The Great Debate

Over the holidays I read two books by Yuval Levin who diagnoses and describes the thinking and convictions behind the current political divisions in the United States. The first was The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left, which gives the historical ideas that influence modern thought.

Paine was the champion of individual rights and had no time for anything hereditary. He was in favor of radical revolution and the sweeping away of all traditions that prevented self-invention. Edmund Burke valued the social institutions of the past that preserved marriage, family and community rights. He did not see citizens as self-invented but as formed by our inheritance and habits.

Both Burke and Paine supported the American colonists in the War of Independence but divided over the French Revolution. In their debate over the effects of the French Revolution Burke warned, “By ignoring or failing to restrain popular passions, they threatened to unleash the darkest of passions upon society, utterly desensitizing the people to acts of terror and violence and so making orderly social life after the revolution impossible.”

Paine had a more idealistic view of human nature than Burke who opted for a more gradual evolution of society conserving the best of the old political order. Paine sought to understand man apart from his social setting, while Burke thought man incomprehensible apart from the circumstances into which he is born – circumstances largely the making of prior generations. Each contributes to the liberal-conservative divide we have today.

“Do we want to fix our health-care system by empowering expert panels armed with the latest effectiveness data to manage the system from the center or by arranging economic incentives to channel consumer knowledge and preferences and address some of the system’s discrete problems? Do we want to alleviate poverty through large national programs that use public dollars to supplement the incomes of the poor or through efforts to build on the social infrastructure of local civil-society institutions to help the poor build the skills and habits to rise? Do we want problems addressed through the most comprehensive and broadest possible means or through the most minimal and targeted ones?”

“The fundamental utopian goal at the core of Paine’s thinking – the goal of liberating the individual from the constraints of the obligations imposed upon him by his time, his place, and his relations to others – remains essential to the left in America…..The deep commitment to generational continuity and to the institutions of implicit social knowledge that we have found at the core of Burke’s thought remains essential to today’s American right….It is the vision they uphold when they insist on a allegiance to our forefathers’ constitutional forms, warn of the dangers of burdening our children with debt to fund our own consumption, or insist that the sheer scope and ambition of our government makes it untenable.”

I found Levin’s exposition of the thought of these two men most helpful in understanding the differences we have today in our political discourse. I will review the second book in the next post.