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Book Review: The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (Yuval Levin)

This is a clarifying book. In today’s Kardashian Kulture, even the well-informed, who know who Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke were, cannot generally give a cogent description of their thought, much less a point-counterpoint description of their fundamental ideas and disagreements. I know I certainly couldn’t. That is, until I read this book, which brilliantly does exactly that: distils Paine and Burke to their essences, both in the abstract and in direct comparison to each other.

Levin thereby performs a great service for the reader. Burke and Paine both wrote prolifically and frequently in response to specific political issues of the day. Their language is hard to penetrate for the modern reader (especially Burke’s, with constant use of subordinate clauses and what we would consider run-on sentences). It would be a daunting task for an amateur to attempt to reduce either thinker to a summary, and (in Burke’s case again especially), difficult for a professional. But Levin does it for us, and using the device of highlighting areas of disagreement, makes the thought of each man much more plain.

“The Great Debate” is an apolitical book. Levin takes no sides, though he points out more than once that the ideas of Paine, rather than Burke, have always been dominant in America, and still are on both the Left and Right today. His goal is not to recommend either man, but to show how the ideas of each man embody, from their deepest roots, a different vision of Man and the World, and to show what the implications of those different visions are. So this is a book of political philosophy, not a book of politics.

As an aside, you may need a big box of Kleenex by your side when you read this book. That’s not because the content is sad. It’s because the miserable level of political discourse today, compared to that shown in this book, is enough to make you cry. To wail, rend your clothes and cover your head with ashes, actually. And that’s compared to today’s *professional* political discourse. If you compare it to the flatworm-level thinking found on platforms like Facebook, you are more likely to skip the Kleenex and move straight to suicide.

Anyway, Levin begins at the beginning, by contrasting Paine’s and Burke’s view of the origins in nature of political order. Paine believed that in the beginning, man was an individual with free choice, equal in choices to his fellows. Unlike in a Hobbesian world, though, he was pretty happy. But some men chose to join together, for benefit and for sociability. This proto-society, however, was not a government; instead, it was more like a Nozickian paradise. After that, these men chose to form a government, in order to restrain some and to encourage others to perform their duties. Any rights exercisable by the individual without assistance, “rights of personal competency,” were retained by the individual. For other rights, such as rights of personal protection, men agreed “to act under the guarantee of society,” subordinating their free exercise of the right, but perhaps only temporarily, until they chose otherwise.

The natural consequence of Paine’s view of the state of nature is that any government that did not involve continual free choice of the people was usurpation (and involved some pre-historic barbarism against free political choice). Paine believed that any revolution was therefore merely rewinding the film to an earlier point, before things went wrong, to be replayed from that point. And each generation must therefore choose anew to renew their form of government. Or choose not to, which Paine thought likely, in light of his highly optimistic view that only in his own time were the scientific principles of day-to-day good government finally being discovered and applied.

Burke didn’t disagree that all modern governments probably began with some form of unpleasantness of man against man (although he thought Paine’s idea of noble individuals choosing to band together was not accurate history). But he believed those dubious beginnings did not undercut their legitimacy. However a government started, its current form has developed over time in response to legitimate questions legitimately responded to by the society, thus vitiating any injustice in how it began. And you cannot rewind the film, for that does not renew the people. Rather, it destroys the people, creating “a number of vague, loose individuals, and nothing more.” Society will not be regenerated. “In the wake of such a dissolution, Burke argues, there will be no rules or methods by which a new regime could form: no protections of property or persons, no reason to follow a leader or adhere to majority rule, no means for ‘regenerating.’”

Paine said explicitly that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Burke thought this is a pernicious fantasy, and the best we can do is use existing materials to make the existing world better. Of course, Burke was not at all opposed to change (he was a leading reformer on many issues), rather to precipitous radical change, particularly that grounded in abstract theories. “Burke thus offers a model of gradual change—of evolution rather than revolution. In a sense, he sees tradition as a process with something of the character that modern biology ascribes to natural evolution. The products of that process are valuable not because they are old, but because they are advanced—having developed through years of trial and error and adapted to their circumstances.” (Burke further believed that attempting to remake society on the basis of pure reason will unleash passions, i.e. vices, unrestrained by the structures of a mature society, which places restraints upon the natural behavior of human beings. Burke therefore endorsed chivalry. Paine ridiculed this view as sentimental trash and an excuse for bad behavior by those with the power.)

After this examination of roots in nature, Levin turns to each model’s implications for addressing demands of justice, and order. Paine was, of course, all about abstract justice as an imperative flowing from the natural state of man. What constitutes justice was, for Paine, easily recognizable by the thorough exercise of rationality and a modern scientific approach. A government of the equal continuously consenting is just and does justice. Anything else is not (and if a government were to act unjust, as for example tyrannously, in a free society of rational men the problem would be self-correcting). For Paine, this was the only type of order that can be just.

