Six months ago marked the 216th anniversary of the publication of Common Sense, written by Thomas Paine, a book that reshaped American thought at that time and helped provide the foundation for the United States.
I have often been struck by the deep understanding of Thomas Paine in capturing the innermost feelings of so many of us, his insistence in believing that most individuals cherished personal liberty, and the constant searching for ways to throw off tyranny. When I first read his pamphlet Common Sense, begun in the months following his arrival in Philadelphia from England in 1774, and finished Feb. 14, 1776, I was shaken to the core. I marveled at how brilliantly Mr. Paine, like most of us in today’s world, yearned for spiritual and economic freedom. How eagerly he expressed the need for human dignity in the face of such oppressive stupidity by those who would rule his adopted country; a yearning for democracy.
Mr. Paine clearly recognized that the system by which this land was governed was unsustainable and lacking in sound economic principles.
His pamphlet (500,000 copies) was read by 60 per cent of the adults of households in the colonies and his ideas hungrily devoured. The underlying concepts and their simplicity were quickly impressed on the minds of George Washington and other leaders, with the understanding that a call to arms was a requirement.
His words simply pointed out what was and was not sustainable.
The inspiration his words instilled in me when I first read them after becoming a U.S. citizen — I had been British — appear to me again as a rallying call to all who wish to put this country back onto a course of sustainability; to be guided back to function as a democratic republic for all, abiding by the guidelines of the Constitution.
As I watch this country, with Congress paralyzed, wracked by endless discussions, as in the time when Mr. Paine put quill to paper, I ask where is our Thomas Paine as we seek to find a path to regain control of our economic, financial, social and health systems. Many of the questions can be answered by very simple solutions if one is willing to apply a bit of common sense and to rationally challenge unsustainable practices and policies.
How should the people and their institutions be taxed in a fair and equitable way? Millennia ago it was known that democracies can only survive if taxes are fairly and equally collected.
It’s now a system so unbalanced that, while many individuals find it very difficult to have a roof over their heads and get paid a living wage, some can earn several millions. Indeed, a health insurance executive can earn over $1 billion in a year.
How should resources be set aside to carry individuals through retirement? And when should such retirements commence?
How does society take care of people who are unable to gain employment or are too sick to work?
How should a medical system be provided for all its citizens and the elderly?
How can citizens be protected from predators, be they social or financial?
Should individuals have the right to make decisions on family planning and the use of medical science, or should a collective moral authority be responsible?
These are just a few of the issues in current debates.
How should a town, a city, a state, a country unburden itself from decisions that not only do not make sense but have led to the dissolution, the insolvency of the hopes that We The People have worked so hard for? This has principally happened while a complacent populace has stood by and let elected officials and those in other institutions be influenced by lobbyists who do not necessarily represent the public interest.
Clearly, this is the time to get behind leaders who will apply Common Sense questions to all our difficulties. The tyranny, if that is the word, which has led to present problems can probably be traced to schools of thought that have encouraged elitist beliefs. These have misled our leaders and encouraged them to pursue clearly unsustainable practices.
But America has always risen to the difficult calls in the past and will do so again. Thomas Paine would sound the clarion answer to all these uncertainties with two simple words: common sense.
David Morris, Ph.D., is a professor of pathology at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown and part-time resident of Lower Makonikey in Vineyard Haven. This piece was previously published in the Providence Journal.