Paine begins the pamphlet Common Sense with general comments about government. He observes first that people have a tendency to confuse government with society. Drawing a sharp line, Paine argues that society is always something to strive for, whereas government is "a necessary evil." Society fosters the fulfillment of our desires, while government is there only to keep man from indulging his vices. Paine says that if a country with a government is hampered by oppression, it is far worse than if such behavior were to occur on its own, since the people create and support the government, and are therefore financing their own poor condition. If all people acted morally, government would not be necessary, but since people are fallible, government is necessary to the protection of life and property. Government's fundamental purpose, therefore, is to provide security, and the success of a government is to be judged by the extent to which it fulfills this role.
To understand the purpose of government, Paine considers a small number of people, placed in a small region of land, cut off from all humanity. Unable to live alone, they would soon find themselves interacting in order to avoid a perpetual solitude. Together, they would be able to a build shelter and feed themselves more effectively. Out of necessity, the men would create a society. As long as they were to treat each other honorably, they would need no law. However, in order to account for inevitable defects in moral virtue, they would need to form a government. At first, they might simply designate some place to meet for all to discuss public matters, but as the size of the society increases, they would need to choose representatives to make the law. In order to make this work, they would need to hold frequent elections to ensure that the will of the representatives is aligned with that of the people. Paine breaks out of the world of his parable to argue that, therefore, representation, and not monarchy, is essential to "The strength of government and the happiness of the governed." Paine claims that his view of government is based on the principle "that the more simple any thing is, the less likely it is to be disordered." He then sets out to attack the British constitution. He derides it as "exceedingly complex," and rife with monarchical and aristocratic tyranny. Paine argues that, furthermore, it is absurd to think that the British system consists of branches of government checking each other.
Paine presents government as an institution whose sole function is to restrain the evil in man. Furthermore, he presents society as the force that "promotes our happiness positively". Government, then, is conceived of as simply a preventative force, while any positive or creative acts are up to society. Many Western democratic governments appropriate large sums of money toward positive projects that are intended to improve public life, and it is worth considering whether Paine would have objected to the modern state in which government "promotes our happiness " The argument could also be made that, given the affection Paine expresses for society, he might be very fond of modern governments. After all, Paine lauds society because of what it accomplishes, and if a government could accomplish the same thing, Paine's view of government might change.
Paine claims to be using a parable to introduce his general reflections about government, although his intention is clearly to comment on the situation in America. In his parable, America is the land secluded from the rest of society, since it is separated from Europe by an ocean, and the few people placed there are the original settlers. An obvious problem with Paine's story in relation to the situation in America, however, is that America was not quite cut off from the rest of society, as many European powers controlled various territories in America. Furthermore, Paine intends to examine how government originates out of nature, but the settlers who first crossed over from England arrived with English notions of government, rather than creating the government from scratch.
Take a Study Break!