Continuing Conversation... Yuval Levin on Burke, Paine, and the Great Debate

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Yuval Levin on Burke, Paine, a... Yuval Levin Postmortem...

The origins of the Left-Right divide in American politics is the primary focus of this week's episode.

Consider the prompts below, and let's continue the conversation.

Keep reading:

Check Your Knowledge:

1. Levin describes Burke as a "founding father" of the American Right and Paine of the American Left. What are the characteristics of each that lead Levin to characterize them as such?

2. Levin argues that though both Burke and Paine supported the American Revolution, it was for different reasons. What does he mean by this, and how does this relate to the character of the Right and Left of today?

Going Deeper:

3. Roberts seems unable to choose "whose side he's on" - Burke's or Paine's. What does he like about each of them? What does he dislike? How does this compare to Levin? And whose side are you on, and why?

4. Roberts asks Levin why there are no such towering intellectual figures in political debate today. Was their confluence an outlier? A mere coincidence? Or are they both wrong about the lack of genius in politics today?

Extra Credit:

5. In this episode from last June, Arnold Kling argues that the Right-Left dichotomy is an inaccurate picture of American politics today. Instead, there are three "languages" of politics- Progressives, Conservatives, and Libertarians. Which best describes the policy outlook of Burke, and why? Of Paine? How does the addition of this third character add nuance to political debate?

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Steven writes:

We've been "going deeper" in the general discussion forum, but I'll post a brief comment regarding Question 4, asking about the lack of "towering intellectual figures in political debate today."

There is no lack of intellectual figures in political debate today; it's just that they are largely being ignored by the public. The reason some people think of figures such as Paine and Burke (as well as The Founders and others) as "towering" is because they were part of the sea-change of the American experiment. America was partly an application of Enlightenment ideas. The experiment was, at the time, a surprising success, and so we tend to romanticize the figures who were involved in it. People tend to do the same thing in times of great wars; they think of all the "towering figures" responsible for victory. People also tend to think of extremely successful corporate leaders as "towering figures," such as Steve Jobs.

In my opinion, the "towering intellectual figures" in the political and economic spheres today are largely preempted or overwhelmed by all the intellectually bankrupt and nonproductive rhetoric that seems to be the mainstay of the mainstream news media. Also, it's not unusual to hear various intellectuals criticizing intellectuals (e.g. Thomas Sowell wrote a book doing just that). The "debate" that's going on, the one that most people see in the media, is not an intellectual debate. Every four years, when I watch the so-called presidential debates, I feel embarrassed for my country. Considering that I'm not an intellectual, that's pretty sad.

Greg G writes:

Regarding #5

I think this question conflates American political philosophy today with American electoral politics today in a way that can cause some confusion.

Kling did make an excellent case that there are three main languages of politics today. In his model, Progressives talk about the world in the language of a struggle between the oppressed and the oppressors. Conservatives talk about the world in the language of a struggle between civilization and barbarism. Libertarians talk about the world as a struggle between freedom and coercion.

This is a useful model, and in this model, there is little doubt that Progressives would get partnered up with Paine, Conservatives would get partnered up with Burke and Libertarians would be the ones left without a partner.

Libertarians add a lot of nuance by agreeing with Burke on economic issues and a distaste for positive rights. They tend to agree with Burke that negative rights are the only real rights.

Libertarians tend to disagree with Burke about how much we should be bound by tradition. They tend to share with Paine the idea that we should try for something that has never before been possible. Libertarians are probably closer to Paine on social issues for that reason.

The fact that Libertarianism is the third most significant political philosophy in America today in an intellectual sense does not make it the third most significant force in electoral politics. Not even close. The Libertarian Party has run a candidate in every Presidential election since 1972. Their BEST result has been 1% of the vote.

Those are extraordinarily poor results even by the standards of American third parties. Ralph Nadar got almost three times that percentage as a Green Party candidate in 2000. Ross Perot got 19% as an independent in 1992 and 8% as a Reform Party candidate in 1996. John Anderson got 7% as a third party candidate in 1980. Earlier in the 20th Century there were many third party candidates who got far more than 1% of the presidential vote.

Libertarians have a much more coherent political philosophy than any of those other third parties but they remain an insignificant force in electoral politics because, if they vote at all, they tend to vote Republican no matter how far away the Republicans get from actual Libertarian principles.

Amy Willis writes:

@Steven, I agree! I wonder, though, if this suggests that political-economic change (akin to the "sea change" you mention at the American founding) can only happen in the wake of crisis/war?

Greg G writes:

Regarding # 2

Paine supported the American Revolution because he wanted a chance to to radically remake society.

Burke supported the American Revolution because he wanted a Conservatism that was robust enough to bend without breaking. He thought that resisting the Revolution would ultimately cost the existing government and institutions of England more than it would gain them.

Today's self identified Conservatives tend to want a bigger military. They support a more aggressive foreign policy including pre-emptive war against Iran. And they expect to be able to accomplish this while cutting taxes, defaulting on the debt and drowning government in the bathtub. It's hard to see Burke in any of that.

