Russ Roberts

Yuval Levin on Burke, Paine, and the Great Debate

EconTalk Episode with Yuval Levin
Hosted by Russ Roberts
PRINT
Marc Andreessen Postmortem... Continuing Conversation... Yuv...

Yuval Levin, author of The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, talks to EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the ideas of Burke and Paine and their influence on the evolution of political philosophy. Levin outlines the differing approaches of the two thinkers to liberty, authority, and how reform and change should take place. Other topics discussed include Hayek's view of tradition, Cartesian rationalism, the moral high ground in politics, and how the "right and left" division of American politics finds its roots in the debates of these thinkers from the 1700s.

Size:31.5 MB
Right-click or Option-click, and select "Save Link/Target As MP3.

Readings and Links related to this podcast episode

Related Readings
HIDE READINGS
About this week's guest: About ideas and people mentioned in this podcast episode:

Highlights

Time
Podcast Episode Highlights
HIDE HIGHLIGHTS
0:33Intro. [Recording date: May 2, 2014.] Russ: Our topic for today is your book, The Great Debate. You begin with the observation that the political divide between the Left and the Right today is something we take for granted without thinking about where it comes from. And you focus on two men, Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, as a way to appreciate the origins of that divide. Let's start with a brief sketch of their lives. Tell us a little bit about both Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. Guest: Well, Edmund Burke was an Irish-born, English politician and writer of the late 18th century. He was born in 1730. He was active from the 1760s until he died at the very end of the 18th century, 1797. He was a Member of the House of Commons for 30 years. A Whig. A patient, gradual reformer of British institutions, and staunch opponent of what we would think of now as a kind of a kind of liberal radicalism, especially as embodied in the French revolution. He's been thought of as one of the fathers of modern conservatism, because of his emphasis on generational continuity, on gradualism, on respect for tradition and for existing institutions. And really because of his skepticism about human power and human knowledge. And again, his criticism of the radicalism of the French Revolution. Thomas Paine is someone we might know better in America. He was an English-born immigrant to America. A contemporary of Burke's. He was 7 years younger than Burke and died about 9 years after him. He became, of course, one of the most eloquent and important voices championing the cause of independence for the Colonies, the author of Common Sense and of the crisis papers, an important activist for independence here. And that, as the Revolution was brewing in France about a decade later he went there, went to Paris, and became an influential advocate for the revolutionaries' cause as an essayist and an activist, especially as a kind of spokesman for the cause of the French revolutionaries to the English-speaking world. Paine, like Burke, was a master of the English language, a wonderful writer, and was a fervent believer in the potential of Enlightenment ideas, to sort of uproot corrupt, oppressive regimes and advance the cause of justice and equality. He started as one of the Fathers of modern Progressivism or of the modern Left because of his emphasis on, especially on liberating the individual from the restraints of tradition, the authority of the past. His extraordinary faith in the power of human reason, the power of the new signs of society to reshape the world, and his desire really to break with the past and build social institutions from scratch on the proper foundations. He was one of the faces of late 18th century radicalism. Burke and Paine knew each other. They met several times; they exchanged letters. Most importantly for studying their debate as a debate, they publicly answered one another's published writings. Some of their most important writings were in response to one another. Their disagreement extended well beyond their direct confrontations. They each over time voiced a world view that was very much at odds with each other over some of the most important, most fundamental questions of liberal democratic thought. And so, their debate really offers us a way to think about the basic divisions in our kind of politics as they appeared in what was basically the first iteration of a Left/Right divide.
4:14Russ: Let's talk about the French Revolution. 1789--is that correct? Do I have the date right? Guest: Yeah. It started in 1789 in response to a combination of factors, really in direct response to a difficult economic time, but of course in response to what the revolutionaries and what much of the public in France viewed as an especially oppressive French regime, the monarchy denying people basic rights. The French Revolution, which we sometimes associate with the American Revolution because it followed about a decade afterward and expressed itself in some similar ways, was much more radical. The French made a case for really breaking with the past. They understood themselves to be advocating for a new enlightenment politics that would allow us to escape all of the burdens of the past and find a path beyond war, beyond poverty--really, beyond politics. And so it was a very radical expression of Enlightenment Liberalism. Russ: [hums theme of La Marseillaise] With that as the backdrop, both men wrote on their reaction to the initial stages of that revolution. And how did they differ? What was their perspective? Paine, obviously, was a supporter. Burke, I would say, from pure writing was horrified at the prospect of those ideas spreading. So, talk about what their differences were in thinking about the Revolution and what were the reasons for those differences? Guest: It's an interesting question because Burke and Paine had been more or less on the same side of the American question in the previous decade. Paine, of course, was a great champion of American independence in very principal, liberal--we would think of as radical--terms. Burke supported the Americans because although he thought that Parliament had the right to tax them as it chose to, he thought that the British Parliament was behaving foolishly and that the Americans were right to resist. So they ended up on the same side ultimately, but for very different reasons. And those very different reasons led them to be in very different places on the question of France, where for Burke the French Revolution was basically the epitome of everything he had been concerned about in the politics of the West in the previous 15 years. Burke was a great believer in continuity, in gradualism, in political change that was made possible by building on the best of your country's traditions to address the worst. Burke was not a reactionary. He was not a Continental conservative, a kind of throne and altar conservative. He was a believer in progress. He thought the present was better than the past in just about every respect. But he also thought that it became better by, as I say, building on the best of itself. So for him, the ability to build on the past is the essence of progress. And what he feared was happening in France was that the French were breaking with their own traditions; the French were trying to start from scratch in the most radical possible way. And he thought that this could only lead to disaster, that this was not an advance for liberalism at all, but it would lead to totalitarianism. And there are passages in Burke's writing on France that really eerily predict the rise of a Napoleon-type figure, of a military dictator who would use the circumstances created by the Revolution to undermine all of the principles of Revolution. And so, for Burke, this was the way in which liberalism could go wrong. It was the epitome of everything he was worried about in the radicalism of the sort of Left side of the politics of liberal societies like his own. Paine saw, in the French Revolution, the great promise of the liberal age. He thought that the French finally understood in total what could be made possible by the new ideas, the new science of politics. And that they were going all out. They were not compromising; they were going to make it work. And so he had great faith in their ability to put in place an entirely new system built on rational principles that could really overcome some of the obstacles to human progress of the past. And so what you see in them are two liberals--they both believed in the liberal society as we would understand it--a free society with a democratic element to its regime. They both believed in rights. They both believed especially in the importance of property rights. They had an idea that we would identify with a kind of classical liberalism today. But they came at it from very different places, and so it led them to very different views. And the reason I think that it sheds light on the Left/Right divide is that in our kind of society, in the United States and in Britain, our basic political debates are liberal debates. Both sides do believe in the free society, both sides share a lot in common. The debate is in a sense between the 40-yard lines. But it's nonetheless a very, very profound base about the meaning of our liberties and our rights and about the purpose of our politics. And Burke and Paine, because they are arguing about such consequential events, make very, very explicit some differences that sometimes are harder to see in our kind of politics. Russ: I have to confess, as I was reading in the book, I found myself sympathizing with both men's views. Guest: I'm glad to hear it. Russ: Which is some measure of what you are talking about--that there are broad areas of agreement. But I even found myself agreeing with both of their views when they disagreed profoundly. Which is not always the best sign. It's a tribute to your fairness to both men. But I think--would it be correct to say that you are more of a Burkean than a follower of Thomas Paine? Guest: Yes. I am more of a Burkean. I think Burke is ultimately right, that what we think of as a liberal society is not the result of a great break from the Western tradition that was made possible by Enlightenment ideas, but is in fact the epitome of the Western tradition, the achievement of the Western tradition. Then gradually, over time improved upon itself till by the time of the Enlightenment especially in Britain and America it achieved an extraordinary balance between liberty and order. And that balance is what we value in our society. And that balances has to be maintained by understanding its roots, maintained by building on the best of itself, like gradual improvement, rather than seeing our politics as the beginning of a great break from the past, as an overcoming of politics that through a kind of social progress will ultimately become possible. So I believe in a politics of conserving the best of our society to address the worst, which is a conservative politics, and a Burkean politics. But there is no question that Paine articulated these ideas that are very much a part of our tradition. There is an inclination among some conservatives to think of today's Left, of American Progressivism as some kind of foreign implant, as an import from Germany, an invention of the 19th century. I think that's just not true. And it's impossible to read Paine and even to read Jefferson and think that that's true. The Left strand of our politics is very deeply rooted in our tradition. And speaks for a point of view about our politics that has always been part of it, that has always been here, that was very much part of the American political discussion at the time of the Founding. We're, kind of Left and Right, as long as we've known ourselves.
