Joseph R.


March 27, 2000

Tom Paine (1737-1809) on War, Governments, and Trade


The English radical Thomas Paine was without contest the greatest propagandist of the American Revolution – in Common Sense, The Crisis, and other writings. His The Rights of Man, written in response to Edmund Burke’s broad attack on both English liberal republicanism and the fast-shifting French Revolution, has its merits as a summary of revolutionary liberalism, even if the French exercise itself proved a bit abortive.

Paine had his critics – from John Adams, who called Paine "a keen writer but very ignorant of the science of government," to Teddy Roosevelt, who dismissed Paine as "a filthy little atheist." When Paine returned to America in 1802, after a decade and more spent trying to keep the French on track, he found himself generally shunned as an infidel, having had the bad judgment, perhaps, to publish in the meantime his views on religion. 20th-century leftists have presented Paine – a great "bourgeois radical" – as a sort of Popular Front hero.


Paine’s views were part and parcel of the "American synthesis" – that particular combination of ideas and themes from republican theory, early liberalism, English law, and Protestantism, which Americans fielded in their war of national liberation. Paine was not deeply read in any one of these traditions, which made it easier for him to mix them. With Paine, natural rights, the "rights of Englishmen," republican virtues, and more, jostle along, side by side, with no seeming theoretical anguish. There is also in Paine an incipient utilitarianism alongside an older rhetoric about the evils of the Norman Conquest.


Paine’s politics rested on a view of society which has been called "classical liberal exploitation theory."1 The essential insight here is that politics is normally – and always – the art of plunder. Thus Paine writes in Common Sense that, "Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer…. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefits, is preferable to all others."2 Small wonder that Ronald Reagan used to quote Paine, even if he didn’t exactly pursue Paine’s program.

This is rather open-ended, to say the least, and suggests ultra-minimal government at best. Thus Paine says in The Rights of Man: "Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It had its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all parts of a civilized community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together." In commercial and other voluntary arrangements, society – that is people – takes care of itself. By contrast, "governments, so far from being always the cause or means of order, are often the destruction of it."3


Not unsurprisingly, Paine embraces – and indeed is one of the original formulators of – what we now call "the conquest theory of the state." This was real meaning of the traditional pro-Saxon rhetoric (shared by no less than Thomas Jefferson) with its long-standing lament about the Norman Yoke. As Paine put it, again in The Rights of Man: "It could have been no difficult thing in the early and solitary ages of the world, while the chief employment of men was that of attending flocks and herds, for a banditti of ruffians to overrun a country, and lay it under contributions." Here we have Franz Oppenheimer’s book, The State, nicely anticipated. Conquerors, "having parceled out the world and divided it," began to fight one another: "What at first was obtained by violence, was considered by others as lawful to be taken, and a second plunderer succeeded the first."

Here we have that wonderful word "plunder" – a concept at the heart of classical liberal political theory as wielded, for example, by Frederic Bastiat. Political exploitation rested, in the late 18th century, on monarchy, "the master fraud which shelters all others. By admitting a participation of the spoil, it makes itself friends; and when it ceases to do this, it will cease to be the idol of courtiers." The result of the old regime was "a continual system of war and extortion," which impoverished the peoples subject to it.4

As for those doing the plundering, Paine wrote that "the origin of aristocracy was worse than foppery. It was robbery. The first aristocrats in all countries were brigands. Those of later times, sycophants." As to feudal land-holding, Paine adds: "It is very well known that in England (and the same will be found in other countries), the great landed estates now held in descent were plundered from the quiet inhabitants at the Conquest. The possibility did not exist of acquiring such estates honestly. If it be asked how they could have been acquired, no answer but that of robbery can be given. That they were not acquired by trade, by commerce, by manufactures, by agriculture, or by any reputable employment, is certain."

The remedy was a private-property order based on equal liberty: "As property, honestly obtained, is best secured by an equality of rights, so ill-gotten property depends for protection on a monopoly of rights. He who has robbed another of his property, will next endeavor to disarm him of his rights, to secure that property; for when the robber becomes the legislator he believes himself secure."5 This last point calls to mind the whole recent literature on "rent-seeking" which, as economist Walter Block has observed, really ought to be called "plunder-seeking" or the like.

