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Burke, Paine, and the Politics of This Era

My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin is the author of a wonderful new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. It explores the origins of the right-left divide by focusing on Burke and Paine’s dramatically opposing views. 

For example, in his chapter titled “Choice and Obligation,” Levin points out that Burke, unlike Paine, believed a “politics of choice” begins in error. “As Burke sees it, each man is in society not by choice but by birth. And the facts of his birth – the family, the station, and the nation he is born into – exert inescapable demands on him, while also granting him some privileges and protections that the newborn has, of course, done nothing to earn.”

Levin then writes this:

Just as Paine’s understanding of rights and choice sits at the heart of his political thought, so this vision of obligations not chosen but nevertheless binding forms the very core of Edmund Burke’s moral and political philosophy. Almost everything else flows out of it. To understand the human situation this way – as existing in a web of embedded obligations flowing out of our natural and social circumstances and setting the form of our lives and the shape of our society – is implicitly to deny Enlightenment liberalism’s emphasis on choice. But this view of binding obligations also tries to ground a theory of human relations in human life as we find it, rather than in an internally consistent but highly abstract set of ideal principles.

Many of our most important human relationships and circumstances, then, are not a matter of choice. “We have obligations to mankind at large, which are not in consequence of any special voluntary pact,” according to Burke. They are based on prior and even compulsory obligations.

Related to this is the importance of restraint in a free society. “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites,” is how Burke famously put it. Precisely how society ought to balance liberty and restraint is a matter of prudence, not principle. “The calculus of prudence aims not to maximize choice,” according to Levin, “but to meet the true wants of the people, as these emerge from the complex and layered society that Burke describes.”

Which leads to a final point about Burke’s effort to define liberty in a particular way–a liberty that is “not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will. The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is assured by the equality of restraint…. This kind of liberty is indeed but another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions.” Burke, in reflecting on the French Revolution, described liberty without wisdom and virtue as “the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.” (The French Revolution horrified Burke, of course, while Paine was an enthusiastic supporter of it.)

Burke’s perspective is clearly a challenge to many ways of modern thinking, where virtually any constraint on choice, freedom, and individualism are viewed as oppressive and unjust. Even within conservatism one can tell how far we have drifted away from some of Burke’s most basic attitudes.

Many on the right speak about liberty as an unqualified good, with hardly (if ever) a mention of the dangers of “selfish liberty” and the importance of reciprocal obligations, the role politics plays in reinforcing our common bonds and the role the state plays in reinforcing the common good. There is a fuller and richer conservative tradition, as embodied by Burke, that’s worth reclaiming.  

In this elegantly written and engaging book, Yuval Levin explains why the disagreements between Burke and Paine have helped to define the politics of this era, why “political events are always tied up with political ideas,” and why reflecting on the deep, permanent questions of human life and human society still matters.


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