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The “Isms” In Liberalism

Winter 2015 - Vol. 57, No. 1


This review essay appears in the Winter 2015 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left
by Yuval Levin (New York: Basic Books, 2014)

While following today’s angry clashes between Democrats and Republicans in the daily newspapers, on the nightly news, or through the Internet, older Americans might be forgiven for looking back nostalgically at the Eisenhower years as an Era of Good Feelings. In the midst of that era, Louis Hartz published his famous The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), which argued that all American politics and history takes place within a Lockean liberal consensus. Because they lack a feudal past, Americans are not class conscious and therefore are not susceptible to the lures of either the extreme Right or extreme Left. Even the Southern planters of the Civil War period argued for their “rights” under the Constitution.                

Of course, the Eisenhower era included the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which bullied people in the name of fighting a vast communist threat; but Hartz folded them into his consensus as examples of recurring “Red Scares” that occurred whenever “Americanism” felt threatened by outside ideological forces. Now comes Yuval Levin, the founder and editor of National Affairs and former member of President George W. Bush’s domestic policy staff, to update Hartz’s thesis.

Levin views American liberals and conservatives as two opposing currents of a common stream of Lockean liberalism. These currents go back to two talented English polemicists, Edmund Burke (1729–1797) and Thomas Paine (1737–1809), whose ideas are reflected in today’s Right and Left: Tea Partiers and Progressives, as well as moderates.

But why should Anglo-American liberalism embrace such antagonistic currents? The answer lies in its very vagueness as a catch-all philosophy. Early English liberalism was the result of a slow, centuries-long accretion of liberties. This process reached a climax of sorts in the revolutions against the Stuart kings, Charles I and James II. As a result of the so-called Glorious Revolution, in 1688, according to Bertrand Russell, “the first comprehensive statement of this liberal philosophy is to be found in [John] Locke, the most influential though by no means the most profound of modern philosophers.” Since liberalism developed over such a long period of time, it is perhaps not surprising that Locke’s “comprehensive statement” was a jumble of ideas that might contradict one another if they were carried too far. For example, Locke thought that people had a right to choose their own form of government, yet he also advocated separating government into legislative and executive branches with checks and balances in order to limit majority rule. Liberals also believed in individual liberties, including the right to acquire private property, while proclaiming that all men are equal. For the Fabian socialist intellectual Harold Laski, that was a fatal contradiction, because liberal governments usually serve the interests of those who accumulate the most property, while the “rights” supposedly enjoyed by the rest of society remain mere abstractions. Real freedom, he asserted, requires equal material conditions, or socialism.

Nevertheless, these internal tensions within liberalism did not become obvious until the French Revolution. Before then, British liberals could celebrate the gains they had won with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 against James II: a Declaration of Rights, greater freedom for Protestant nonconformists (but not Catholics or Jews), more press freedom, guaranteed annual sessions of Parliament, and a limited monarchy. These gains were still fresh in the minds of Englishmen when Burke and Paine first came into prominence as supporters of the American Revolution. Both men thought the Americans had been abused by the British government and had the right to revolt. With the more radical French Revolution, however, Burke and Paine found themselves on opposite sides. Both were passionate and articulate pamphleteers, and therefore attacked each other with gusto. Their polemics divided English liberalism and were reflected in America in the rivalry between the Hamiltonian Federalists and the Jeffersonian Democrats. Their arguments constitute what Levin calls “The Great Debate.”

* * *

Levin begins his study by describing the social origins and professional careers of his two protagonists. Burke was born in Ireland of a mixed but happy middle-class marriage. His father was a lawyer and an Anglican; his mother was an Irish Catholic. He attended Trinity College in Dublin, then moved to England and worked as a private secretary to Whig politicians. In his midthirties he was himself elected to Parliament. As a successful example of the rising bourgeoisie, it is not surprising that he was comfortable with British society as a whole, but his early acquaintance with the disadvantages suffered by his mother’s relatives made him open to reform. As a parliamentarian, he supported equal treatment for Catholics, argued for ending the slave trade, and demanded investigations into the government’s ill treatment of its colonies—in India as well as America.

