I am reading Christopher Hitchen’s Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography. Paine’s writings were highly influential in creating the world we know today, where equality before the law and democracy are normal. I’m also dipping into the The Thomas Paine Reader to access the original writings. I did read Paine’s works many years ago at Sydney Uni when studyin history, which itself is almost ancient history, but Paine’s writings have a freshness that stands the test of time.
So many of the ideas we take for granted in Western society were denied to people in Paine’s time. Indeed, he was forced to flee his homeland for merely asserting that man (and he did talk about men in the way of his time) had certain basic and irrefutable rights.
His ideas were foundational in the development of the United States, and informed much of their political and legal culture.
He also argued against the British system by which the people occasionally managed to wrest a concession from the ruling hierarchy: e.g. Magna Carta, and the Bill of Rights 1688.
Now that I am studying law and living in an Australia that has been gradually abrogating rule of law, it seems to me that his arguments might have some truth.
No doubt Paine was a radical, even by today’s standards. But he did stand firm on his belief that man had inalienable rights and that true nobility came from the ‘democratic floor’ rather than hereditary titles.
I can only hope that one day Australians will have acknowledged rights that are protected by the full power of the state and which cannot be changed at the whim of the current government without the full and informed consent of the populace. This means that these rights need to guaranteed by something other than mere legislation, which can be changed through parliamentary process without consulting the populace. I don’t know the answer, but I do know that Australians need their rights to be defined and protected.