The Great Debate:
Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left

By Yuval Levin
Basic Books, 296 pages

The conventional wisdom among elite liberals is that intellectual conservatism has driven itself to near-extinction. The older generation has gone out like a Shaker colony, failing to reproduce itself while bequeathing to future generations only books and essays that make for lovely collectibles more often recalled than read and at best inspire nostalgia rather than thoughtful action.

This is a ludicrously self-serving indictment. Of course, the right may seem to have its share of carnival barkers and their attendant freak shows of dog-faced boys and bearded ladies, but so does the left. It was ever thus. But to tout the bad apples as an indictment of the whole barrel (sometimes when the apples aren’t even bad in the first place) is to confuse a debater’s tactic for an argument.

It would be more true to say that the conservative movement is like an orchestra. Every musician and instrument has its role. There are the woodwinds and strings, delicate and subtle, but there are also the percussion and horn sections, too, working relentlessly. There’s even a giant gong that sometimes provides the valuable service of waking up the audience. It may be true that the right has been a bit heavy-handed with the gong of late. And it may be true that it often sounds less like the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini and more like a college ensemble. But there it plays. And it has soloists, and the work of some of those soloists suggests they are going to have spectacular careers.

Exhibit A is Yuval Levin. It would be condescending to call him a child prodigy, but one can still admire his precociousness. At 36, he is the founding editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Most important, in the most pressing public debate of our time—on health-care reform—Levin has perhaps more than any other thinker set the tone for the intellectual conservative opposition. Notwithstanding his involvement in the controversies of the moment, if one judges by his new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, Levin prefers the classics to more contemporary fare.

The Great Debate stands apart from many conservative books of the last decade because it is aimed almost quaintly above the current debates of the day. Barack Obama’s name appears once—in an offhand mention at the end that even the world’s most famous community organizer has claimed to be a Burkean at heart.

As Levin’s subtitle suggests, the book argues that these two contemporaries were the founders of the modern Anglo-American right (Burke) and left (Paine). Now, while the politician and polemicist Burke has long been considered the father of modern conservatism, Paine is far less likely to be considered a founding father by today’s left. But he does stand out as perhaps the greatest contemporary American defender of the French Revolution, a cataclysmic event that is widely, and rightly, seen as the birthplace of, variously, the left, the “revolutionary tradition,” and/or totalitarianism itself. Meanwhile, Burke was the greatest critic of the French Revolution in the English-speaking world, a fact that shocked many Americans who revered Burke for his moral support of the American Revolution.

Indeed, their debate over the events in France was nothing less than a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic, dividing many of America’s Founding Fathers into rival intellectual camps. In Virginia, the pro-Paine Senator James Monroe wrote to Thomas Jefferson that “the contest of Burke and Paine…is much the subject of discussion in all parts of this state.” John Quincy Adams essentially “live-blogged” the debate for a Boston newspaper, not so subtly siding with Burke. When Jefferson read Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, he remarked that “the Revolution in France does not astonish me so much as the revolution in Mr. Burke.”

Burke saw no inconsistency in his positions, and neither does Levin (nor do I). In any case, inconsistency is an odd charge to level at a thinker who, as a matter of core belief, sees consistency of principle as a trifling concern. Burke’s thought is hard to categorize in no small part because he rejected abstract categorizations that reduced political matters to a checklist of discrete principles. “I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions,” Burke said in his speech “On American Taxation.” “I hate the very sound of them.”

Reason itself can reach the point of diminishing returns, according to Burke: “Politics ought to be adjusted not to human reasonings but to human nature, of which reason is but a part and by no means the greatest part.” As Levin puts it, Burke believed that the “dark side of our sentiments is mitigated not by pure reason, but by more beneficent sentiments. We cannot be simply argued out of our vices, but we can be deterred from indulging them by the trust and love that develops among neighbors, by deeply established habits of order and peace, and by pride in our community or country.” Burke’s sympathies for the American colonists stemmed not from a debate about the abstract rights of man (or of Parliament) but from an appreciation for the habits and customs that had developed among what he considered to be a branch of the British family in North America.

Burke’s worldview begins not with the individual as the irreducible unit of society, but with the family—both literally and figuratively. And families are not institutions of pure reason. The perfect mother or father may deploy reason with his unruly children better than the more human among us can manage, but no parent gets the job done with logical arguments alone. Building good character and a rightly formed conscience from the crooked timber of humanity requires deployment of the beneficent sentiments as well. Humans, Burke argued, are animals—special animals to be sure, but animals all the same, with needs rooted in their nature. The role of the statesman is to attend to all of those needs, which requires prudence and prescription drawn from a careful understanding of history—an understanding that mere “sophisters and calculators” cannot provide.

He did not derive his views from faith alone. While Burke was certainly a believer, Levin notes, his defense of religion as an institution had a powerful public-policy component. When people living under an established Church “are habitually convinced that no evil can be acceptable…to him whose essence is good,” Burke writes, “they will be better able to extirpate out of the minds of all magistrates, civil, ecclesiastical, or military, any thing that bears the least resemblance to a proud and lawless domination.” In Burke’s view, Levin adds, “religion, by ‘consecrating’ the state, gives the people an added impetus to respect and regard their regime.”