Paine came from a very poor family, also based on a mixed marriage: his father was a Quaker, his mother an Anglican. After only five years of formal education, Paine had to go to work in his father’s trade as a corset maker. He was a voracious reader, however, and became sufficiently self-educated to get a government job as a tax collector. But the pay was low and the work brought him into contact with government corruption. He wrote a pamphlet protesting the low wages of public employees that cost him his job—and his marriage, because his wife left him when he became unemployed. But just at this low point in his life Paine met Benjamin Franklin, who was in England as a lobbyist for the American colonies. Franklin became his patron and convinced him to move to Philadelphia and start a new life. Paine arrived in America in 1774, got a job as editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, and quickly became part of Philadelphia’s literary and political inner circle. Still, his life experiences had turned him into an underdogger. When the American Revolution broke out the following year, he wrote a powerful pamphlet entitled Common Sense that laid out the argument justifying American independence. The document sold thousands of copies and helped to convince many uncertain Americans to join the cause.

After the American war ended, Paine made a visit to London in 1787 on his way to look after some business interests in France. While there he sought out Burke, who had spoken in Parliament in favor of the Americans, and was invited to be a guest for several days at Burke’s home before continuing on to France. When the French Revolution erupted in 1789, Paine wrote Burke, his presumed ally, many enthusiastic letters in favor of the uprising. To his dismay, Burke’s reaction was just the opposite of what he had expected. Worse, Burke issued a book entitled Reflections on the Revolution in France the following year that condemned both the revolutionaries and the political theories they used to justify their acts. On reading it, Paine’s shock and dismay quickly turned to anger. He responded with a book of his own, The Rights of Man, which forcefully defended the revolution and attacked Burke. The Great Debate was on.

Having introduced his two contestants, Levin then spends the next six chapters and conclusion reconstructing their distinct visions of how the individual, society, and government should relate to one another in a proper liberal system. He begins, in chapter 2, with their assumptions about human nature and nature in general. Paine adopted Locke’s method of argument by positing a “state of nature” that supposedly antedated the creation of society and government. In it, each isolated individual is absolutely free of constraint by anyone else and is equal to all other individuals.

Society comes about through a “social contract” because human beings are gregarious by nature and also because individuals soon learn that they cannot supply all their needs without the help of others. But by entering into a social contract, individuals do not surrender their rights to freedom or equality. The society they create exists to protect those rights and facilitate them. Government comes into being because there are inevitable vices in human nature, such as greed and envy, which need to be controlled. Society creates government but is distinct from it. If the latter becomes tyrannical, society may overthrow it and start over because government is a creation of the people and must rest upon their consent.

Burke would have none of this. He dismissed the “state of nature” and the “social contract” as misleading myths. He insisted that human beings are always born into social groups and could not survive without them. The “sovereign individual” is a foolish abstraction. Moreover, government and society are not separate but are intertwined. Over time they develop practices, habits, rituals, relationships, laws, institutions, languages, and theologies that create strong sentiments of love and loyalty. Although Burke did not use the term himself, these clusters of interrelated, reinforcing sentiments and traditions (Burke calls them “prejudices”) are what modern social scientists would call a “culture.”

To overthrow such a web of relationships, of which government is a part, is no small matter. Burke noted that radical revolutions like the French provoke violent emotions among both those who seek to destroy the existing order and those who wish to defend it. Such upheavals usually unleash anarchy, which in turn ends in tyranny, regardless of which side wins.

These opposing assumptions about human nature and the origin of government necessarily lead to different visions about what constitutes a just political order, which is the subject of chapter 3. As we just saw, Burke views society and government as a kind of organism whose various parts are inseparable and reinforcing. As they survive over time through trial and error, they acquire a “character.” Now and then, of course, there will be a need to adapt to new circumstances. This is where statesmen must use prudence and apply what Burke calls “prescription.” The essence of “prescription” is to build necessary reforms upon what experience has taught us is compatible with the character of our society. Prudence requires that such reforms should be gradual and piecemeal. Furthermore, we cannot expect such reforms to achieve perfection, since perfection is unattainable; but if they are adequate to the time and place, so that tranquility is restored, that will be sufficient. And just.