War and the war system were central to the organization of plunder: "It may with reason be said, that in the manner the English nation is represented, it signifies not where this right resides, whether in the Crown or in the Parliament. War is the common harvest of all those who participate in the division and expenditure of public money, in all countries." Governments claimed to provide security for society, but in fact their operations were "the art of conquering at home: the object of it is an increase of revenue; and as revenue cannot be increased without taxes, a pretense must be made for expenditures. In reviewing the history of the English Government, its wars and its taxes, a bystander, not blinded by prejudice, nor warped by interest, would declare, that taxes were not raised to carry on wars, but that wars were raised to carry on taxes." The Old Right journalist and America First Committee stalwart John T. Flynn made precisely the same point with reference to the foreign policy of FDR: "The one sure and easiest way to command national assent from all groups for more spending is to ask it for national defense. The evidence of this is that the Congress and the nation that [were] howling for economy only six months ago [are] now talking about military budgets of monstrous dimensions."6

In a wonderful insight which applies with certain force to modern liberal-democratic welfare-warfare states, Paine writes: "[T]he portion of liberty enjoyed in England, is just enough to enslave a country by, more productively than by despotism; and that as the real object of all despotism is revenue, a government so formed obtains more than it could do either by direct despotism, or in a full state of freedom; and is therefore, on the ground of interest, opposed to both." Austrian-School economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe has noted that it is precisely the more productive liberal societies – like Britain a hundred years ago or the United States today – in which government can raise revenues sufficient to support imperialist policies.7


In Thomas Paine’s view, "War can never be in the interest of a trading nation, any more than quarreling can be profitable to a man in business. But to make war with those who trade with us, is like setting a bulldog upon a customer at the shop-door. The least degree of common sense shows the madness of the latter, and it will apply with the same force of conviction to the former. Piratical nations, having neither commerce or commodities of their own to lose, may make war upon all the world, and lucratively find their account in it; but it is quite otherwise with Britain…. In whatever light the war with America is considered upon commercial principles, it is evidently the interest of the people of England not to support it; and why it has been supported so long… is, to me, and must be to all the reasonable world, a matter of astonishment."8 Further: "If commerce were permitted to act to the universal extent it is capable of, it would extirpate the system of war…. The invention of commerce has arisen since those governments began, and is the greatest approach toward universal civilization, that has yet been made by any means not immediately flowing from moral principles."9

All nations realized the advantages of trade or they "would abandon" it. And yet "Mr. Pitt has sometimes amused himself, by showing what he called a balance of trade from the custom-house books" – "a mode of calculation" affording "no rule that is true, but one that is false."10 In weighing the benefits of commerce, Paine drew the conclusion that both parties benefit from any exchange from which force is excluded.

Paine was especially sound on what is called "economic" imperialism: "The most unprofitable of all commerce is that connected with foreign dominion. To a few individuals it may be beneficial, merely because it is commerce; but to the nation it is a loss. The expense of maintaining dominion more than absorbs the profits of any trade."11

The attempt to confine or channel trade on the mercantilist model only made it break out in irregular channels. Mutual interest and not naval power was the securest foundation of trade. It must be admitted, however, that Paine subscribed for a time to ideological imperialism until he became disillusioned with the French Revolution and its works. Thus Paine was, briefly, a "social Bonapartist" who wished to spread the revolution by military means.


Paine was optimistic about the future and the inherent wisdom of the people under republican forms of government. He sometimes seems to ascribe all the world’s evils to monarchy and feudalism and not to government as such. After two centuries of allegedly popular rule, we have leave to be more skeptical than Paine was – and yet we can understand our situation using many of his insights. We live under an elective monarchy far more powerful than anything George III ever dreamed of and a "paper aristocracy" (to quote John Taylor of Caroline) of government-connected businesses more powerful and rapacious than England’s 18th-century Whig Oligarchy. All in all, these are things that are quite open to a Paineite analysis and critique. The Anti-Imperialists of 1900 understood that.

Just the other day I chanced upon a website wherein one of the usual suspects (I will call his name when I find the site again) was ranting about how the narrow, philistine capitalists – left to themselves – would just trade with people! Precisely Paine’s point, except for the "connected" businesses alluded to above. Absent political pressure, propaganda, and outright coercion, most people "in trade" would indeed rather buy and sell things rather than uplift and heal the world – with carpet bombs, subversion, and intimidation. Few of them would torture the Iraqi people with sanctions or determine which ethnic expulsions in the Balkans are "good" and which ones are "bad." These tradesmen will have to be shown their place. Yes, your Lordship. By all means, your Lordship.


  1. On this, see Ralph Raico, "Classical Liberal Roots of the Marxist Doctrine of Classes" in Yuri N. Maltsev, ed., Requiem for Marx (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1993), pp. 189-220.
  2. Selected Writings of Thomas Paine, ed., Richard Emery Roberts (New York: Everybody’s Vacation Publishing Co., 1945), p. 9.
  3. Ibid., pp. 293-295.
  4. Ibid., p. 297.
  5. Ibid., pp. 249-250.
  6. Selected Writings, p. 282 (my emphasis); John T. Flynn, Country Squire in the White House (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1940), 102
  7. Selected Writings, p. 282, and Hoppe, "Banking, Nation-States and International Politics," Review of Austrian Economics, 4 (1990), pp. 76-78).
  8. Selected Writings, pp. 119-120.
  9. Ibid., p. 326.
  10. Ibid., p. 327.
  11. Ibid., p. 328.

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Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He is a part-time lecturer in History at the college level. You can read his recent essay, "The Cold War," on the Ludwig von Mises Institute Website. His column, "The Old Cause," appears each Monday on

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