Interview: Alex Gourevitch on Thomas Paine

Alex Gourevitch is an assistant professor of political science at Brown University. At this summer’s SHEAR conference in Philadelphia, he presented (without reading! It’s still a novelty to us historians!) a paper called “Paine and Property: Radicalism and Anti-Radicalism in Property-Owning Democracy.” In today’s interview, he returns to those themes for The Junto.

JUNTO: Your paper gave Paine a lot of credit for his far-sighted radicalism—you give him a vision of a welfare state that wouldn’t emerge in reality until a century later. Can you briefly outline your argument?

GOUREVITCH: Paine is widely respected as a political visionary, but less so as an economic one. Condorcet had outlined the broad idea of a social security system, but Paine was the first to do the tax and financing calculations for a practical plan that would cover children, the poor, the old, and the infirm. He first proposed his social security plan in the second part of The Rights of Man, published in 1792, which besides income support, free public education, old age pensions, disability insurance, and universal health care, included an argument for state funded public works programs to guarantee full employment. As proof this wasn’t a fluke, he then proposed a similar plan in his 1797 pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Perhaps even more remarkable, Paine makes very clear that this is not a question of charity or humanitarian sympathy but justice. As Paine puts it in Agrarian Justice, “it is a right, not a charity, that I am pleading for.” Paine’s argument is that this universal right is an obligation that everyone has to each other, and therefore should be administered through the state, not dependent upon the vicissitudes and caprice of private charity.

But Paine is even more far-seeing than that. He understands that the fundamental issue is the moral and practical status of private property. The reason that everyone has a universal right to social security is because that provision of social security establishes the moral legitimacy—not to mention social stability—of protecting private property. The state may only legitimately enforce private property rights if it also guarantees a system of social security.

JUNTO: You made it clear that Paine never abandoned his belief in private property rights, in spite of the example of communist radicals like Babeuf. Why was that?

AG: It’s important to be clear about what private property meant to Paine. It meant the right to keep the full fruits of one’s labor—which is one meaning it still has today. Inequality was justifiable for him if it made everybody better off with respect to their fundamental interests.[1] But he saw that the current defense of private property created poverty, a poverty that had never before existed.[2] So it is possible, given the enormous productivity of a modern society, based on private property, for everyone to live better lives, not just secure from absolute poverty but for even the worst off to enjoy relative prosperity.

Paine took the communist challenge to heart, but in a way that aimed to defend private property. The introduction of Agrarian Justice names Babeuf directly, and the pamphlet itself makes an important change from the public works scheme in Rights of Man to a ‘National Fund’ that pays every adult enough money to be able to buy some land and tools. Paine accepted Babeuf’s argument that, in the natural state, it’s not just that nobody was poor but that everyone enjoyed a natural independence—and they should have a right to that independence under modern conditions as well.

Even though Paine says he is defending the principle of private property, he is driven to say, in Agrarian Justice, that “personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally… All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man’s own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.”

Why add gratitude to justice? I think it’s because Paine sees that private property is not just a matter of rights and legitimate coercion: it is a form of social relationship. It is a whole way of establishing a social order, of recognizing each other as cooperators as well as individuals, and thus involves a set of principles that also influence our moral-psychology. This is the great puzzle that Paine observes, but he cannot resolve.

On the one hand, a society based on private property is one in which we are all meant to see each other as self-creating beings, exercising our talents, producing our world, distinguishing ourselves through our success and accumulations. But, on the other hand, we’re somehow also supposed to understand the lion’s share of what we produce as not really ours. It is a social product, an expression of the complex division of labor, the provision of public goods, inherited pool of talent and knowledge, and we are supposed to feel gratitude for having the opportunity to develop and exercise our talents.

In the end, then, Paine recognizes that a just system of private property requires the wealthy to spontaneously feel willing to give back a large share of their wealth, to make sure everyone is economically independent. If it is only a matter of justice—of coercive enforcement of the law by the state—then we’ll never get that society. But the problem is, of course, that the wealthy don’t feel that gratitude, and they are unlikely to in a society whose basic principle makes it seem like they are the producers of all the wealth they happen to have accumulated. There’s a kind of deep social and moral instability to the social security of a modern, property-based society; to the attitudes that its major citizens should have; and to the real conditions that it ends up producing. The society that protects private property is much more likely to be the one that Thomas Piketty describes than the one that Thomas Paine imagined and hoped for.


[1] “The first principle of civilization ought to have been, and ought still to be, that the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if he had been born before that period.” (Agrarian Justice)

[2] “Poverty, therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state. On the other hand, the natural state is without those advantages which flow from agriculture, arts, science, and manufactures.” (Agrarian Justice)

3 responses

  1. Would Paine have found supporting evidence for his positions had he survived to see the expansion of the western frontier? It seems like it would have been his worst nightmare.

  2. Reblogged this on subliminal agency and commented:
    Until I create a new blog that focuses on my academic interests, this blog will have to serve as both a Freudian-leftist parenting blog about ideology in Pixar and Dreamworks movies, and a grad student blog about property, radical democracy, and literature in early America.

    Here is a post from a remarkable blog of Early Americanists called “The Junto” on Thomas Paine’s prescient, if somewhat underdeveloped, conceptions of property and wealth distribution. You might see a little bit of Rousseau in here where Paine attributes inequality to property ownership.

  3. Pingback: The Week in Early American History « The Junto


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: