In a rip-roaring debate in the early 1790s, Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke fleshed out two distinct strains of liberalism whose differences continue to animate our political life today. Paine was the archetypal progressive liberal. Burke, though often considered simply a conservative, is better understood as representing a conservative interpretation of liberalism. At the heart of their disagreement, which on its surface was about the revolutions taking place in America and France, lay a “not-so-obvious fact: That where we stand on many of the great questions at the heart of liberal democratic politics often depends decisively upon our view of the relationship between the present and the past,” writes National Affairs editor Yuval Levin.
Paine, a political writer and activist who lived in England, America, and France over the course of his life, believed that the Enlightenment should usher in an era of revolutions. With the newfound tools of reason and political science, leaders should seek to transform society to make it more just and more sensitive to human equality and rights. Paine wrote that for every child born, “the world is as new to him as it was to the first man that existed, and his natural right in it is of the same kind.” He should not be bound by the past, but should choose anew society’s design. Choice was central to Paine’s philosophy. He agreed with his friend Thomas Jefferson that it would be a good idea for every law to come with an expiration date so that it would not be imposed upon future generations without their active consent.
Burke, a member of the British parliament for 30 years, thought Paine put too much stock in reason. Do not wise men disagree? Reinventing society, as Paine would have it, would run the risk of collapse. Instead, Burke favored incremental improvements to our governing systems, which he believed were themselves a good starting point because they embody, in Levin’s words, “the collective wisdom of the ages as expressed in the form of long-standing precedents, institutions, and patterns of practice.” Though society’s institutions may not be just at present, over time they will evolve to at least imitate justice. Burke dismissed Paine’s adulation of choice, believing that people enter into society not by choice but by birth, and that the society they enter is a partnership “not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
Paine rejected Burke’s philosophy, finding it to be “thoroughly misguided, if not just a cynical defense of privilege and power,” Levin explains. Paine wrote, “Mr. Burke is contending for the authority of the dead over the rights and freedom of the living.”
Despite their differences, these two men had much in common, Levin observes, including a belief in “open debate, freedom of expression and religion, the rule of law.” It’s not liberalism and anti-liberalism that shape our political life, but liberalism, divided by the little detail of what we should keep from the past.
Sketch of Thomas Paine