What Burke thinks of justice is more nebulous. He has often been criticized for being, in essence, a relativist—he does not often appeal to a standard of justice, other than endorsing a model that defers to the developed and prescribes gradual change. Such gradual change occurs not by reference to an external ideal standard like Paine, but by its own success results in a more just society than the alternatives, on average and over time.

Even so, Burke has some, if amorphous, objective standard of justice. He was not driven by a natural law conception of justice, and he did not appeal to religion as a source of law (instead, he seemed frequently to endorse religion on a utilitarian calculus with regard to the state, though he himself was religious). “Burke’s view of nature and of human nature suggests to him that the standards of justice that are to guide political life are rather discoverable—to the extent we can know them at all—implicitly through the experience of political life itself.” “Burke’s idea of a just society is not an end state that is the ultimate goal of all political change. Rather, a just society provides space for thriving private lives and a thriving national life within the bounds of the constitution by allowing for some balance of order and freedom.”

And as far as social order, though men are naturally equal, social inequalities are inevitable—and highly desirable, for they lead both to better government by those raised to it, and to social institutions that prevent tyranny, both of the government and of majorities. Paine, of course, thinks this is silly, and that social inequalities resulting in increased political power and participation for any individual or group are pernicious.

Flowing from Burke’s and Paine’s thoughts on nature, order and justice, Levin then examines the implications of each man’s thought for social and political relations and commitments—what he calls “choice and obligation.” This is probably the area in which Burke’s ideas are best known. Paine is a libertarian’s libertarian—“Each person should have the right to do as he chooses unless his choices interfere with the equal rights and freedoms of others. . . . Politics, in this view, is fundamentally an arena for the exercise of choice, and our only real political obligations are to respect the freedoms and choices of others.”

Burke, on the other hand, believed that each person was exactly not free to do as he chose. Instead, he was bound by a web of obligations to others, living, dead and yet to be born. Moreover, in Burke’s view, Paine’s idea of what amounts to radical democracy has repeatedly been proven to be disastrous—the popular will is irrational, frequently vicious, short-sighted, and ignorant. Burke reasons from the reality of human beings; Paine in essence denies human nature (and, as Levin points out, this divide remains among views on “the social issues” today—what Paine sought was “liberation from the implications of those facts [of human nature] and that character [of human procreation]—leading to attacks by Paine and many others since on the family as the “primary obstacle to an ethic of choice.” If you are bound to your family, as Burke would have it, you lack choice, so the family must be destroyed, which is easily visible as the prime goal of the cultural Left today.

Levin does not confine himself to mere explication, though he does not insert himself into the point-counterpoint overmuch. For example, Levin points out that Burke’s conception of organic growth provides no “clear principle by which to limit the scope of government action to limit coercion.” (This is not to say that Burke thinks a tyranny is acceptable—rather, he focuses on the good of the polity as a whole, instead of an abstract, binary limitation on government action). Paine, on the other hand, insisted on a written constitution to limit government—though, being a believer that good government would evolve naturally, he never considered what would happen if that written constitution were simply ignored and its words turned into a dead letter, as the American Constitution is today.

But to me, Burke’s lack of a line in the sand, beyond which the government cannot pass, is his main failing as his thought is applied to the modern world. In Burke’s time, though despotisms and tyrannies were well-known, no person could have conceived of the reach and power of the modern state, which can (and has) dictate every action and thought of each member of society, on pain of death. Paine’s thought provides a clearer path to resistance both against the modern totalitarian state, and also against the vastly over-powerful and over-intrusive modern American state.

Burke, seeing the modern American state, would be horrified at the idea it should be torn down. Rather, of course, he’d desire wise statesmen to make evolutionary changes to bring it back to a state that was beneficial to society. Those wise statesmen seem to be lacking, and to the extent they exist, they have no power. Yes, you could argue that Burke’s belief in a web of intermediary institutions could perform the same function, in lieu of the actions of statesmen, and Burke would say better that than the abstract theory of destruction and regeneration that Paine offers. But those intermediary institutions themselves have been deliberately destroyed in America by a toxic cocktail of governmental undermining, ideological leftist attacks, and simple general coarsening and lessening of the culture, as can be read in a range of works, from Nisbet’s “The Quest For Community” through Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” to Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart.” So if neither wise statesmen nor intermediary institutions are to be seen, it is difficult to see how Burke’s vision would be capable of restoring America, and perhaps Paine’s approach of revolution, violent or not (Paine was indifferent), is the only possible path to restoration.