Obviously, such an approach rejects abstract reasoning about perfect justice, such as Paine would prefer. For Paine, natural law requires that equality be the essence of justice because the social contract was an agreement among equals. Therefore, popular sovereignty is the only basis for a government consistent with the social contract. It must be expressed through free elections, which allow the people to change their laws and the form of government as they choose. Any attempt to prevent this is grounds for revolution.

* * *

Choice is the central theme of chapter 4. Again, Paine argues that the people agreed to the social contract in order to secure their natural rights. Among those rights is the freedom of every individual to choose how to live and to realize his potential, so long as he respects the same freedom for others. But then Paine goes on to observe that people who are living in poverty are not really free to choose how to live or develop their potential. The government has an obligation to provide for those who are unable to help themselves and to open up opportunities for the poor to improve their lot—for example, through free public education. Those benefits would be paid for by a steep progressive tax on inheritances, which would have the additional salutary effect of equalizing social conditions. Paine was opposed to the inheritance of property and status because they perpetuate hierarchies that negate the individual’s natural right to equality. Thus, Paine was an intellectual forefather of the redistributive welfare state.

Burke agreed with Paine that “whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself.” He has a right to equal treatment under the law and to the fruits of his industry, but he does not have a right “to equal things.” Nor did Burke believe in popular sovereignty, which he called “absolute democracy,” because he feared it would lead to a tyranny of the majority. He preferred, instead, a “balanced constitution” that combined monarchical, aristocratic, and popular elements. Governing is difficult, he insisted, and it requires leaders with plenty of experience and education. It is better to be governed well by qualified members of the privileged classes than to pursue the chimera of absolute political equality.

For the same reason, he favored “great masses of accumulation” of private property as the best means of keeping government within bounds. Yes, there should be some opportunity for individuals in the lower classes to accumulate property and rise in the social hierarchy; but, he warned, “the road to eminence and power, from obscure condition, ought not to be made too easy, nor a thing too much of course.” A few prominent self-made men (like him) might be a sign of health, but property’s “defensive power is weakened as it is diffused.” As for the government redistributing income to help the poor, that would only distort economic activity and make everyone worse off.

None of these arguments impressed Paine. Governing is not all that difficult, he replied. People like Burke who pretend that governing is some mysterious art only a few can master, after much special preparation, are simply trying to protect their upper-class privileges. Any rational, intelligent man can administer a political office. There are many such worthy people in the lower classes, but they never get a chance to try. That is why political, economic, and social equality are so necessary.

Chapter 5 (“Reason and Prescription”) is about whether Reason, especially if backed by scientific claims, is a better guide to policy than past experience. For Yuval Levin, “this dispute between universal principles and historical precedents . . . cuts to the core of the debate that still defines our politics. To this day, progressive voices argue that our political system must empower expertise to directly address social and political problems with technical prowess. And today’s conservatives argue that we must empower institutions (like families, churches, and markets) that channel the implicit knowledge of many individuals and generations, and that have passed some test of time and contain in their forms more wisdom than any person could possess.”

Paine was inspired by the Newtonian science of his day, with its claims to discover universally valid principles. By applying reason and the scientific attitude to the study of society, men of his persuasion—like his friend Thomas Jefferson—were convinced they had discovered “self-evident truths.” Tradition and habit no longer had any claim to respect. Not only were they “unscientific,” but they defended unjust inequalities. Clearly, the status quo they supported would never be reconstituted if we could return to the state of nature and start over from scratch. (Some readers may perceive at this point a similarity to John Rawls’s argument in A Theory of Justice.) Once scientific truth was established, there could be no more room for debate.

