Burke and Paine, the left and right

Published on Wednesday, 8 January 2014 21:09 - Written by

Author Yural Levin’s latest book is well worth the effort of reading through the thought-processes of men more than 200 years dead. “The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left” serves as a clear and concise explanation of political divisions we still see today.

Speaking about his book on CNN recently, Levin explained that fundamental questions were being asked as our nation was founded.

“Think about the first real instance of the recognizable left-right divide, which we find in an intense ideological debate that was taking place in Britain and in America at the end of the 18th century, in a period that we identify with the American Revolution and the French Revolution,” Levin said. “But it was also about a struggle to define the free society, a struggle about the tension between progress and tradition that is still very much with us, but that can be difficult to discern beneath the intense debates about particular policy questions.”

It was a fruitful and constructive debate between two contemporaries who respected each other.

“Edmund Burke is thought of as one of the fathers of modern conservatism. Thomas Paine is one of the fathers of modern radicalism,” Levin explains. “And they engaged one another. The important thing about it for seeing it as a debate is, they were contemporaries, they knew each other, they exchanged letters, and, especially importantly, they exchanged public writings, essays that tried to answer one another.”

The debate really comes down to a perception on the nature of mankind.

“Burke and a lot of conservatives after him is first struck by what is working, because he begins with very low expectations of human beings,” Levin says. “He thinks we’re fallen creatures, we’re very limited in our abilities. And so he’s amazed by anything that works at all, and wants to build on it, rather than try to uproot society. Paine thinks, there is no excuse for failure, things should work better, and that means that, when we see a society in which injustice reigns, we have to start from scratch and in a radical way change things.”

There’s an element of utopianism in Paine’s thinking — the idea that mankind is perfectible. Burke disagrees, and believes man is a fallen creature.

“Paine says society should seek to apply scientific knowledge, technical knowledge to address our problems,” Levin says. “Burke says society is much too complicated to be amenable to those kinds of technical solutions, and instead we should try to use social knowledge, dispersed knowledge that we can really only access through the institutions that exist between the individual and the state — the families, civil society, markets...”

Sound familiar? On one side is a faith in experts, on the other is a distrust of centralized government.

Of course, Burke was clearly right. As G.K. Chesterton one noted, “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”

Levin’s book is useful as a guidebook to public policy discussions today, despite its focus on 18th century thought.