Finally Levin then turns to the practical impacts of these frameworks, with a key emphasis on whether action should flow primarily from theory (Paine) or from what is existing (Burke). Burke thinks theory distracts statesmen from the goal of good governance; ignores the actual circumstances, which are infinitely complex in all instances; and leads to extremism by necessarily demanding perfection. Paine, of course, is all about the exaltation of theory and its reduction to practice, from beginning to end. Levin refers to this as a “dispute between universal principles and historical precedents—between a politics of explicit knowledge and a politics of implicit knowledge.”

But again, a problem with Burke in the modern world is that his focus is on, in his words, his “profound reverence for the wisdom of our ancestors, who have left us with the inheritance of so happy a constitution and so flourishing an empire.” But what if that is not our inheritance in modern America? What if, instead, we have a Cthulhu-like horror, the result of a hundred years of feeding Leviathan and the crushing of the ancient liberties of each man, woman and child? What if we are not flourishing at all, and our ancestors have handed us a poisoned chalice? At what point would Burke say that Paine is right, and radical change IS necessary? (Paine, writing at the dawn of what he hoped would be the “Age of Reason,” would be equally disappointed by modern America, but for different reasons, given that he thought modern thought would inevitably lead to convergence on good government and happiness for all.)

Perhaps Burke answers this himself, in one his (innumerable) criticisms of the French revolutionaries: “If the last generations of your country appeared without much luster in your eyes, you might have passed them by, and derived your claims from a more early race of ancestors.” As always, Burke isn’t opposed to change, but to radical wholesale change based on theory. Perhaps we should take his advice to heart, and attempt what seems at first like radical change, but is really a rewind, not to Paine’s individual men of solipsism, but to the last time America functioned as it was originally designed. That’s probably the time of Calvin Coolidge, before Franklin Roosevelt and his minions began the systematic uprooting of the entire constitutional system in the service of power accretion and the exaltation of envy, a process accelerated and made malevolent through the dubious thought of modern intellectuals ranging from Saul Alinsky to John Rawls.

If we did that, if we were able to rewind our governance to the time of Coolidge, we might end up with an (re-)evolved institution that actually was a good society from the point of view of governance. It would be based more on theory than Burke would like, since the past is unrecoverable, and as the saying goes, you can’t go back. An attempt to go back to precisely the way it was is bound to failure. But evolving backward to a better governance past would at least be based on something solid. We could start by realizing and declaring that 90% of what the federal government is unconstitutional and will stop. Such a radical step, even if justified on pseudo-Burkean grounds, seems very unlikely. But every substantial change in governance seems unlikely until it happens. What Paine wanted, revolution in America and France, seemed unlikely too—more unlikely than this, probably. Under the right circumstances, maybe an American Rewind could be implemented by a new Coolidge.

So perhaps what we can draw from the book is not that either Paine or Burke was right, but that their thought can inform what changes are necessary or desirable in a late-stage, sclerotic state. Levin, of course, draws none of these conclusions about the America of today, but his masterful drawing of each man’s thought is immensely valuable to any reader.

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  1. CW CW

    Very good, Charles. I appreciate your thoughts here. I like your new stuff a lot as well, but it seems that in your older reviews you were a bit more open and less doctrinaire. Have your convictions strengthened and focused over the past two years?

    • Charles Charles

      That’s definitely true, for two reasons. First, the point of this project, as I like to say, isn’t to convince others of anything (though I’m not opposed to that). It’s primarily for my benefit, to “develop a coherent systrm of thought.” Thus, by definition, if that succeeds, I become less open and more doctrinaire, or have strengthened by convictions and focus, or however it is best phrased. Not on all topics, to be sure, but presumably on the ones of most focus. Second, and more importantly for the bulk of those topics, the election of Trump, and especially the reaction to the election of Trump, as well as various other Rod Dreher-esque happenings have revealed that no, we can’t all get along, and it’s a zero sum game beyond a certain point. Dreher’s reaction is to build Christian communities, in essence, that exist within, not isolated from, the larger society. My reaction is that is correct, plus guns. And also that the future is going to be very different from what it is now, and soon, and within that future lie opportunities and risks; Dreher is too certain that the Left will continue to dominate, and I am not so sure. So, at its most basic, my political philosophy two years ago I expressed as “Libertarian Hospitaller,” now it is “Neoreactionary Hospitaller.”

  2. CW CW

    I’m certainly not against the act of making up your mind. To paraphrase Chesterton: the purpose of an open mind is the same as that of an open mouth, to close upon something solid.

    However, your work also functions as something of an argument; and I hope you don’t become too jaundiced in your view of the effect that words can have when they find fertile soil. Some, like myself, are sympathetic to your view but require a presentation of the case (and preferably a steel-manning of the opposing view). To quote Chesterton again “The aim of argument is differing in order to agree; the failure of argument is agreement to differ.”

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