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Natural rights and wrongs: Burke vs Paine

Revisiting the great battle of ideas between the two thinkers. 

The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left
Yuval Levin
Basic Books, 304pp, £20

Yuval Levin has written a readable and timely book on a topic about which there seems always more to be said. Levin is the editor of a conservative journal based in Washington, DC, but The Great Debate is a scholarly rather than a polemical work. The author’s heart clearly lies with Edmund Burke but he gives Thomas Paine as much space and, in general, a very fair hearing. The problems with the book are not with Levin’s understanding of the two men but with his understanding of their relevance to 21st-century politics.

The question raised by Levin is whether the “great debate” between Burke and Paine is ongoing or one of merely historical interest. Levin plainly believes that the truth lies with the first of these possibilities, yet the great debate to which the two thinkers were parties was about the nature and prospects of the French Revolution of 1789. It might be thought that the issues at stake were decisively settled more than 200 years ago. Burke’s belief that the revolution would end in bloodshed and military despotism was borne out, first by the Terror and eventually by the rise of Napoleon. Paine, on the other hand, fell victim to the revolution he had dedicated himself to when his opposition to the execution of Louis XVI led to his imprisonment. Like many others, he was saved by the downfall of Robespierre.

That hardly scratches the surface of what was at stake in their argument. Paine’s response to Burke’s writings was called not Further Reflections on the Revolution in France but Rights of Man. What he was defending was a doctrine of natural rights of the kind that the American revolutionaries of 1776 had used to justify their rebellion. He seems to have been genuinely surprised that Burke, who had been supportive of the American colonists, was not equally supportive of the French revolutionaries. Burke, though, had never suggested that the American colonists had a natural right to set up whatever government suited them but argued that the British government had departed from what was a policy of benign and salutary neglect of its American colonies by instituting new forms of taxation and attempting to impose them by force.

Burke was clear that rulers were not appointed by the people to promote the general welfare and liable to dismissal whenever the people thought they had proved inadequate to the task. And it was not only Burke who thought that any such attitude laid the foundations for anarchy. Jeremy Bentham, much less of a friend to traditional forms of government and social hierarchies than Burke, dismissed Paine’s doctrine of natural rights as “nonsense upon stilts”.

Nonetheless, as Levin makes clear, the argument between Paine and Burke went very deep. One of the great divides was over the right of the present generation to ignore everything that its predecessors had believed or valued and to begin the world anew. On this, Paine and Thomas Jefferson were at one. The authority of the past could at most rest on the success with which our predecessors had dealt with problems. The idea that the past as such has any authority over us seemed to both Paine and Jefferson the merest superstition. Burke’s appeal to the idea of society as a contract between the dead, the living and the yet unborn failed to grip the imagination.

Much the same might be said about their conceptions of the role of the individual in society. For Burke, that we are born into social relations is a deep moral fact; for Paine, it is a mere fact and what is important is the right of the individual to choose for himself under what social, economic and political arrangements to live.

On all of this Yuval Levin is a clear and well-informed guide. Where he is less adroit is with his subtitle and the wider context in which he situates Paine. The problem begins when he raises the issue of Paine’s proposal in Agrarian Justice for a form of welfare state. Levin treats this as something provoked by the rise of a new industrial society but Paine was writing in the context of rural poverty, even though his proposal to finance a welfare state by taxing away the monopoly rents of landowners echoed throughout the 19th century in the work of socialists such as Henry George and even in that of more modest radicals such as John Stuart Mill.

The larger problem is that Levin’s view of the right-left distinction is too narrowly adapted to American conceptions of the cultural divide between conservatives and liberals. In his view, the left is defined by Paine’s ultra-individualism. To British readers, this will seem very odd, as it is a feature of most forms of socialism to be hostile to liberal individualism. Even in an American context, the division between Burkean conservatism and Paineite liberalism does not hold up. Conservatives in the US are doomed to try to conserve a simple, radical liberalism; not for nothing has the so-called Tea Party adopted both the clothing and the manners of 1770s radicals.

Indeed, Levin observes that Burke and Paine were at odds about the direction of a liberal society – quarrelling not so much about as yet unborn centuries but about the proper interpretation of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It was, to quote the title of one of Burke’s books, a quarrel between the “new” and “old Whigs”.

Alan Ryan is a professor of politics at Stanford University. His books include “On Politics: a History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present” (Penguin, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution