“The Great Debate”: Not So Great

I was drawn to Yuval Levin‘s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left because some commentators on the right had praised it. But I was disappointed by The Great Debate for two reasons: repetitiveness and wrongheadedness (with respect to conservatism).

Regarding repetitiveness, the philosophical differences between Burke and Paine are rather straightforward and can be explained in a brief essay. Levin’s 304 pages strike me as endless variations on a simple theme — a literary equivalent of Philip Glass‘s long-winded minimalism.

In fact, I am wrong to suggest that it would take only a brief essay to capture the philosophical differences between Burke and Paine. Levin does it in a few paragraphs:

Paine lays out his political vision in greater detail in Rights of Man than in any of his earlier writings: a vision of individualism, natural rights, and equal justice for all made possible by a government that lives up to true republican ideals. [Kindle edition, p. 34]

*     *     *

Politics [to Burke] was first and foremost about particular people living together , rather than about general rules put into effect. This emphasis caused Burke to oppose the sort of liberalism expounded by many of the radical reformers of his day. They argued in the parlance of natural rights drawn from reflections on an individualist state of nature and sought to apply the principles of that approach directly to political life. [Op. cit., p. 11]

*     *     *

For Paine, the natural equality of all human beings translates to complete political equality and therefore to a right to self-determination. The formation of society was itself a choice made by free individuals, so the natural rights that people bring with them into society are rights to act as one chooses, free of coercion. Each person should have the right to do as he chooses unless his choices interfere with the equal rights and freedoms of others. And when that happens— when society as a whole must act through its government to restrict the freedom of some of its members— government can only act in accordance with the wishes of the majority, aggregated through a political process. 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.

For Burke, human nature can only be understood within society and therefore within the complex web of relations in which every person is embedded. None of us chooses the nation, community, or family into which we are born, and while we can choose to change our circumstances to some degree as we get older, we are always defined by some crucial obligations and relationships not of our own choosing. A just and healthy politics must recognize these obligations and relationships and respond to society as it exists, before politics can enable us to make changes for the better. In this view, politics must reinforce the bonds that hold people together, enabling us to be free within society rather than defining freedom to the exclusion of society and allowing us to meet our obligations to past and future generations, too. Meeting obligations is as essential to our happiness and our nature as making choices. [Op cit., pp. 91-92]

In sum, Paine is the quintessential “liberal” (leftist), that is, a rationalistic ideologue who has a view of the world as it ought to be.* And it is that view which governments should serve, or be overthrown. Burke, on the other hand, is a non-ideologue. Social arrangements — including political and economic ones — are emergent. Michael Oakeshott, a latter-day Burkean, puts it this way:

Government, … as the conservative … understands it, does not begin with a vision of another, different and better world, but with the observation of the self-government practised even by men of passion in the conduct of their enterprises; it begins in the informal adjustments of interests to one another which are designed to release those who are apt to collide from the mutual frustration of a collision. Sometimes these adjustments are no more than agreements between two parties to keep out of each other’s way; sometimes they are of wider application and more durable character, such as the International Rules for for the prevention of collisions at sea. In short, the intimations of government are to be found in ritual, not in religion or philosophy; in the enjoyment of orderly and peaceable behaviour, not in the search for truth or perfection….

To govern, then, as the conservative understands it, is to provide a vinculum juris for those manners of conduct which, in the circumstances, are least likely to result in a frustrating collision of interests; to provide redress and means of compensation for those who suffer from others behaving in a contrary manners; sometimes to provide punishment for those who pursue their own interests regardless of the rules; and, of course, to provide a sufficient force to maintain the authority of an arbiter of this kind. Thus, governing is recognized as a specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises. It is not concerned with concrete persons, but with activities; and with activities only in respect of their propensity to collide with one another. It is not concerned with moral right and wrong, it is not designed to make men good or even better; it is not indispensable on account of ‘the natural depravity of mankind’ but merely because of their current disposition to be extravagant; its business is to keep its subjects at peace with one another in the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness. And if there is any general idea entailed in this view, it is, perhaps, that a government which does not sustain the loyalty of its subjects is worthless; and that while one which (in the old puritan phrase) ‘commands the truth’ is incapable of doing so (because some of its subjects will believe its ‘truth’ to be in error), one which is indifferent to ‘truth’ and ‘error’ alike, and merely pursues peace, presents no obstacle to the necessary loyalty.