11:57Russ: I think one of the challenges of Burke--he's just no fun. You know? Paine is promising you the moon. And he is very eloquent in his promise. And Burke is saying, You know, we ought to just--the best is the enemy of the good and we can't get there from here and we've got to be more patient. And of course, that's a tough sell. I think a tough sell to the electorate today. We'll come back and talk a little bit later about later about some of the challenges. Guest: Yeah. That's a problem that Conservatives deal with all the time. And I think maybe another way to put that is that Paine begins from very high expectations of human possibilities. He thinks that we are really capable of a dramatically different and better way of live, of really overcoming our faults. And so there is no excuse for failure. He looks at the status quo, and everything that isn't working, he says is absolutely unacceptable. Burke begins from much lower expectations. He says human creatures are fallen creatures; we are very broken; and in fact he is surprised that anything works in society. And so when anything does work, we have to value it. We have to preserve what's good about it; we have to build on it rather than throw it out and start over. Because it's not easy to build effective, successful social institutions. And so, his expectations being much lower--he always wants to make sure that we are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. He agrees there's a lot to improve, there's a lot that needs changing; but the change needs to look like building on what we have. And so, it's true: For him, the promises always tempered. Russ: Because of my philosophical training, limited understanding of philosophy, I always associate Paine's view with the Cartesian view, Descartes's view, that emphases the power of reason. In contrast, I think of Burke's view as being a pragmatist view, in the philosophical sense of the word, that he recognizes the limits of reason and he relies on tradition--what we now would glibly call 'crow-sourcing' or the wisdom of crowds, or a Hayekian evolution of culture and practice as a way of improving society rather than an engineering, top-down approach. So I'm very sympathetic to the Burkean, the philosophical underpinnings of Burke. The problem is, as we are talking about it, the marketing of it, the appeal of it, is very limited. Because it basically says: Trust what you've got; it's not bad; and what you think is better may not be. It can be used as an apology for racism, the monarchy, cultural insider[?] practices that are emergent from the bottom up that are attractive. And Paine is promising you this great, this new world, this vision, this Utopian ideal, that's definitely--he's not saying that men will fly. But he's saying we'll soar. And of course, it doesn't work out that way. Let's come back to the French Revolution. Every time I read Paine--and said, Good point, good point; and though about Burke, Eh, not so exciting--you are confronted with the reality of the French Revolution. And other episodes where human beings are promised to be re-made from a blank slate. And Burke was definitely onto something there, that that's a little bit dangerous. Guest: Yeah, I think that that's very well put. And I would say the Hayekian character of Burke's approach to knowledge is very important. In fact, Hayek, in The Constitution of Liberty at the beginning of the book, draws this distinction himself between the Cartesians on the one hand and what he thinks of as the Scottish/English Enlightenment on the other. You've got this great image of the French garden and the English garden: perfectly geometrical, perfectly designed on the one hand, but no flowers actually grow this way; and the English garden is you let things grow where they are and you trim--you make them the best of what they already are. I think there's very, very deep wisdom in that distinction. And it's very much the distinction you find between Burke and Paine. The important thing to keep in mind, and Burke always tried to do that, though it was harder for him in his French Revolutionary writings, is that Burke was a reformer. Burke was not a defender of the status quo. Russ: Good point. Guest: His purpose in politics, what got him up in the morning was not defending everything that existed, but rather improving on it by building on it. And so he spent a great deal of his career trying to improve the British system, to restrain the power of the King. In the 1770s, and 1760s really, he spent a great deal of time working very hard to keep the monarchy out of the sort of everyday management of the British government. He again supported the Americans essentially because he thought that they were being mistreated through the tax policies of the North government. He reformed the British criminal law. He reformed the British imperial practices. He was very opposed to the mistreatment of the natives of India. He was very protective of Irish Catholics. He was an opponent of slavery, very, very early, one of the first signatories of the Wilberforce petition. And so Burke was a reformer. But he was a certain kind of a reformer. He was a reformer who believed that you needed to improve things in order to protect the best of the system. That if you let problems fester, that would invite radicals to come in and overthrow what was good about the system. And so there is a way in which his way of thinking can say, We can't really do that well, so let's just be happy with what we have. But Burke tried when he could to make it clear that that was not his intention, that in fact his intention was to try to do as well as we could, understanding that human beings and human institutions could go wrong much more easily than they could go right. So that improvement and change had to be undertaken carefully. Of course, in his Revolutionary writings, in his anti-French-Revolution writings, he was much more protective than he was reformist, because he saw a very, very dangerous threat to the very means by which improvement could happen. The idea that you would have a total break with the past would leave you with no raw material to build improvements on. That was his great fear.
18:26Russ: Now I want to go a little more deeply into their philosophical differences, but before I do, I want to ask you a question. When you discuss these two impressive men, their friends, you can't help but be struck by the extraordinary flowering of political and philosophical thought. In the 1770-1800 period you have Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Adams, Franklin, Samuel Johnson, Edward Gibbon, Adam Smith. And you eloquently call it a "profusion of philosophical and practical genius." It made me wonder--and I'm not the first person to wonder this--where are those people today? Are they just doing something else? Was that time an incredible outlier? Or have we romanticized the distinctive talents of that set of people? Guest: Yeah. It's really one of the great questions. There are a few periods like this. You can think of Athens in the 4th and 5th century B.C. You can think of a few other times that are like the Anglo-American profusion of genius as you say in the late 18th century. Both in America and in Britain at the same time. And the people you describe really are Burke's and Paine's circles. Paine was close friends with all of those Americans you listed. Burke knew all of those British geniuses that you listed. He has got a great exchange of letters with Adam Smith. He was a close friend of Samuel Johnson. And it does make you wonder. I think there is a reason. I think they were living in a period of extraordinary flux, where things were changing theologically and economically and politically all at the same time, in ways that drew people of great genius into political life. I think that we have some very impressive people scattered around today; there are some very impressive people in the business world; there are some very impressive people here and there in public life. But I don't think it's fair to say that we have the same level of extraordinary genius but it's just scattered. I think that times of crisis call out people of greatness. You wonder sometimes, how did we end up with Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War? I think it's not a coincidence. I think the time calls out people of a certain kind of ability and pushes down people who normally would be in politics, who are just strivers, who are just trying to make a name for themselves. So I'm inclined to say it's not a coincidence. But it's pretty extraordinary. Russ: It's a little of both. It's an outlier and it may be pertinent to the time.
21:05Russ: Let's talk about their different views now. Let's start by talking about tradition and the past. You've already covered it a little bit, but talk about how Burke and Paine viewed tradition and the past. Guest: Well, so, because Burke believed that human beings were fundamentally limited, that our knowledge and our power and what we could achieve was constrained by limits that were permanent, that were part of our nature, he thought that what we ought to do to make progress was build on the best of the best. And this meant that he thought that every country, ever society, should be very, very aware of its own history and try to understand what's best about itself and build on it. That means really a belief in tradition. And I stress the way it's connected to his ideas about knowledge because I think it's absolutely crucial. There are a couple of different ways you can think about tradition. One is to say that things used to be better in the past and we should cling to them, and should do as our fathers did because they were privy to knowledge we didn't have or that they were privy to revelation that we don't have access to. This is the way a lot of traditionalist think about tradition--that human history is a kind of downward slide and so we should do what people in the past did because those times were better. There is a more modern sense of tradition, which is very much Burke's sense, which is: The present is better than the past, but it's better because history has been a process of gradual evolution, and what evolution really means in this historical sense just as in the biological sense is that you learn from mistakes. You've tried things, you keep what's working and you drop what's not working. So that ultimately you are making incremental, gradual improvements at the margins, and you get better and better. This is more or less what Burke takes tradition to mean. And he says, we can't know in the fully rational way what it is that's working, say, about the English system. We know that it works; its structures, its forms contain more knowledge than any individually can rationally possess. And so we should be careful in our approach to it, in our improvements of it, in our changes to it, understanding that it's a system that contains more genius than we are going to be explicitly able to discern. And so we should try to build on it to the extent possible. We should approach it, he says at one time, as physicians rather than as engineers--which I think is a wonderful way to think about the difference between these-- Russ: Yeah, I constantly mention on this program that economics is best thought of as biology rather than physics, or history rather than physics. And similarly we should be thinking of ourselves as gardeners rather than engineers. And yet most of modern economics is engineering, unfortunately. Guest: Yeah. So Burke's analogy, he makes the same point, is to medicine. He says: doctors don't have an exact definition of what health is, and they also don't understand everything about the human body, but they know how to tell if someone's sick, and they have an idea of what someone looks like when he's healthy. And they just do what they can to turn the former into the latter. Paine believes that ultimately that politics is applied principle, and so that it has to start from the right philosophical principles, and it has to apply them absolutely, because those principles are the natural truth about human beings, and politics can only be just at the end of the day if it's true to those facts about ourselves--to our equality, to our liberty essentially as individuals. And so politics, to the extent that it has differed from these, which has been a very great extent throughout human history, that explains all of the evils we've seen, all of the war, all of the poverty. And what the modern Enlightenment signs of politics allows us to do is to see finally what the right principles are and so we ought to put them into effect. And so he has very little interest in political tradition. He doesn't think we should start by learning from the past. He thinks that we should start by learning the right principles of politics. We should throw off the past and to the extent we can, build politics on the right foundations. And so he really believes in starting over, and believes that that's what the American Revolution was about and believes that that's what the French Revolution could make possible. Russ: You do an amazing job, at least it occurs to this amateur, to Paine, who you confess to not being as sympathetic to; and it really is one of the factors that makes the book so enjoyable. There's never a sense, a feeling, that you are grinding an axe. And my suggestion for you is that you make a video where you impersonate each man wearing different clothes, going back and forth across the debate, where you could voice their opinions on different issues as you are doing now, which you do exceedingly well. When we think about those two different views of tradition in the past--and I want to bring it to the present--again, it's very difficult to sell the Burkean view to the American public. Modern politicians don't find that effective, saying that, Well, so-and-so's got a good proposal but we don't really know its full effects. It's remarkable how easy it is to sell snake oil to the American public without having much worry about being blamed for the consequences that come from complex systems. Throughout this I'm thinking of my favorite Hayek quote, which I haven't mentioned in a few episodes--listeners out there know--which is: The curious task of economics is to demonstrate how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. And standing athwart of progress like that is a very difficult sell for a modern politician. Do you have any thoughts on how that might be changed? Guest: Well, of course that's one of the great challenges before Conservatives in our country. And I agree, up to a point. Certainly it's hard to make the case for skepticism in politics. Political life is not designed for politicians to make a zealous case against zealotry. I think that we live now in a time, 50 years after the birth of the Great Society, when American voters may actually be much more open than we think to the idea that we should try things out before we apply them to the country as a whole. That is, through a politics of experimentation, of trial and error, to a case about how we solve problems that's different from how the Federal government now goes about solving problems. And I think that Conservatives stumble around that case when we talk about markets as models for policy. Market-oriented health care policy or education policy, or this and that. We don't explain it very well. To my mind what that means is really about how we know what works and what doesn't. So, markets work by a kind of three-step process, where there's a great deal of room for experimentation for different ways of providing people with what they want and need. There is evolution--I mean there is evaluation where consumers can choose for themselves what's working and what's not, decide what's good and bad. And then there is evolution, which is simply: keep what works; drop what doesn't work. Those three steps basically are how markets work. Markets are arranged incentives for everybody to pursue that process. And you can see fairly plainly how that leads to incremental constant improvements in outcomes. Government programs obviously don't work that way. They don't allow for any of those three steps. There's no room for experimentation when you have very prescriptive regulatory approaches to policy. There's no evaluation because people getting the service or the good or the benefit are never asked if it's working or not; they are not the ones who decide what happens. And there's no evolution, because programs never go away. We are going to spend $8 billion on pre-K (pre-Kindergarten) programs next year that we literally know don't have any effect. Because interests build up around them and they never go away. What Conservatives are arguing for a lot of the time--when they are making the right arguments, anyway--is to move from that model of the welfare state to more like the 3-step problem-solving model of the market. It doesn't mean markets in the sense of the profit motive or consumerism. It means markets in the sense of figuring out how to solve problems on the ground in a continuous learning way. And I think there is room to make that case to the public, and I don't think we have tried and failed to do that. I just think we have not tried to do that well. It seems to me as we watch the public's reaction to Obamacare, as we think about the public's views about government in general, if someone were to make that case, were to say, 'These are complicated problems; we can't begin by assuming we know how to solve them. We have to put in place systems that allow us to figure out how to solve them,' in an ongoing way, the public wouldn't think that's crazy. And it's what Conservatives offer in practice in a lot of ways--that's what school choice is, that's what the Conservative approach to health care looks like. But we are not very good at describing that to the public, at explaining it. Russ: Isn't Federalism one way of trying to produce the trial-and-error aspect of markets into government policy that we have some of in America. Guest: Absolutely. I think that's right, trying different things in different places, seeing how they work. There's an inclination--even though Conservatives approach that as--we refer to the states as laboratories, in the sense that they are going to figure out in Wisconsin what works and we're going to do it everywhere. But even that is not what is meant by this kind of process. Because it's not going to work everywhere. We actually have to have a continuous process of kind of on-the-ground problem solving. And I think that does mean devolving a lot of service provisions to private providers using the government to create incentives to experiment with different ways. So, it's more than Federalism. But Federalism is certainly an essential part of it. In a country this big, almost no national program is going to have much of a chance of working.
