If you ask the average American to identify famous U.S. radicals, chances are you’d hear back names like Saul Alinsky, Cesar Chavez or Angela Davis.
I doubt many people would say Thomas Paine.
But Paine – yes, one of those famous “dead white males” – could easily qualify as America's greatest radical thinker and activist, even though he was actually a Brit.
Paine is best known in the United States as author of the explosive propaganda pamphlet, “Common Sense,” without which, John Adams would later write, “the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”
But Paine wasn’t satisfied with the American Revolution; he didn’t think it went far enough. And soon he was in France penning, “The Rights of Man,” which became a key document in a revolution that ended in beheadings.
Among Paine’s most radical proposals was a guaranteed basic income for every citizen. He argued that every man (and woman) has a God-given claim to his share of the earth’s bounty, so governments should equally distribute among citizens public and private wealth derived from it. (Paine borrowed some of this thinking from ancient Athenians.)
Paine’s proposal spurred much debate among thinkers of his time, and many variations of this concept were put forward. But the foundational idea was clear: By being a citizen of the world, you were automatically entitled to a share of profits derived from the land, water and air.
A chance meeting with a leader in Iceland’s Pirate Party last summer introduced to me to the resurgence of Paine’s thinking on this notion, especially among European intellectuals, but also among many leaders of Americans Left. The idea is to replace the current welfare state model with a system whereby all citizens receive regular “dividend” checks from the government, with means testing of course. Predictions of mass job automation in the not too distant future are invoked to buttress this idea.
I think this is where the organized political left in America is headed.
Rhetorical adjustments in the debate over the $15 minimum wage strongly suggest it. The minimum wage is now being packaged as an “economic justice” issue. And businesses are being directly attacked, by name, not just for underpaying employees in the Left’s estimation, but for costing taxpayers money in the form of public assistance collected by low wage workers. In other words, job providers owe the public a portion of their yield outside of what they pay in taxes.
This is a truly radical proposition, and it’s gaining steam. It was the featured crescendo of New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s State of the State address this year in which he inexplicably, and forcefully, informed McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s that it might be time “to get out of the hamburger business.”
If this still sounds like a leap, consider a comment made last week by progressive activist and Bernie Sanders supporter Susan Sarandon. When asked whether she’d support Hillary Clinton for president in the general election, Sarandon demurred. She said she might instead vote for businessman Donald Trump, because Trump would mess things up so badly that he’d hasten “the revolution.”
I shiver to consider the revolution Sarandon is imagining, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Thomas Paine’s long-lost guaranteed minimum income lies somewhere near the middle of it.
Maybe someone should ask her.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a Republican consultant.