…[A]s the conservative understands it, modification of the rules should always reflect, and never impose, a change in the activities and beliefs of those who are subject to them, and should never on any occasion be so great as to destroy the ensemble. Consequently, the conservative will have nothing to do with innovations designed to meet merely hypothetical situations; he will prefer to enforce a rule he has got rather than invent a new one; he will think it appropriate to delay a modification of the rules until it is clear that the change of circumstances it is designed  to reflect has come to stay for a while; he will be suspicious of proposals for change in excess of what the situation calls for, of rulers who demand extra-ordinary powers in order to make great changes and whose utterances re tied to generalities like ‘the public good’ or social justice’, and of Saviours of Society who buckle on armour and seek dragons to slay; he will think it proper to consider the occasion of the innovation with care; in short, he will be disposed to regard politics as an activity in which a valuable set of tools is renovated from time to time and kept in trim rather than as an opportunity for perpetual re-equipment. [Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, New and Expanded Edition, pp. 427-31]

This leads me to Levin’s wrongheadedness with respect to conservatism. It surfaces in the final chapter, with a failed attempt to reconcile the philosophies of Burke and Paine as variants of what Levin calls liberalism.

Given the stark differences between Paine’s proto-liberalism and Burkean conservatism, I cannot view the latter as a mere variant of the former. As Levin says,

the Burke-Paine debate is about Enlightenment liberalism, whose underlying worldview unavoidably raises the problem of the generations. Enlightenment liberalism emphasizes government by consent, individualism, and social equality, all of which are in tension with some rather glaring facts of the human condition : that we are born into a society that already exists, that we enter this society without consenting to it, that we enter it with social connections and not as isolated individuals, and that these connections help define our place in society and therefore often raise barriers to equality.** [Op. cit., p. 206]

Despite that, Levin writes of

[t]he tradition of conservative liberalism — the gradual accumulation of practices and institutions of freedom and order that Burke celebrated as the English constitution….

… [T]his very same conservative liberalism is very frequently the vision [that today’s conservatives] pursue in practice. It is the vision conservatives advance when they defend traditional social institutions and the family, seek to make our culture more hospitable to children, and rail against attempts at technocratic expert government. It is the vision they uphold when they insist on an 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. [Op. cit., p. 229]

Levin’s sleight of hand is subtle. Paine’s so-called liberalism rests on premises rejected by Burke, the most important of which is that change can and should be imposed from the top down, through representative government. Where conservatives do promote change from the top down, it is to push civil society toward the status quo ante, wherein change was gradual and bottom-up, driven by the necessities of peaceful, beneficial coexistence. That isn’t liberalism; it’s conservatism, pure and simple.

Whence Levin’s category error? It seems to arise from Levin’s mistaken belief in an all-embracing social will. After all, if humankind has a collective will, its various political philosophies can be thought of as manifestations of an underlying bent. And that bent, in Levin’s view, might as well be called “liberalism.” It would be no less arbitrary to call it Couéism, or to say that pigs are human beings because they breathe air.

Am I being too harsh? Not at all. Consider the following passage from The Great Debate, with my interpolations in brackets:

The tension between those two dispositions comes down to some very basic questions: Should our society be made to answer [by whom] to the demands of stark and abstract commitments to ideals like social equality or to the patterns of its own concrete political traditions and foundations? Should the citizen’s relationship to his society be defined [by whom] above all by the individual right of free choice or by a web of obligations and conventions not entirely of our own choosing? Are great public problems best addressed through institutions designed to apply the explicit technical knowledge of experts or by those designed to channel the implicit social knowledge of the community? Should we [who?] see each of our society’s failings [by whose standards?] as one large problem to be solved by comprehensive transformation or as a set of discrete imperfections to be addressed by building on what works tolerably well to address what does not? What authority should the character of the given world exercise over our sense of what we would like it to be? [The opacity of the preceding sentence should be a clue about Levin’s epistemic confusion.]