31:47Russ: Let's stick with that health care example for a minute. I'm reminded of the parody of the Tea Party, or it's probably true in some case or another, of government, get your hands off my Social Security. Meaning, I'm a Burkean; I like things the way they are; don't shake things up. And I think about that because my preferred health care system would be very, very--I don't know what adjective to put to it but my preferred would be to get the government out of it. I would prefer to see consumers pay with their own money; I'd get rid of the subsidies that government provides for health care through both explicit programs, like Medicare and Medicaid as well as the tax/subsidies of private health care. I'd want to see poorer people helped via private charity and all the ways that that would flower and blossom if government weren't involved in providing it and using our taxes. And that would be my solution. Now, does that make me a Burkean or a Paine kind of guy? Because I'm kind of saying, I want to start from scratch; I don't want to build on what we already have. I think the defense of Obamacare, to a large extent is, well, we have this really complicated system, doesn't work so well or it's being strained right now, so we have to tweak it but we don't want to start from scratch. So how does that come down? How did these, respect for tradition and taking the best and trial and error--I think I'm a Paine guy with a Burkean kind of solution. Or am I not? Guest: Well, I'll tell you. This is one of the questions that's come up most from serious readers of this book. Which is: If you look at politics today, it's Conservatives who are trying to change everything. And liberals are just trying to keep all of our entitlement programs and other government programs exactly the way they are. So haven't the two sides sort of switched? Russ: Yeah. Better phrased than my version. Thank you. Guest: I do think we sometimes see now Conservatives very eager to transform out governing institutions in very profound ways, and we find Liberals very protective of every last inch of the welfare state. But I think that that is a kind of second-order argument about politically change. The Right does begin, as Burke does, in gratitude for the good and skepticism about our ability to rebuild society from scratch; the Left in a kind of outrage at the injustice of the status quo. But the debate about preserving our entitlement system and government programs in general is a debate about reforming a set of welfare institutions that are themselves intended to advance a particular vision of change. And that vision is a Progressive kind of archetype that Paine certainly would have recognized. It's an egalitarian ideal of justice that's advanced through the application of technical expertise. It's a very, very technocratic approach to solving problems. And opposing it is a more Conservative ideal that Burke would have found familiar. It's a case for addressing social problems through evolved social institutions, like civil society, like markets, that tacitly contain and convey more implicit knowledge within a liberal framework. And so, as I said, I think Conservatives are arguing for a much more Burkean approach for solving these problems. Where in health care the basic difference of opinion in Right and Left: we've got a very inefficient system; the Left says we make it more efficient by centralizing it and subjecting it to expert control; the Right says we make it more efficient by decentralizing it and allowing it to be the sum of its parts run on the ground between buyers and sellers. So I think the right is being very Burkean about that, and the Left is being very technocratic or Progressive and in some respects Painean about it. Obviously it's impossible to draw a straight line from the late 18th century to the early 21st century, and I would not suggest that Burke and Paine, that the relationship between Burke and today's Right, say, is a kind of genealogical relationship, we are descended from his point of view. But I think that the two dispositions to politics arise almost inevitably in a free society like ours, and that Burke and Paine articulate those dispositions more clearly than almost anybody. And so we learn an enormous amount about how we think about really basic questions by looking at them. And I think the way Conservatives think about these questions is still very much Burke's way. Even though we are the ones today arguing for some serious changes. Russ: Very well said.
36:39Russ: I want to ask you though about a third disposition, which would be the libertarian disposition. Guest: Yeah. Russ: Which I am roughly in that camp. I sometimes describe myself as a classical liberal; and having read your book I feel like it's an even better description because then I can take both Paine and Burke when I need to, to support my views. But where does libertarianism fit into this discussion? Guest: Yeah. It's a very good question; it's a complicated question. Libertarianism, of course, you know, it's many things. It contains multitudes. And different libertarians emphasize different things. There is a strong and important strand of libertarianism that is very Burkean, because it emphasizes especially the limits of our knowledge and the kind of skepticism about the uses of power. And so ultimately believes that power needs to be restrained because there are permanent limits on what we can do. Russ: That's my Burkean side-- Guest: Yeah. And it inclines many libertarians to market economics and to restraints on the role of government and the power of government. And in that sense aligns them with a lot of Conservatives who think more like Burke. There is also an important strand of libertarianism that is very utopian about what freedom can make possible, and especially in social life--that is, by liberating people from moral constraints and traditional social and cultural constraints, we can make possible a degree of liberty that will enable a degree of human happiness that's otherwise not possible. That's also a very important part of libertarianism. And that is a very, very Painean way of thinking. The sense that, the problems we have are functions of restraints on us, and that those restraints ought to be lifted. There is a lot about Paine that is fairly libertarian. And Paine in fact starts out believing in the importance of restraint on government. Although by the end of his career, by the beginning of the 19th century, Paine is making a case for a kind of proto-welfare state. And he shows us, among other things, the ways in which radical individualism--which is an important part of the Left's point of view but which is also a part of a lot of Libertarian attitude. The way in which radical individualism leads to statism. Because by insisting that society consists only of individuals and government, they ultimately argue that anything that individuals can't do, government should do. And that's an argument you hear now from American progressives. You hear, if you look at President Obama's 2nd Inaugural Address, he literally says that. You have Barney Frank saying, government is the things we do together. Burke answered this argument-- Russ: I hate that. Because we don't do any of it together. It's a romanticization of the political process that has no empirical support when gazed at with any scrutiny. It's the strangest thing. Guest: But you know, it's a function of radical individualists. It's a function of the view that individuals ultimately don't belong to smaller groups. Don't belong to-- Russ: [?] Guest: have to be understood individually. Burke answered this by saying the life of a society happens between the individual and the state--in the family, in the community, in civil society as we would now describe it; and in the market. And so, the most important things about society are what we see in that space between the individual and the state. Paine made an argument that a lot of Progressives today make, which is that what happens in that space is actually illegitimate. That what happens in that space between the individual and the state are a lot undemocratic power center centers. Right? Who elected the Catholic Church to tell us what to do or around a hospital or whatever, around a school? All of these institutions don't have any authority. They don't have any legitimate authority. And they need to be cleared out. And not only that but they often provide shelter for certain attitudes and prejudices that don't belong in a free society. And so Paine argued, described them, as a wilderness of turnpike gates, between the individual and his rights. And this is an argument that is still very important. Russ: Popular. Guest: Yeah. So I think that that's a concern that libertarians should be alert to, the sort of individualism that they incline to can be very, very dangerous to the kind of freedom that they value.
41:24Russ: I don't--my personal take on this is that libertarians especially, economists, don't spend enough--they spend too much time defending the market and not enough time depending civil society. And it encourages--part of it is just a matter of taste and expertise--but it encourages people to treat civil society or non-government solutions as therefore business-oriented. And that's the worst extreme, as if a church, synagogue, mosque, charity, club--all those incredible institutions and communities that we voluntarily choose that somehow we just forget about those, and we just think about profits as the thing that drives improvements. And that I think is the mistake that libertarians, or at least economists, make in defending smaller government. I think they miss--they don't put enough emphasis on these voluntarily-chosen communities. Of which we join many. So when you talk about radical individualism, certainly I think that radical individualism is the way to think about human flourishing. But that radical individualism, because it's voluntary, the choices we make are voluntary, the right ones are voluntary, that allows us to join communities, more than one--they might be religious, they might be social, they might be recreational and athletic; and there are all these things that we do, and we cut across lots of spheres and it's beautiful. And we should be celebrating that and not ignoring it. Guest: Absolutely. I would push back in one way. I think Burke poses one challenge to that view that ought to be thought about. Which is, he says that it's a view that emphasizes choice a little too much. Because a lot of the most important institutions that we're part of aren't really chosen. Especially first and foremost the family, which of course in some respects is a choice but in some very, very important respects is not a choice. And familial obligations are ones that define the shape of society and the shape of human lives in ways that are not always chosen but that are almost always mandatory or oblige us in ways that we can't easily escape. But he says, even the idea that each of us chose his own religion is unrealistic. Most people have their thought through--whether in fact their father's religion is exactly right-- Russ: or lack of-- Guest: it's in fact their religion. Or lack of it, exactly. And so I think he would agree with a lot of the description you are laying out, but he would say that choice is not as much at the center of it as we sometimes like to believe. And that we shouldn't overemphasize that. Because at the end of the day, a lot of the ways we live really are functions of the world we are born into. And we have to be grateful for the good about that world and try to fix the bad about it, without insisting it's good because we chose it. Russ: It's a fascinating point. But let me concede it. Right? Let me agree with Burke. It's certainly true that many of the things that affect our lives are not chosen. I always think about being born in America--incredible blessing that I have no control over. We could think about property rights and the places we start as children, the houses we are born into. I was born into a lower-middle-class family and have done better than my parents; but that's hard to do for some people. So, we don't have the freedom.
45:04Russ: So let's talk about redistribution, then, in that setting, and property rights. There is a--Conservatives tend to say, well, we have to take things as they are; we can't start from scratch; we can't sell off all the land re-allocate it more fairly because we're going to have all kinds of unintended consequences from that. How would--how do Burke and Paine--you talk about it a little in the book--how do they view the welfare state? Guest: Well, Paine is in some respects one of the fathers of the welfare state. It's another way in which Americans tend to think, especially Conservatives, of the welfare state as an import from Europe that is sort of foreign to our way of thinking. Russ: It's Bismarck--and he's nasty, so that's always an attractive person to attribute the parentage to. Guest: Yeah. German and terrible are basically synonyms in our political vocabulary. Russ: Prussian. Guest: Yeah. Paine shows that that's not quite right. Paine makes an argument, and it's a very, very interesting and careful argument, for how, beginning from Lockean principles, from the premises of our own political way of life, can lead us to a very great role for government for redistributing some wealth from the rich to the poor. He says that Locke shows us that the earth belongs to everyone in common--originally--but also that property is absolutely essential to human progress. That the solution to the problem of the poor is not to eliminate property--that would be a disaster. But, that means that people who possess property have something that belongs to everybody else that they are not allowing those others to benefit from. And he argues that ultimately that there ought to be a general tax that is used to create a general fund that would provide some benefits to people--to new parents, when a child is born, to every person when he or she turns 21, and to every person when he or she turns 50--which is a way of thinking about the retirement age in the 18th century. Russ: This is Paine talking now. Guest: This is Paine talking. He describes this as an extension of a kind of Lockean state of nature, of course; but it's really novel. He's more or less the first person to make this kind of argument. And he says our own way of thinking about where our own political system came from suggests that people with a great deal of property should be taxed some so that people with no property should get some benefits for their participating in society. And this begins to make an argument for the welfare state that is a Liberal argument, ultimately. Burke is very, very resistant to this idea. His particular problem with it is that he insists again and again that it should not be thought of in terms of a 'right.' He says it may well be that a good society would decide as a matter of charity that it ought to provide some benefits to the poor through it's government. Maybe that's the best way to do it; maybe it's not. But it's not a matter of right. There is no way in which one person is entitled to the property of another person. And he thinks that the difference between those two things is an extraordinarily important difference, that it's an entirely different way of thinking about the relationship between an individual and his society. So that in his economic views--which he didn't articulate all that much, but there's one essay written toward the end of his life, originally written as a memo to the Prime Minister, to William Pitt, in opposition to price controls in agriculture, to wage controls, where he makes this kind of argument that is a very, very Adam Smith, capitalist argument. And so what we can see from Burke and Paine is that the premises that Liberals and Conservatives start from lead in some ultimately pretty straightforward natural ways to differences of opinion about economics and about the obligations of a society to the poor that would be pretty familiar to somebody looking at American politics now. Russ: Of course, at that time--again, late 18th century--wealth was typically land, title--certain class privileges that came with title. They didn't have, couldn't imagine, the flourishing of prosperity that has emerged since then, where much of wealth isn't inherited and passed on. It's created. It's a transformation. And so you'd have to--they'd probably look at it a little bit differently. Guest: I think that's right. And there's another thing they didn't imagine which is even closer to their time, which is, when you look at their economic writings--and this is true of Adam Smith, too--the striking thing about it is that they did not foresee the Industrial Revolution, which was in some ways already beginning. Especially in Britain, in the time they were writing. But they couldn't see the scale that it was about to reach. And so, one way in which their disagreements don't sound contemporary, don't sound like they might have happened just last year, is when they talk about the scale and character of the economy, both in terms of the sort of wealth that could be produced and in terms of industrialization and what the market economy looks like. Neither Burke nor Paine really had quite a sense of how transformative that was about to be. Russ: Neither did Adam Smith, of course, in terms of the scale. But I was thinking about Smith often while I was reading the book--probably because I'm writing a book on Smith, but probably because he's the contemporary of both of them. Did either of his books--the Wealth of Nations or The Theory of Moral Sentiments--influence either man? Obviously Burke and Smith corresponded. But I'm curious if you can find specific places in Burke's writing where you feel there's a Smithian element? Guest: Burke was very, very influenced by Smith. He said so; and it's also pretty clear. He read The Theory of Moral Sentiments as a fairly young man. He wrote a review of it in the Annual Register, which was a sort of annual review of the important books of the year--a very glowing review which suggests that he took it to be a very profound book. And Burke's emphasis on the sentiments and politics, on the importance of thinking in terms of human attachments and human sentiments, of how important it was for the statesman to think about the ways in which politics influenced people's moral understanding, is very, very shaped by Smith. It's clear later in his life that Burke was also influenced by Smith's economic views. Paine is also a capitalist. He's not--and in fact there's a funny passage in Paine's book The Rights of Man, which is a response to Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, where he criticizes Burke's economic views and says if Burke had read The Wealth of Nations, he would understand that what's going on here would actually be great for commerce. And so he takes himself to be the Smithian in the debate. And in some respects he was. So I think they were both somewhat influenced by Adam Smith. But Burke is much closer to Smith in his basic disposition. And there was a period in Burke's life where he and Smith were fairly close, were fairly friendly, where there are a lot of letters. It's a fairly short period. It's not clear exactly why they stopped corresponding. But around the time of the American Revolution the two of them corresponded quite a bit, and Smith sends Burke all kinds of encouragement letters supporting his views about the American war and his views about the importance of commerce and trade. Burke was the Member from Bristol then, which was the largest port city in Britain, and it was easy for him to be in favor of trade. But it's clear that he also meant it.
53:16Russ: Let's talk about Burke's respect for norms and the role of passion, which I'm in total agreement with. But then he's also reverential toward authority. Talk about where that comes from, how opposite Paine's sentiment is on that; and how a modern might defend that Burkean view of authority--which is very out of fashion today among the 'correct' circles. Guest: Yeah. It's true. Burke values stability and continuity. And so he is averse to sharp breaks and is averse to sharp fundamental criticisms of the English system. Which means that at the end of the day he's fairly protective of the powers that be. And although he was quite critical of royal power for a lot of his career; and a lot of the early work that he did in Parliament was about restraining the involvement of the King in everyday politics, was about restraining the spending of the royal family. He was nonetheless always protective of the idea that government authority in the British system, because of the nature of the system, is legitimate authority. And that it was very important on the one hand to retain that legitimacy--that is, to make sure that the government was not abusing it--but also on the other hand to respect that legitimacy. And so he was not a great fan of the radicals in his own party. Burke was a Whig, of the people arguing for a truly republican system in Britain for a break with the monarchy. He believed that the British form of government was an essential part of Britain's traditions and that respect for those traditions required a certain respect for government authority. Paine had a much more American attitude about this. Paine basically said, if government is legitimate, then I'll respect it. If it's not, then I won't. And the test of that is not in history but in what it's doing, in how it's using its power. That's an idea that we are much more liable to recognize and frankly is the most appealing thing about Paine to me--which is, he ultimately says: to be respected you have to be respectable. And that strikes me as quite right. It is a way in which--and Burke himself recognized this--in which Americans even in that time were different. One of his great American speeches, speeches about the American Revolution, to Parliament--Burke says: One of the things we have to understand about the Americans is that they are always alert to abuses of government power. And they believe they are happening constantly. And we have to be very careful not to prove them right, because as soon as we prove them right they'll assume that all their paranoia is justified. And that's basically what happened. And so, I share