In The Great Debate, Yuval Levin investigates the origins of Left and Right and finds solutions for the problems facing American conservatives today
As millions in the United States tune their televisions to images of royal babies, diamond jubilees, and the further adventures of the Earl of Grantham, Yuval Levin gives us American interest in England of a much more profound sort: an in-depth study of the two leading British political thinkers of the 18th century.
Both Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine were known for their sympathies for the American cause. Burke was one of the foremost critics of Parliament’s policies toward the colonists across the Atlantic. Paine’s publication of his pamphlet Common Sense — possibly the most influential essay in American history — proved to be the polemical tinderbox that turned these colonists’ disgust with Parliament into a permanent rejection of monarchy. The two famously clashed, however, over the French Revolution, in which Paine saw the dawning of a new era founded in reason, while Burke saw the destruction of the mores, traditions and civic structures that had sustained civilisation for centuries. Paine’s writings embody Enlightenment optimistic belief in the progressive march of mankind, while Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France remains today an ur-text of conservatism. In a dazzling, engaging, clearly written examination of their diverse writings, Levin traces the link between these differences and the political debate dividing Left and Right today. Paine stressed reason as the primary animating force in political progress; Burke emphasised tradition as a central source of wisdom in politics. Whereas Paine stressed the natural rights of man as morally obligating even antagonism to the political order, Burke stressed the importance of order in ensuring the very liberty Englishmen held dear. Perhaps the most fundamental disagreement between the two, for Levin, is how to understand the connection between past and posterity, how modern man should relate to the generations that preceded and formed him. Paine, Levin writes, “seeks to understand man apart from his social setting, while Burke thinks man is incomprehensible apart from the circumstances into which he is born”.
Levin locates in this disagreement the visions of the Right and Left in America today — or, as he might put it, two very different versions of the liberalism born in the Enlightenment. Both approaches, he shows, stem from an inherent tension in the Enlightenment. For the political achievements of modernity, such as representative democracy or religious toleration, were developed over generations, primarily in Britain, traceable both to thinkers such as Locke and events such as the Glorious Revolution, inspired by philosophy but also by scripture. At the same time the Enlightenment emphasises abstract principles: inalienable rights, the consent of the governed, the autonomy of the individual. The question for liberalism, Levin writes, is:
Is it a set of principles that were discovered by Enlightenment philosophers and that should be put more and more completely into practice so that our society can increasingly resemble those philosophers’ ideal mix of egalitarianism and liberty? Or is it a living culture built up over countless generations of social trial and error so that by the time of the Enlightenment, especially in Britain, society had taken a form that allowed for an exceptional mix of egalitarianism and liberty?
How we answer that question will affect what course the classical liberalism given to the West by Britain should take today.
British readers of The Great Debate will not only learn more about their own intellectual heritage, and about the current debate between Left and Right; they will also be introduced to Yuval Levin, himself one of the most gifted young conservative thinkers in America today. The editor of the journal National Affairs, a successor to Irving Kristol’s Public Interest, this young man is simultaneously a political philosopher and policy wonk, who is able to explain concisely the deeper questions that lie at the heart of legislative debates. I myself have seen him brilliantly dissect the tedious subject of healthcare policy to a group of mesmerised college students. Today, the American Right is experiencing a great debate between social conservatives and libertarians, realists and internationalists, Washington establishment and Tea Party. Meanwhile, Levin and his circle are devoting serious thought to what a governing conservative-minded party might have to offer America today should it regain the presidency.
Thus, while at first blush Levin’s book might be seen as an abstract analysis of two schools of political thought, in fact it is situated in the unique place in which American political debate finds itself today. During the 2012 election campaign, Barack Obama famously commented on the hypothetical citizen proud of the business he had built that “you didn’t build that; someone else made that happen.” Republicans gleefully seized on the statement as a gaffe, an indication of his disregard for the American emphasis on individual achievement. One whole day of their convention was dedicated to this theme, thousands in attendance chanting, the resounding refrain “You did build that!” Those chants fell largely on deaf ears and the election season ended in a defeat.
A reading of Burke might have reminded Republicans that while government is not the sole source of success, the sustaining structures of faith, family and community are essential to allow the opportunity of individual achievement. American conservatives today, Levin cautions in his conclusion, “are thus too rhetorically strident and far too open to the siren song of hyperindividualsm”. Meanwhile, even though the electorate rejected the individualistic rhetoric of the Right, the news is now filled with the failures of the administration’s attempt to introduce universal healthcare through governmental mandate — a testament, perhaps, to Levin’s point that today’s Left grounds its rhetoric in utilitarianism rather thanPaine’s natural rights, and therefore lacks a notion of the limitations of government.
What might an American Burkean conservatism — which takes seriously the importance of the situated nature of the human being that reveres tradition, while wary of the danger government can pose to individual liberty — propose for modern policy problems in mediating between liberty and equality, community and individuality, tradition and innovation? If America puts its faith in the political Right again, it is the perceptive mind of Yuval Levin that will help provide the answer.