In an excerpt from his new book The Great Debate, Yuval Levin traces the lineage of today’s liberals and conservatives back to the political divide between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke:
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. But the failure of Enlightenment-liberal principles and the institutions built upon them to deliver on that bold ambition and therefore on Paine’s hopes of eradicating prejudice, poverty, and war seemed to force the left into a choice between the natural-rights theories that Paine thought would offer means of attaining his goal and the goal itself. In time, the utopian goal was given preference, and a vision of the state as a direct provider of basic necessities and largely unencumbered by the restraints of Paine’s Enlightenment liberalism arose to advance it. …
Today’s left, therefore, shares a great portion of Paine’s basic disposition, but seeks to liberate the individual in a rather less quixotic and more technocratic way than Paine did, if also in a way that lacks his grounding in principle and natural right.
Thus today’s liberals are left philosophically adrift and far too open to the cold logic of utilitarianism—they could learn from Paine’s insistence on limits to the use of power and the role of government. Today’s right, meanwhile, shares a great deal of Burke’s basic disposition, but seeks to protect our cultural inheritance in a less aristocratic and (naturally, for Americans) more populist way than he did, if also in a way that lacks his emphasis on community and on the sentiments. Today’s conservatives are thus too rhetorically strident and far too open to the siren song of hyperindividualism, and they generally lack a nonradical theory of the liberal society. They could benefit by adopting Burke’s focus on the social character of man, from Burke’s thoroughgoing gradualism, and from his innovative liberal alternative to Enlightenment radicalism.
Levin’s critique of liberalism is powerful and to be expected. But what makes his book much more interesting is his truly trenchant critique of his fellow conservatives as well. And it is a critique well-taken. I’d be much tougher on them, but this book is a tonic for a new discourse.
(Image of Matthew Pratt’s Portrait of Thomas Paine, 1785-1795, via Wikimedia Commons)