How a long forgotten debate between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke explains American politics

December 17, 2013

Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs, as well as the Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor to National Review and the Weekly Standard. He was a member of George W. Bush's domestic policy staff. His new book is "The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left." On Friday, we spoke about how that debate continues to shape American politics. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Ezra Klein: So the thing that nags at me when I read a book that roots today’s partisan debates in the arguments present at the founding of the republic is that today’s partisanship isn’t a steady trend. Sixty years ago America was a much less polarized place. So how can this historical perspective explain both periods?

Thomas Paine. (Wikimedia Commons)
Thomas Paine. (Wikimedia Commons)

Yuval Levin: Our system has always had a left and a right. What it hasn’t always had is a political party that represents the left and a political party that represents the right. For a lot of our history the parties broke down regionally, ethnically, and over issues like race. Today the Democratic Party is recognizably, though obviously not perfectly, the party of the left. The Republican Party is recognizably, but not perfectly, the party of the right. That means our ideological differences are now party differences. And a politics that is ideologically coherent is not calm. It’s intense. Longstanding differences are being expressed through our political institutions to a greater degree than has been true in the past.

EK: I think that’s an important point. But while it’s true that our parties have sorted ideologically, it’s also true that our ideologies have, in response, conformed to partisanship. The most vivid recent example is the individual mandate transitioning from a policy identified with the right in the 1990s to one that only is identified with the left today. So we don’t just have parties sorted by ideology, but ideology driven by party and by the other incentives that parties have, like elections, interest groups and tribal loyalties.

YL: That does happen sometimes. But I think it’s important to keep in mind the differences between means and ends in public policy. The health debate is a good example. You can talk about different policy mechanisms common to the left and right, but the two sides have very different visions on health care. Progressives try to solve the problems by centralizing authority in the hands of people with knowledge -- in this case, expertise. Conservatives try to solve them by centralizing authority in the hands of people with social knowledge, which includes but isn’t just markets, and which happens through trial-and-error.

This is partially a difference in theories of what kind of knowledge is available in society. The book is about the intense debate between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine from the end of the 18th century. And a big part of their disagreement was about what we can know in society. It was about the place of technical knowledge versus social knowledge, about the place of mediating institutions versus the state. I wouldn’t suggest those debates can simply be mapped onto today’s controversies. But I think we understand more about what we’re arguing now when we see what elements run deep and which are more momentary.

EK: To push on that though, it’s not clear to me that the difference in terms of theories of knowledge is as stark as you portray it. The sharpest expression of the expertise model in the Affordable Care Act is the Independent Payment Advisory Board in Medicare. But Paul Ryan had something very similar in his 2009 health-care plan. And back in the George W. Bush administration, I remember liberals being very upset that Dick Cheney was in a room with industry experts on energy crafting a bill. It often seems to me that the difference here isn’t in terms of whether the two sides want to centralize authority in experts but which experts they choose, with liberals often turning to academia and conservatives often turning to industry.

YL: The corporatism you find in Republican administration is both a problem and not a particularly conservative approach to governing. But in the health-care law, the difference is evident in a much broader set of areas. The whole approach is to define the insurance product and then define the way it is bought and sold. What you find in most Republican approaches on health-care reform is an effort to help people be consumers without too strictly defining what happens between the consumer and the provider.

That said, an important thing you learn about our political differences when you look at history is our politics is fought between the 40-yard lines. It’s not really about communism versus anarchism. There’s a basic agreement about liberal democracy, and that’s a huge difference from, say, some continental European experiences. The inclination of some conservatives to think of the American left as rooted in some kind of European import like German social democracy is not quite right. It’s very rooted in our own tradition. And neither the right nor the left owns the founding. Our politics has always been defined by this difference, and it still is.

EK: Your point about how our parties haven’t always reflected our ideological differences is a really important one. There’s a tendency to confused polarized politics with polarized times. Our politics is between the 40-yard lines now. But in the 60s, we were dealing with civil rights and feminism and Vietnam and college students pledging sedition and political leaders being almost routinely assassinated. And I wonder sometimes what would’ve happened to the country if there'd been a polarized political system exploiting those divisions rather than a political system that was really, self-consciously trying to hold the country together.

Edmund Burke (Wikimedia commons)
Edmund Burke (Wikimedia commons)

YL: I think this cuts both ways. The question is whether the fact that the parties didn’t represent those tensions well made that period more, or less, intense outside politics. There are mechanisms in politics that compel people with different views to work together. If the differences that exist in society are represented in the political system the system can make the people with those differences work together. Our politics can calm our society. The public doesn’t want to see its politicians fighting, and it’s easier to see where one side or the other is being unreasonable. People look at, say, the shutdown fight, and they say, "let’s calm down and figure this out now."

EK: But do you really see the shutdown fight as an example of the political system being forced to work together? I see it as the exact opposite. The differences there really were within the 40-yard lines and then some Republicans set fire to the field.

YL: There’s a way of looking at the last few years that starts with where conventional, centrist wisdom thought we should end up. That’s with lower deficits, a sort of 3-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases. And the last three years, though they’ve been unpleasant, have achieved a version of that. Not the version anyone wanted. But they’ve helped address the more immediate debt problem and roughly in the way people thought we should do it. It’s just been a grinding struggle. But I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.

Paralysis could’ve been a lot worse than this. We’re still passing legislation. There are periods of party government where Democrats and Republicans control the government and pass big things. I do think the last couple of years where we’ve had a divided Congress, which is fairly unusual, have been problematic, and that situation does present institutional problems that we don’t have a lot of experience dealing with. When it happened in the 80s we had seven government shutdowns in eight years. But even now the two parties managed to get something accomplished.

EK: I think those institutional frictions, in an age of polarized parties, are pretty important. Despite the arguments between Burke and Paine, the Founding Fathers really built the political system assuming there wouldn’t be any political parties. They hated political parties! And then, of course, they went on to start a few. But this is a system where the underlying idea was that competition would be between branches, not between two parties competing across all the branches. 

YL: I think that’s right. But it was an almost immediate change. The system has had a lot of experience working that way. Burke and Paine actually disagreed intensely about whether there should be parties. Burke argues parties are not only unavoidable in a society like ours, but good. That sprang from his theory of knowledge and power. Parties are inevitable, he said, because no one could ever know all parts of a society so different people emphasize different parts. The champions of those parts would tend to coalesce into a party that was the party of progress and the party of traditionalism. This was, as you say, not the common view of the founders. Many of them held Paine’s view, which is that party is fundamentally dangerous to a society. But very quickly, almost instantly, their system broke into parties. Madison wrote Federalist 10 about the dangers of factions and with Thomas Jefferson created our first real political party.

EK: How well do you think the traditionalism vs. progress rubric actually for today’s debates? At this point, Democrats are putting forward budgets that, with some reasonably minor exceptions, keep the basic architecture of the American state in approximately the form it’s had for the last 50 or 60 years. Medicare, for instance, keeps its current form under Democrats. The Republican budget dramatically overhauls almost every major program. Medicare becomes something new and untested. Putting aside whether that’s a good idea, there’s a reasonable argument that the Democratic approach is actually more traditionalist when it comes to the shape of the state than the Republican one.

YL: It’s important to get beyond the simple difference of progress vs. stability. What the two sides really embody are dispositions about politics. We certainly sometimes see conservatives very eager to transform governing systems and liberals eager to preserve parts of our system in ways that can seem Burkean. Barack Obama has said that himself. But I think that misses something about the particular debates here.

The debates about the welfare state or the entitlement state are second-order debates. The egalitarian ideal of justice advanced through certain applications of technical expertise is a progressive ideal Paine would’ve recognized. And the more conservative idea about addressing social problems through the application of social knowledge using social institutions like the family and civil society and markets is something Burke would’ve recognized. They represent different ideals about what kinds of information are available to us.

Paine makes a very powerful case that giving a lot of power to institution between the individual and the state is illegitimate in a society because those institutions are not democratically elected. You live in a place where the Catholic Church has always held power -- why should your health care be dependent on them? Just because it’s always been done that way? The debate about the welfare state is a debate over a set of institutions that clearly embody certain definitions of liberal society. I don’t think that quite scrambles left and right. I think the vision you find in the Ryan budget is a pretty recognizably conservative vision, even though it’s being pursued rather aggressively.

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