Paine was also optimistic about translating rational, scientific truths into policy once popular sovereignty and social equality were in place. Each individual, as a rational being, would approach elections by carefully weighing the candidates and their platforms. When presented with policy choices, he would rationally calculate the advantages and disadvantages. (Some readers may perceive at this point a similarity to Rational Choice Theory.) To facilitate the government’s job of translating the public’s choices into law, Paine thought that institutional simplicity was essential. Rather than Burke’s “mixed constitution,” he favored a unicameral legislature based on majority rule. This was a big departure from Locke’s idea of separating government into branches with countervailing checks and balances, but Paine did not fear majority tyranny. So long as Reason prevailed, the majority would be informed and moderate.

Given Burke’s attachment to “prescription,” it is no surprise that he rejected the whole notion that there can be a science of politics. Universal rules are impossible, he insisted. Every situation is unique because of the circumstances that created it and now surround it. Thus, every action involves a degree of uncertainty as to the expected outcome. Although he had never heard it formulated, Burke was expressing the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Rather than envision society as a loose collection of rational individuals, Burke thought it better to view it more like a very large version of the family. The sentiments (or “prejudices”) that hold it together are stronger than mere reason. They begin in the immediate family and gradually widen out to embrace the larger community: first friends and neighbors, then fellow church members, coworkers, or professional colleagues. These “little platoons,” as Burke calls them, constitute civil society. Our feelings for them gradually lead to a love of country and mankind. In return, civil society buffers the individual against the state. Without the “little platoons,” the individual would be helpless against abusive governmental power.

That is why Burke condemned “abstract reason” with its propensity always to criticize existing institutions and practices because they fail to meet its standards of perfection. So long as they are working tolerably well, why create unhappiness and chaos by trying to undermine them? Burke accuses such critical theorists of being inspired by a “sour, malignant, envious disposition.” He would strengthen existing institutions and procedures by pomp and ceremonies that enhance the people’s attachment to them.

Chapter 6, “Revolution and Reform,” is largely a restatement of arguments presented earlier in the book. Burke stands for gradual, piecemeal reform and respect for institutions and habits that have stood the test of time. Rights and liberties, sanctified by time and tradition, are more firmly grounded than those that proceed from abstract principles, as England has shown by its history of gradual development toward a free but stable order. Even the leaders of Parliament in 1688 who drafted the Bill of Rights after overthrowing James II claimed they were only restoring “ancient” and “undoubted” rights bequeathed to them by previous generations. By contrast, Burke predicted, French theorizing encouraged fanaticism, which would end by crushing all liberty under a revolutionary dictatorship.

Burke’s prediction came all too true for Paine, who was thrown into jail by Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety for associating with revolutionists who were thought to be too moderate. He was saved from execution when, in the following year, Robespierre was overthrown and sent to the guillotine. Burke died before Napoleon Bonaparte seized power and created the sort of popular ultra-nationalist dictatorship that served as a model for twentieth century fascism, but Paine lived to see it. Paine tried to explain it away by saying that the French people had taken over the government before they had fully digested the correct principles. It is more likely, however, that Bertrand Russell was correct in observing that radical liberalism may create an anarchist offshoot that celebrates the sovereign individual as a hero. Citing Thomas Carlyle and Friedrich Nietzsche, Russell warns that hero worship, when adopted by the crowd, “inevitably leads . . . to the despotic government of the most successful hero”—who then suppresses all other individuals.

On the other hand, Paine got in some of his best licks when he made fun of Burke’s excessively romantic narrative of England’s history of political moderation. He reminded readers about Tudor absolutism and Henry VIII’s religious revolution that uprooted Roman Catholicism’s centuries-old institutions. Before the Tudors came the Wars of the Roses, and after the Tudors came the Stuart kings, whose claims to divine right set off another series of civil wars that were punctuated by the beheading of Charles I, the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, and the violent overthrow of James II. This was hardly a history of piecemeal change.

