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23 December 2007

Thomas Paine & the Declaration of the Rights of Man

I am reading Christopher Hitchen's Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: A Biography. Paine's writings were highly influential in creating the world we know today, where equality before the law and democracy are normal. I'm also dipping into the The Thomas Paine Reader to access the original writings. I did read Paine's works many years ago at Sydney Uni when studyin history, which itself is almost ancient history, but Paine's writings have a freshness that stands the test of time.

So many of the ideas we take for granted in Western society were denied to people in Paine's time. Indeed, he was forced to flee his homeland for merely asserting that man (and he did talk about men in the way of his time) had certain basic and irrefutable rights.

His ideas were foundational in the development of the United States, and informed much of their political and legal culture.

He also argued against the British system by which the people occasionally managed to wrest a concession from the ruling hierarchy: e.g. Magna Carta, and the Bill of Rights 1688.

Now that I am studying law and living in an Australia that has been gradually abrogating rule of law, it seems to me that his arguments might have some truth.

No doubt Paine was a radical, even by today's standards. But he did stand firm on his belief that man had inalienable rights and that true nobility came from the 'democratic floor' rather than hereditary titles.

I can only hope that one day Australians will have acknowledged rights that are protected by the full power of the state and which cannot be changed at the whim of the current government without the full and informed consent of the populace. This means that these rights need to guaranteed by something other than mere legislation, which can be changed through parliamentary process without consulting the populace. I don't know the answer, but I do know that Australians need their rights to be defined and protected.

via Aide-mémoire

2 comments:

miseshayek said...

I appreciate your blog entry and agree with it in many ways. However [you knew there was going to be a "however," no?], I do not agree that government is now or ever properly conceived as a protector of acknowledged rights.

Government is a deal with the devil. It is set up in order to counter the force of violent men who would like to make a living through plundering the property of others and using the persons of others as their play things. However, it, itself, is potentially the greatest source of such abuses.

Paine and his contemporaries were wrong in believing that a mere change in the form of government - from monarchy to republicanism - would cure this ill. They were right, however, in emphasizing that the only ultimate cure is an educated and vigilant populace, aware of their rights and willing to defend them.

We don't have that today, not in Australia, not in the United States, not much of anywhere. Hence, the present mediocrity of our political circumstances.

Cheers

Kate Carruthers said...

miseshayek you have a good point, however (again the 'however') I think that we need both non-authoritarian forms of government together with an educated and vigilant populace. You need both, otherwise there is the gradual slide back to authoritarianism.