Thomas writes:

Levin seems to be describing two political ideas as they are, and how they came about. Although Libertarians will be sure to point out that the right and left dichotomy is not a full enough description of intellectual political thought. However, most people see politics in a left/right way. So it does make sense to, when being descriptive and historial, to only talk about the two main traditions of political thought as they relate to today. Also, I believe a general characterization of using Burke and Paine are not too far off base. Let me make a few statements before I make my main point.

Thomas Sowell, in 'A Conflict of Visions', says we generally see the world in two different ways. However, this does not mean that two people who share the same vision will draw the same conclusion. Example, someone who views the world in a unconstrained (vision) way could also speak in a Liberty vs. Coersion (Language) fashion. Also, taken from page 133 (footnote 18) of the History of Economic Analysis, “But in other times and countries, the Benthamites might have been conservatives… or even socialists….A man may accept Marx’s analytic work entirely and yet be a conservative in practice.”

Essentially, two people could use the same line of reasoning yet reach two different conclusions. An two people could use two different lines of reasoning and draw the same conclusion. I have heard and read Nassim Taleb say he believes Hayek’s conclusions were correct, but that Marx’s thought process/logic was better.

Brendan writes:

regarding #5

Burke would most likely fit with more of a progressive Conservative because he did say the present is better than the past yet his gradualism seems to moderate the progressive parts of his ideology that seem to reflect a willingness to change but through civil society and tradition. Yet Paine who I feel would be Libertarian progressive for unlike Burke his willingness to change is more drastic and involved more fundamentalist transformation.

Mike Tolhurst writes:

4. Roberts asks Levin why there are no such towering intellectual figures in political debate today. Was their confluence an outlier? A mere coincidence? Or are they both wrong about the lack of genius in politics today?

I think this is an interesting question. I *suspect* that our reading them as towering is largely an artifact of history. That is, both Paine and Burke in retrospect appear to have captured the essence of their age. At the time however I personally would have thought Paine a dangerous dilettante and Burke a sensible commentator on events.

(Say perhaps a Ross Douthat of his day. Eminently respectable, readable and admirable, but not the equal of an Aristotle... though I likely would have said the same of Aristotle if I were an ancient Greek!)

I think we *will* have towering intellects from the 20th century. I think Keynes/Hayek are on the way to such status and I strongly believe that Rawls/Nozick will also be read in future. As for today? Hard to pick 'historical winners' at this point in time. The problem is not a lack of such figures, the problem is when we are 'in the thick of it' in the present it's hard to tell the signal from the noise. So towering era-defining intellects comparable to Paine and Burke exist in our time. I just don't know who they are.

(For an example of how hard it is to predict historical success, read Hume's evaluation of Shakespeare in his "History." He thought the bard a rather pedestrian and overrated fellow. As great as Hume's "History" is I think ol' Will won that historical contest.)

Allen Hutson writes:


I think that this issue is one of the most interesting stories behind this episode.

Burke is "conservative" in the sense that he is skeptical of scrapping the old for the new. He doesn't necessarily like the old, but for good reason he is skeptical of building a "rational" society.

This fits in well with a lot of material on econtalk - a skepticism of planners and top down thinkers. Yet there is a corresponding internal struggle in classical liberalism - does this skepticism of change (especially when pursued by policy makers) mean that we should be skeptical of radical changes towards a more classically liberal society - even if those are "bottom up?"

I haven't read Hayek's "Why I'm not a Conservative" recently, but my impression is that he tended to fall on the side of actively pursuing classical liberal policies. Levin interprets Burke's work in the same light, but in my view, if we take classical liberalism and Burke's "conservatism" seriously, we have to be willing to admit that radical change in either direction may fall out of a principled view of classical liberalism. I'm not certain where I fall on this issue, but I think that it is one that receives far to little attention as it calls into question the practical policy proposals.

AK writes:

I think this has been brought up before, but even before these extras started being posted, this site could have used a redesign. Now try to imagine someone coming to for the first time and looking to browse through some podcasts. Even if they find "browse by date" it's not easy to use. I'm sure resources are limited, but you're creating lots of deadweight loss!

Steven writes:

I am so impressed with all the thoughtful comments. If only I had the time to respond to all of them . . .

I must say, though, I'm a bit confused that Mike finds Burke and Ross Douthat comparable.

Amy Willis writes:

@Allen Hutson, great reminder re: the Hayek piece! Here's a link for those who are interested.

Steven writes:

Mike, isn't it the case that "radical change" only comes about when there are "radical problems"? And once a society is at that boiling point, isn't it all the more difficult to deal with problems in a rational way?

There's the old story about the frog in a pot of water. The water is heating up incrementally. The story usually goes that the frog doesn't notice until the water's boiling. In the real world, in a real economy, I think we do notice that the "water" is heating up incrementally, and we do notice problems. And then we try to fix those problems with incremental solutions. Paradoxically, the overall effect is that the incremental solutions tend to make the water heat up even more, until we're boiling and we look for radical solutions.

Hey, it's a Friday, a good day for radical and rambling thoughts. :-)

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