Chapter 7 (“Generations and the Living”) adds little new to the debate. We already know that Burke believed that society is a complex organism that seeks to survive by drawing upon the experience of previous generations and passing on that wisdom to future generations, along with the knowledge acquired by the present generation. Tradition and habit keep a society going by providing continuity. We know, too, that Paine had no patience with traditions or with inherited wealth or social status. Of course, the current living generation may choose to continue some of its forefathers’ institutions and practices, but they are not obliged to do so. They may dispense with any or all of them. “It is the living, and not the dead, that are to be accommodated.” In a later pamphlet, called The Age of Reason, Paine even rejected the moral and religious teachings of the past. Levin concludes that “temporal individualism is at the heart of Paine’s liberalism.”

* * *

In his conclusion, Levin reiterates that the arguments of Burke and Paine are still alive in the two main streams of American liberalism, though not in pure form. Conservatives, echoing Burke, revere the Constitution as a precious inheritance from our Founding Fathers; but for solving problems they prefer the abstract concept of free markets, and not sentiment or tradition. In contrast, progressives put their faith in “technical experts” who work for the national government and believe in an ever-changing “living Constitution.”

Interestingly, Levin believes that both sides of the current debate in America are infected by “hyper-individualism.” On the Left, progressives embrace a peculiar combination of “moral individualism” and “material collectivism.” That is, they wish to sweep away all traditional moral restraints (family, religion, community) on individuals’ behavior, while also seeking to impose an egalitarian utopia through the redistributive power of a strong, centralized state. On the right, Levin notes, American conservatism suffers from a dogmatic economic “hyper-individualism” whose hostility toward government and blind faith in free markets and free trade neglects Burke’s emphasis on man’s social nature and the importance of community.

In saying this I think Levin has put his finger on an important underlying weakness in American conservatism, but one that Paine and Burke could not debate because both of those men lived prior to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of large-scale capitalism. Conservatives take pride in the achievements of American capitalism, and rightly so. It has proved to be the most dynamic economic system the world has ever seen and has served to greatly raise the living standards of ordinary people. As Joseph Schumpeter put it in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942), “the capitalist engine is first and last an engine of mass production, which unavoidably means also production for the masses.” But Schumpeter is best remembered for his concept of capitalism as “creative destruction”—that it is a revolutionary process that never can be stationary.

Schumpeter began his book by noting that Marx also recognized capitalism’s revolutionary nature. Indeed, in The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels expressed horror at the vast upheavals capitalism had wrought—and did so in terms that are almost Burkean. Capitalism, they said, “put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations” and “all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions.” It has “torn away from the family its sentimental veil” and “drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm.” All this was achieved by “constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.” Not only has capitalism “created enormous cities” but it has also “through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption.” Thus, “in place of old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production.” Burke probably would have applauded those sentiments—and I also suspect that many of today’s paleoconservative fans of Wendell Berry and opponents of globalization and multiculturalism would too (if they didn’t know who wrote them).

Schumpeter, however, celebrated the changes because they improved the economic well-being of most people. “The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens,” he wrote, “but in bringing them within reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.” Even so, he was pessimistic about capitalism’s future. He thought that recurring business cycles, whose periodic downturns destroy both wealth and jobs, would result in increasing public demands for more governmental regulation of the economy. Moreover, the concept of private property was being diluted by changes in the character of the business enterprise. “Creative destruction” was replacing the old dynamic entrepreneur, who both built and directed his own enterprise, with the corporation run by hired managers and not by the nominal owners, the shareholders, who were too dispersed to exercise real control. This bureaucratization of business would make it more easily absorbed by the administrative state.

Evidence abounds today that Schumpeter’s predictions might come true, but there is another problem with capitalism that ought to give conservatives pause, and which Schumpeter did not live to analyze. In our contemporary consumer society, with its influential mass communications, the advertising and entertainment industries constantly peddle their wares by encouraging their audiences to throw off restraint and indulge in every one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The toxic pop culture resulting from this is poison to the Protestant ethic that Max Weber identified as the cause and foundation for capitalism.

* * *

Burke once warned that “men are qualified by civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” ♦


Paul H. Lewis is a retired political science professor from Tulane University. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.