by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
If you know that today’s conservatives often draw inspiration from Edmund Burke and that today’s progressives trace many of their ideas to Thomas Paine, you might expect a book about the philosophical disagreement between Burke and Paine to break down into familiar conservative vs. liberal arguments.
You’ll be surprised then — pleasantly, if this reader’s reaction is any indication — that Yuval Levin‘s book on Burke, Paine, “and the birth of right and left,” The Great Debate, avoids that trap. Levin reminds us what Burke and Paine actually said during their influential periods on the world stage in the late 18th century. A conservative with a libertarian streak will find Paine’s focus on individual freedom appealing, while a liberal reader is likely to appreciate Burke’s interest in pursuing societal goals.
Because neither Burke nor Paine fit into stereotypical 21st-century characterizations of right and left, and Levin doesn’t try to force them into those stereotypes, it seems likely that a thoughtful reader will ask himself, “Why do I consider myself more a Burke man than a Paine man?” or vice versa.
Near the end of the book, Levin offers a useful summary of the debate.
By considering the arguments as each man first made them, and not as assorted partisans across two centuries have sought to use them, we can see how the worldviews Burke and Paine laid out still describe two broad and fundamental dispositions toward political life and political change in our liberal age.
The tension between those two dispositions comes down to some very basic questions: Should our society be made to answer the demands of stark and abstract commitments to ideals like social equality or to the patterns of its own concrete political traditions and foundations? Should the citizen’s relationship to his society be defined above all by the individual right of free choice or by a web of obligations and conventions not entirely of our own choosing? Are great public problems best addressed through institutions designed to apply the explicit technical knowledge of experts or by those designed to channel the implicit social knowledge of the community? Should we see each of our society’s failings as one large problem to be solved by comprehensive transformation or as a set of discrete imperfections to be addressed by building on what works tolerably well to address what does not? What authority should the character of the given world exercise over our sense of what we would like it to be?
These questions build on one another, and step by subtle step, they add up to quite distinct ways of thinking about politics. Every person looks upon his country and sees a mix of good things and bad. But which strike us more powerfully? In confronting the society around us, are we first grateful for what works well about it and moved to reinforce and build on that, or are we first outraged by what works poorly and moved to uproot and transform it?