracy? A widely circulated account reports "The U.S. Has Been at War 222 Out of 239 Years."

This horrific fact, of course, cannot be separated from the moneyed interests in war. Eisenhower's farewell address from the White House regarding the moneyed interests of the "military-industrial complex" has proven prophetic.

The sorts of death, destruction and squandering of resources on war and weapons of war are inconceivable, indeed beyond all common sense.

Consider deaths from just the most recent warring: some 1 million killed in Iraq (a war begun on a false pretext), 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, as of March 2015.

O to have more Paine's Common Sense among us today; more nonpartisan, equal-opportunity debunkers of elitism and privilege and power, of left and right, of government and corporate interests.

Lee C. Camp is professor of theology and ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, and the host of Nashville's "Tokens Show." A longer version of this article first appeared on the Tokens Show blog and is used with permission. You may follow Lee on Facebook and Instagram at @LeeCCamp and follow Tokens Show on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube at @TokensShow.

Editor's note: This article is the first of a two-part series. Part two will appear tomorrow.

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Tags: Aristocracy, Democracy, Economics, Government, Lee Camp, Prophetic Witness, Taxation, Thomas Paine

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