It is difficult to exaggerate the degree to which Thomas Paine thought all of this was nigh-upon villainous balderdash. Paine came to be a revolutionary by an unorthodox route—he was a British tax collector who grew disgusted with the abuses of British taxation and the poor treatment of tax collectors. After he wrote a blistering pamphlet, The Case of the Officers of Excise, his wife left him and he found himself destitute in London.

He had the good fortune of meeting Benjamin Franklin, who facilitated Paine’s migration to Philadelphia, where he quickly landed a job as a journalist. He rapidly became one of the greatest theoretical advocates of the American Revolution. But even after the war, and after several attempts to create a life in the private sector, Paine could never shake the revolutionary bug. He considered the French Revolution to be a great leap forward, a greater opportunity even than the American Revolution, which came up short of what Paine saw as its true potential.

According to Paine, all that matters are first principles. History has no authority save as a chronicle of villainy, usurpation, and tyranny. Borrowing from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and other Enlightenment thinkers, Paine believed that truth—the whole truth—could be deduced through reason. Tradition, custom, and habit all needed to be stripped away from society like so much old paint—which is exactly what the Jacobins set out to do as they rooted out not just the aristocracy but also the Church, replacing it with a new “cult of reason.” That the dawn of man happened incalculable millennia ago is irrelevant. “If a dispute about the rights of man had arisen at the distance of an hundred years from the creation,” Paine writes, “it is to this source of authority they must have referred, and it is to this same source of authority that we must now refer.”

By stripping away the accretions of history and starting from scratch, “we are brought at once to the point of seeing government begin, as if we had lived in the beginning of time. The real volume, not of history, but of facts, is directly before us, unmutilated by contrivance, or the errors of tradition.” Using this heuristic, Paine believed that man can apply reason—reason alone—to deduce how to design the perfectly just society, and then start it at Year Zero. As he put it in Common Sense years earlier, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

“A revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion,” Paine insisted in his Age of Reason, which treated religion as just another pillar holding up a decadent and illegitimate order. “Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented,” he wrote, “there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory to itself than this thing called Christianity.”

In short, Paine declared war on any notion of commitment woven into us by family, faith, or tradition. That prior generations acted in such a way does not justify the continuation of such behavior. “All power exercised over a nation must have some beginning,” Paine insists. “It must either be delegated or assumed. There are no other sources. All delegated power is trust, and all assumed power is usurpation. Time does not alter the nature and quality of either.” Every generation is the only generation, and it is not bound by the customs or desires of previous ones.

Paine surely had a point when it came to, say, the prerogatives of a hereditary nobility. But what about hereditary wealth? Paine at times sounds like an early Rawlsian looking skeptically at the idea that anyone should be entitled to decide what to do with his wealth beyond his own life. Why would your child be more entitled to your wealth than the child unconnected to you who was born in poverty?

For Burke, such thinking was an assault upon all he held dear and true. “I cannot conceive how any man can have brought himself to consider his country as nothing but carte blanche, upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases,” Burke writes. “A man full of warm, speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than he finds it; but a good patriot, and a true politician, always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country.”

From the Burkean perspective, society at any given moment is simply a work in progress towards an ultimately unattainable goal of perfection. It is an interconnected ecosystem that evolves through the messy work of trial and error. One can see why Friedrich Hayek, the ostensible father of libertarianism, described himself as neither a libertarian nor a conservative, but an “Old Whig”—the same appellation preferred by Edmund Burke. In the Old Whig’s view, every generation is an heir to all those that came before it and a benefactor to the ones yet to be born. Our accumulated habits, customs, and institutions, flawed though they may be, contain within them myriad and often mysterious sources of wisdom, worthy of respect—even when it is necessary to modify or overthrow them.

This makes Burke, in Levin’s apt phrase, a “forward-looking traditionalist.” Burke wrote:

We must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation. All we can do, and that human wisdom can do, is to provide that the change shall proceed by insensible degrees. This has all the benefits which may be in change, without any of the inconveniences of mutation.

Paine may have had a point when he said that “all hereditary government is in its nature tyranny,” but he could not grasp that not all tyrannies are equal and that the poison of some can be tolerably diluted over time. The British, through generations of trial and error, worked out how to balance reason, principles, and the beneficent sentiments they held for the crown without sacrificing democracy or committing regicide.

While it is obvious that Levin’s deeper affection is for Burke, he is never heavy-handed about it. Indeed, by the end of the book, it is clear that Levin is not really interested in selling the argument in his subtitle. Instead, he simply lets the men speak for themselves and trusts the reader to provide the context as needed. As Levin concedes, this is partly due to the fact that while the divergent worldviews of Burke and Paine illuminate important differences between right and left, they also clearly illuminate disagreements that run through the heart of Anglo-American life. These are two strands that together form—or at least deeply inform—the DNA of our political culture, and together they create family resemblances that transcend the conventional ideological divide.

For example, as Levin notes, Burke’s disdain for radical change could be—and has been—claimed as an argument for preserving the welfare state, given that it was constructed over the course of the past 100 years. Meanwhile, the Tea Partiers and other doctrinaire libertarians are the most obvious disciples of Paine these days, not just in their political zeal but in their adamantine faith in immutable rights.

The Great Debate is a masterful and loving piece of work, the kind of solo performance that commands mute attention and makes even a crinkled cough-drop wrapper sound like an errant clang of the gong. It does more than announce Levin’s arrival; it is, in itself, a refutation—this time with an inerrant clang—of the factitious notion that intellectual conservatism is a bygone thing.

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