that American attitude. The implicit respect for all authority that Burke does exhibit is not much a part of American Conservatism, and I think that's justified. We're American Conservatives, and so we are conserving that less reverential strand of the Anglo-American tradition. Russ: When I read their views side by side on various issues, I can't help but feel often that Paine holds the moral high ground and really exults in it. Part of his rhetorical effectiveness strikes me as coming from the fact that he sees himself as the morally superior of the two positions: that Burke is the defender of tradition, of the status quo to some extent. And as a result, it's again easier to romanticize Paine's position. And I think, again, that's a position in America today the Left holds the moral high ground. What's your reaction to that and what do you think Conservatives today ought to be doing to try to reclaim it, if at all? If they should? Guest: Well, you know, I think Burke's response to that is basically that morality is not as simple as it seems. It's not just a set of abstract rules that you then apply directly to life. Morality has to speak to the realities and the complexities of the human experience. And so he takes himself to hold the moral high ground, to say that what he's advocating is a way of life that has proven in practice to be better for people, including for the weak and the poor and the vulnerable. And what Paine is advocating is a highly abstract, radical break from that way of life, that he thinks is going to be better. And he thinks that Paine's way of thinking has a very, very high threshold to cross before it can justify itself. As you say, it's a complicated argument to make, because Paine's approach to morality is very deeply shaped by the Quakerism of his father. Which has a kind of simple approach to justice. Which says, in every instance, we have to prefer the interests of the weak to the interests of the strong, the interests of the poor to the interests of the rich. And it's very simple to know which is which. And so we need to make sure we are on the right side. Burke's concern is that this may be a way for individuals to live their lives but it's not a way to think about how society should function. Society is inevitably going to be much more complicated than that. And the moral choices that statesmen have to make have to be understood in their full context. I think that's true; but just as you say, it's not always the easiest argument to make.
58:56Russ: And you argue that--you just said that Burke felt that he had the moral high ground. I have no doubt that that's correct, that he did feel that way. I'm struck in today's discussions of these issues, whether it's inequality, the minimum wage, that so-called Conservatives--I don't want to debate about who is and who isn't; let's just lump them fast and loose for the moment--people who are generally opposing the expansion in government: those folks seem to me to be remarkably defensive about their viewpoint. And as a result, it does challenge their ability to market it. Do you sense that defensiveness, and did Burke have any of that? Guest: I completely agree with that. I think it's an enormous problem for the Right today. Did Burke have any of it? I wouldn't say so. I think Burke was quite confident. Maybe at times over-confident. He certainly had a very confident rhetoric that his view ultimately was the one justified by the understanding of morality that's available to us. It has a lot to do with his understanding of the limits of our knowledge, too. He thought that the access we could have to moral principles was only through the experience of society. So that at the end of the day, different approaches to morality had to prove themselves in practice. And he thought he was defending a system that had worked very well. I think Conservatives today don't often enough make the simple point: that, when it comes to economics the market system that we are advocating has been the best thing that has ever happened to the poor in human history. And has dramatically reduced extreme poverty around the world and is still doing it right now; has been the way in which the needy and the vulnerable have been lifted up. It's worked far better than anything else we've every tried, far better than anything the Left has tried to do economically. And that should matter. That's a very important fact. Beyond that, the kind of society we are arguing for is a society that for very solid reasons we believe is grounded in a way of life that helps advance the moral good. A way of life that helps people build the sort of lives they want. That makes government more effective at solving problems that people confront. That gives people the room to build the lives they want and protects them from the worst risks that they might confront in modern life, rather than a society that says: This is the way, and you have to do it. Which, again and again, this is how the Left approaches the life of our society: centralize, consolidate, exercise authority to push people into the right grooves. Conservatives tend to think in terms of making that space. And I think if there's a fundamental distinction at the end of the day about how Burke and Paine talks about their visions of government, it's that all of Paine's metaphors are metaphors of emotion. There's a sense of 'that's where we have to go and we need to progress in that direction constantly.' Burke's metaphors are metaphors of space. He thought of government in terms of building a space for society to thrive. That was the role, the purpose, the goal of government. I think that difference is still very much a difference between Left and Right. And to my mind, it's a difference that gives Conservatives a moral high ground--that we don't articulate enough to the public. Russ: I think, part of the problem it seems to me, is that most people are not--most voters--are not ideologues. They are happy to look at the world on a case-by-case basis. And so, when you say, I want to raise the minimum wage to, say, $10 or $15 an hour, the fact that capitalism, untrammeled, something hard-to-define, again, but something like untrammeled capitalism has been a great boon to the poor, they say, well we can do a little better than that and let's set the minimum wage at $10 an hour, $15. And Conservatives have no good answer to that. To my mind. And the libertarians--sort of the economists/Conservative-libertarian answer is: Look at the effect in this case. But the past successes of capitalism don't weigh into the debate at all. For better or worse. Guest: Yeah. I think that's right. I think that there's a way in which the Left takes for granted a thriving economy that just comes in the background and the question is how to distribute the goods. We have to make the argument that that thriving economy--which makes possible the thriving life of this society--has to be sustained. And it's a function of certain attitudes toward law and order, of certain kinds of rules, certain kinds of liberties that have to be defended, both because they are right and because they are good. Conservatives are nowhere near good enough at making that kind of case.
1:03:42Russ: Let's close with the death of each man and what happened to their remains. There's a poignancy there. Guest: Yeah, you know both of them, each of them, approached the end of his life very concerned about his legacy. Their debate was extremely heated. It never quite ended. The ultimate outcome was very much in question. Burke died in 1797 when the British were basically at war with France, and there was a European war going on that resulted from essentially the collapse of the revolutionary regime. And Burke was very concerned that ultimately the French would succeed and would--their ideas would come to Britain and he would be understood as the foremost enemy of the new order. He was literally worried that they would dig up his body from his grave and make an example of him. He actually asked in his final days to be buried in an unmarked grave, away from the grave where his young son who had passed away was, away from the plot that was reserved for his wife. His family ultimately decided that they should do what it said in his will, rather than what he had said in the throes of his illness, and they buried him on the family plot. It's still there, next to his son. His wife was buried there a few years after. And as I say, he's still there, in the churchyard in Beaconsfield in Britain. Paine came back to America after the Revolution, it turned ugly. It turned ugly while he was still in France, the French Revolution. He found himself in prison for several years. Even after that; well, on and off for several years. Even after that he still remained in France and continued believing that it might work out. But ultimately in 1801 he returned to the United States. His very good friend, Thomas Jefferson, had become President. Paine had written a book, his last book, called The Age of Reason, which was a scathing attack against organized religion, a scathing denunciation of Christianity. He wrote it while he was in France. And obviously enough it was very poorly received in the United States. And so when he returned, he was very poorly received in the United States. And by the time he died in 1809 he was living in a kind of boarding house in Brooklyn and his funeral was very poorly attended. People certainly still held close the memory of all he had done for the Revolution; and he had a lot of admirers. But he also thought that there was a great risk that he wouldn't be well-treated after his death. He actually asked in his will to be buried in a Quaker cemetery. His father was a Quaker, though he was not. And the Quakers, again, because of what he had written about Christianity, declined. Refused to allow it. And so he was buried on his farm in New Rochelle. And he actually was just a few years later dug up by--not in the way he expected. He was dug up by an English radical who was a great admirer of his, who wanted to take his body to Britain to build a monument in the town of his birth. He took the body to Britain but the British government didn't allow the monument. Again, Paine had not only argued against Christianity but against monarchy. And so this English radical, William Cobbett, couldn't figure out what to do with Paine. And ultimately we actually don't literally don't know what happened to his remains. The ultimate disposition is not known. Everyone presumes he was buried somewhere in Britain, but no one quite knows where. Poignantly enough, as you say, or ironically enough, there is no burial ground.