Our answers [as individuals] will tend to shape how we [as individuals] think about particular political questions. Do we [sic] want to fix our [sic] 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? [Or simply by non-interference with markets?] Do we [sic] 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? [Or by fostering personal responsibility and self-reliance through laissez-faire, with private charity for the “hard cases”?] Do we [who?] want problems addressed through the most comprehensive and broadest possible means or through the most minimal and targeted ones? [Or through voluntary cooperation?]

…Is liberalism, in other words, a theoretical discovery to be put into effect or a practical achievement to be reinforced and perfected? [By who?] These two possibilities [see below] suggest two rather different sorts of liberal politics: a politics of vigorous progress toward an ideal goal or a politics of preservation and perfection of a precious inheritance. They suggest, in other words, a progressive liberalism and a conservative liberalism. [Op. cit., pp. 226-227]

Even though liberals tout individualism, they evince a (mistaken) belief in a collective conscience. Individualism, in the liberal worldview, is permissible only to the extent that it advances liberals’ values du jour. There is no room in liberalism for liberty, which is

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.

Why is there no room in liberalism for liberty? Because peaceful, willing coexistence might not lead to the particular outcomes that liberals value — for the moment.

In sum, liberalism, despite its name, is an enemy of liberty. And Paine proves his liberal credentials when, in Levin’s words, he

makes a forceful case for something like a modern welfare system. In so doing, Paine helps show how the modern left developed from Enlightenment liberalism toward embryonic forms of welfare-state liberalism as its utopian political hopes seemed dashed by the grim realities of the industrial revolution. [Op. cit., p. 120]

“The grim realities of the industrial revolution” are that workers’ real incomes rose, albeit gradually. Levin evidently belongs to the romantic-rustic school of thought that equates factories with misery and squalor and overlooks the deeper misery and squalor of peasantry.

I don’t know what school of conservative thought Levin belongs to, but it can’t the school of thought represented by Burke, Oakeshott, and Hayek. If it were, Levin wouldn’t deploy the absurd term “conservative liberalism.”

* In that respect, there is no distance at all between Paine and his pseudo-libertarian admirers (e.g., here). Their mutual attachment to “natural rights” lends them an air of moral superiority, but it is made of air.

** Not to mention the obvious fact that human beings are not equal in any way, except rhetorically. Some would say that they are equal before the laws of the United States, which is true only in theory. Laws are not applied evenhandedly, especially including laws that are meant to confer “equality” on specified groups but which then accord privileges that deprive others of jobs, promotions, admissions, and speech and property rights (e.g., affirmative action, low-income mortgages, and various anti-discrimination statutes).

*     *     *

Related posts:
The Social Welfare Function
On Liberty
Inventing “Liberalism”
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Accountants of the Soul
The Left
Enough of “Social Welfare”
Undermining the Free Society
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Our Enemy, the State
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
What Are “Natural Rights”?
Government vs. Community
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
The Left’s Agenda
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
The Evil That Is Done with Good Intentions
Understanding Hayek
The Left and Its Delusions
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
About Democracy
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
A Declaration and Defense of My Prejudices about Governance
Society and the State
Why Conservatism Works
Liberty and Society
Tolerance on the Left
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
The Barbarians Within and the State of the Union
Defining Liberty
Government Failure Comes as a Shock to Liberals
“We the People” and Big Government
The Futile Search for “Natural Rights”
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
My View of Libertarianism
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)



  1. Thomas,

    I just wanted to thank you. You get “it”. And you make the point quickly and clearly. A rare thing nowadays.


    Sent from my iPad



Comments are closed.