In a wonderful new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of the Right and Left, Yuval Levin shows that much of Edmund Burke’s greatest work was aimed at refuting Thomas Paine, just as much of Paine’s greatest work was designed to rebut Burke. Levin also shows persuasively how both of these men’s views find echoes in today’s ideological struggle between the right and left. Paine championed reason as an immanent force of nature that allows man to discover all social truths, including the deistic truths of religion. In Burke’s view, tradition provides ballast to man, who, far from seeing wholly through the prism of reason, is blinded by partiality, circumstance, and limited knowledge.
I strongly encourage readers of this blog to pick up a copy of this important and lucid work. For me, the book raises some questions about Burke’s relative enthusiasm for tradition and relative disdain for democracy. When Burke was alive, these positions were two sides of the same coin. For Burke, tradition was a way to capture what worked over a long period and the judgment of many minds through the centuries. These were indicia of tradition’s beneficence. Democracy, even representative democracy, in its turbulence and focus on the present, threatened to overturn this source of social stability and wisdom.
But Burke’s veneration of tradition over all of methods of social regulation sits less well today. Because the world now changes a lot faster than in Burke’s day, tradition is less likely to be a good guide to present policy. Democracy, like tradition, is also a method of getting the views of many minds. While still imperfect, an extended voting franchise works better in our day than it would have in his. A larger number of people are better educated and have a larger stake in society, both in protecting their property and human capital.