Comments and Sharing



TWITTER: Follow Russ Roberts @EconTalker

COMMENTS (32 to date)
Greg G writes:

Superb discussion here. I liked many things about it but my favorite was the recognition that the political controversies that divide us today go all the way back. It is not possible for one side today to get a corner on the correct "original" views of the Founders because their views were extraordinarily diverse.

If anything, politics was more partisan and extreme back then. Mainstream American politicians included closet monarchists, slaveowners, supporters of the Alien and Sedition Acts, opponents of the ratification of the Constitution and sympathizers with the French Revolution. Thank God they were forced to compromise with each other.

I thought that everything Russ and Yuval said today was very fair. But I do think that the device of using Burke and Paine as models for understanding the political Left and Right today is inherently prejudicial. Burke was much more of a Centrist than Paine.

Paine was an outlier and an extremist even in his own day. He was much more interested in making revolution than making government. He had virtually no participation in government once the United States was founded and died with few political allies or even friends.

Burke on the other hand was much more influential in government in his own day and later. In some ways (colonial policy, slavery, the need for gradual reforms) he stood to the left of the establishment of his day.

So then, it is natural that if we use these two men as models for understanding today's political divisions between Right and Left, this device will work to the Right's advantage. Jefferson might have been a less prejudicial choice as a model for the Left.


Ak Mike writes:

Greg - I think your characterization of Burke and Paine in their own time is quite fair; nonetheless, I also think that Levin's choice of Paine was the right one.

The progressive movements of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries,and today's progressive/liberals, do descend from Paine's thought, not from Jefferson's. Levin did not discuss Jefferson, but our third president was a small government man, at least in his writings, while Paine (as I understand it) was more of a believer that government could cure the ills of society.

Shlomo writes:

At several points, the discussion touched upon health care. As usual, the subject was governmental health care programs.

I am a physician ( hematologist/oncologist) and I see this battle between tradition and revolution in the microcosm of my field. There, tradition (how we have [always] done it) battles progress. The tradition is bolstered by a hierarchy protecting its turf, insurance companies trying to hold down costs by avoiding paying for extraordinarily expensive medicines and procedures, systems for the administration of expensive ( but minimally effective) interventions. Meanwhile, every innovator has dreams of becoming a billionaire on a new drug to be priced at $300,000 ( actual price of 1 year of Revlimid).

John Bicknell writes:

Long time listener, first time poster...

Thanks as always for a well balanced and tempered discussion. This was a great episode. One of my very favorites since 2006.

I really appreciate the way the discussion illuminates how foundational differences from the 18th century (and earlier) persist today "between the 40-yard lines" as debates between Conservatives and Progressives.

It's likely a mistake to slap additional labels onto these mens' philosophical tendencies; however, I'm inclined to take this Great Debate back one additional step to Rationalism vs Empiricism. It seems to me that Paine & the Rationalist camp let unconstrained and hopeful possibilities soar as conceived by the mind even if untested in practice; however, Burke and Empiricists choose their projects based upon data of what's been known to work heretofore and are reluctant to sally forth with bold experiments absent clear evidence.

I'd love to hear other thoughts regarding the bedrock philosophical differences between our major political parties. Going back to the 17th century, with which philosophers do today's Republican, Democrat, and Libertarian politicians tend to align?

Greg G writes:

Ak Mike

While it is true, as you say, that Jefferson was a small government man "in his writings," in his actual actions...not so much.

He made the Louisiana Purchase despite firmly believing the action was unconstitutional. Nothing did more to establish the precedent that it is OK to stretch the Constitution as long as you think you have a really, really good reason. I wonder how many commenters will want to argue that it was a bad thing that he went forward with that purchase?

He also pushed the Embargo Act which put severe limits on free trade. After his presidency he founded the University of Virginia and the idea of taxpayer support for education. And he had much more enthusiasm for the French Revolution than most Americans.

For all these reasons and for the fact that he was actually interested in governing, I continue to believe that Jefferson would have been a better choice to begin tracing the history of the left side of the American political ecosystem.

Ak Mike writes:

Greg - again, I completely agree with you as to what the historical Jefferson did as president, which is why I specified "in his writings." But while Jefferson's actions as president no doubt had a significant impact on the institution of the executive, his philosophical influence has been entirely due to his writings. Here's the point: the political debate today is, as Levin correctly perceives, driven by the two men he singled out, and by their writings, not by their careers. To the extent there is any Jeffersonianism today it is closely identified with Burkeanism, and not with Paineism.

In other words, if Levin had used Jefferson instead of one of the two he chose, it would be Burke that would be substituted for, not Paine.

Greg G writes:

Ak Mike

So then, we both agree that you have described Jefferson's writings accurately and I have described his actions accurately.

I really must insist that what people do matters more than what they say. That is doubly true for people who serve two terms as President of the United States at a time when a lot of important precedents are being set.

When I discuss these issues with Libertarians, I often find myself arguing that they give too much weight to theory and not enough to reality as actually lived.

Niklas Blanchard writes:

Highlight among a great discussion: Russ' musical outburst at 5:16.

Ralph writes:

Brilliant.

One of your best podcasts.

Thank you Russ and Mr. Levin.

Greg McIsaac writes:

Levin: "We are going to spend $8 billion on pre-K (pre-Kindergarten) programs next year that we literally know don't have any effect."

I wonder what specifically he is referring to. Is this $8 billion only the portion of the total spending on pre-K programs that is going to programs that have been demonstrated to be ineffective? Or was he making a blanket statement about all spending on all pre-K programs?

My limited understanding of the economic literature on this question is that some programs have been shown to be effective. Here is a link to a news item in about a recent article in the American Economic Review

Greg McIsaac writes:

Russ Roberts: "I'm struck in today's discussions of these issues, whether it's inequality, the minimum wage, that so-called Conservatives--I don't want to debate about who is and who isn't; let's just lump them fast and loose for the moment--people who are generally opposing the expansion in government: those folks seem to me to be remarkably defensive about their viewpoint."

I'd appreciate some clarification or specifics on this. I don't see any defensiveness among small government conservatives like Grover Norquist, Charles Murray, Ted Cruz, Ron and Rand Paul or the many allied commentators on Fox News. I will appreciate some examples of the defensiveness you are referring to. Am I missing it in these people or am I not looking for it in the right places?

David McElroy writes:

There's a lot to like in this discussion and I found it to be an interesting framework within which to see the two sides of the modern U.S. political mainstream. But it went badly off track once Levin started discussing libertarians. What he said makes me think that he just doesn't understand what libertarian ideas really are, much less the full range of libertarian thought.

The biggest example of a serious problem in this regard was Levin's contention that "radical individualism" leads to statism. He makes this claim a couple of times without any justification. In reality, if you're a radical individualist, you don't believe any such thing as a state has moral or legal authority over anyone, so it would be impossible for radical individualism to lead to a belief that the collective state somehow has authority over individuals. That is a completely irrational contention.

The truth is that statism is accepted by both progressives and conservatives as necessary. (They simply disagree about how much is acceptable.) It's only the radical individualists — the anarcho-capitalist wing of the libertarian movement, for example — that says, "No, the state has no authority, even in the smallest thing." So to blame individualism for statism has it exactly backward. It's every position OTHER than individualism that accepts the moral authority of the state — and once any form of a coercive state has been accepted as moral and acceptable, there's no logical argument against it taking whatever power that some nebulous majority might want it to take.

You can certainly make an argument in favor of the state. Many people do just that. But to pretend that statism flows from the only group which opposes its existence on moral grounds is irrational.

Ryan writes:

I didn't find Levin's defense of the Right as the modern heirs of Burke persuasive. The portion of the Right that is focused on principled reconstruction of the government rather gradual modification is much larger and influential than the equivalent part of the Left.

Steven writes:

Interesting discussion, though Levin is certainly not the first person to associate progressives with Paine and conservatives with Burke. Yes, there was a "Left" and a "Right" at the time of America's founding. It's unclear to me who imagines that "The Great Debate" is unique to the present time. Neither is it clear to me how useful it would be to incorporate the views of Burke and Paine into our current discussions.

In some discussions, the most provocative statements are made by Russ, as interjections of his philosophy. I hope that Russ will someday devote entire programs to the expansion and support of these ideas. In this discussion, Russ made no less than three pronouncements, which the guest, Mr. Levin, did not choose to respond to. Here they are:

1) The government should have no involvement in medical care. We should eliminate Medicare and Medicaid, and private charities will "blossom" to address the needs of those who can't afford medical care.

2) Untrammeled capitalism has been a great boon to the poor, and by implication, we should have untrammeled capitalism.

3) The past successes of capitalism doesn't enter the discussion at all. I'm assuming that Russ is referring to discussions among liberals and progressives?

John writes:

Quote:

You have Barney Frank saying, government is the things we do together. Burke answered this argument-- Russ: I hate that. Because we don't do any of it together. It's a romanticization of the political process that has no empirical support when gazed at with any scrutiny. It's the strangest thing.

This is the second time this week that Russ has said there is no "together" or "we" in government (see the second page of this article: House of Cards )

I don't understand this point of view. Government is not perfect and we (or the government) have made many mistakes, but we (or the government) have many successes too. To claim that there is no together in a democratic government seems to be a silly statement despite our disagreements.

[N.B. I've made a minor edit to John's quote from the Highlights, to make it match a revision to the Highlights. The original Highlights had the following mistype: "Barry Frank saying, government is the thing". The correction doesn't change the content of John's question. Sorry for the inconvenience.--Econlib Ed.]

Steven writes:

That's a very good point, John, and I should have included it in my list of "provocative statements" Russ made. In related statements, Mr. Levin said that "the Left takes for granted a thriving economy and the question is how to distribute the goods." Levin goes on to say that the Left seeks to "exercise authority to push people into the right grooves," while "Conservatives tend to think in terms of making space." Levin also claims that Liberals want to build a society that says "this is the way you have to do it" while Conservatives want to "give people the room to build the lives they want."

Both Russ and Levin were quick to point out some problems with the Left, but did not point out any issues with the Right, Conservatives, or with "untrammeled capitalism," other than to lament that Conservatives haven't been very successful at "making their case." Also, I assume that when Russ claims there is no "we" in the political process, he's probably thinking mostly of the Left.

I really enjoy EconTalk, but sometimes the bias throws me for a loop. Like I said, at the very least, I wish Russ would devote some programs to discussing and supporting his more provocative ideas.

Michael McEvoy writes:

Thanks for a good podcast Russ.

I also appreciate commentators (Steven, John) who did not simply agree with everything said. Mr L made many cogent statements but I felt that ironically, he oversimplifies one side of the great debate.
There should have been a clear call out of Fox and it's family of conservatives - many who should read and absorb some Burke.
Perhaps TJ or Alex. H would be better to compare with Burke.

Sometimes top down appears to be the only way to improve things - vaccines for example.

Russ Roberts writes:

Steven, John, and Michael McEvoy,

Great comments and challenges. I hope to reply to some of your thoughts in a post-mortem I'll post in the next day or two. Stay tuned.

Greg G writes:

David McElroy

Although I disagree with Levin on a number of things, I believe I can explain his claim that radical individualism leads to statism.

If you believe in radical individualism you believe either that "all men are created equal" or that that is shorthand for the idea that they should all be treated as if they were equal regardless of differences. That leads to the conclusion that, despite its faults, representative constitutional democracy is the best form of government.

Now I realize that anarcho-capitalists believe that no government is even better but if all men are to be treated as equal there is no way that a tiny portion of the total population of individuals should be able to dictate to the rest when it comes to collective decision making. Yes, I realize you think you are right and differing viewpoints are wrong. But that doesn't get us anywhere because everyone else feels the same way.

If you really want to minimize coercion then you need to be focused on how to peacefully settle disputes when both side think the other is the aggressor. We have a lot of human history that supports the idea that representative constitutional democracy does that better than any other system.

Now when you get into an actual constitutional democracy you always find that most people believe in some version of positive rights. Freedom from coercion only means something if you have some real options to exercise. A well stocked desert island would be a place of perfect negative liberty but no one would want to live there.

Anarcho-capitalists are always quick to point out they don't think their solution would be perfect - just better for liberty than the alternatives. Non-anarchos make the same claim except that we have history to back us up. There have been many places throughout history with little or no central government. They have consistently been violent places with little or no concept of individual rights.

Daniel Barkalow writes:

It seems to me that there are at least 3 orthogonal axes in the debate: whether to throw out the current system and adopt a different one, or to change the current system gradually; what services a government should provide; and how the government should be run.

Paine and Burke seem to have been, respectively, a radical slightly-socialist republican and a conservative capitalist republican. It seems to me that, today in America, we have primarily conservative socialist republicans and radical capitalist republicans. (E.g., GWB in Iraq sounded like Paine in France, as do McCain's foreign policy ideas, despite them being nominally associated with Burke; likewise, as mentioned, the ACA being a conservative socialist move, as opposed to a radical socialist move like single-payer or a radical capitalist move like wiping out government subsidy.)

For that matter, I don't think either of them would want people looking for advice on specifics of policies from 200 years past; Paine because the present knows best and Burke because the more recent past knows better than the more remote past.

Seth writes:

Steven -

Russ's comment 1) is not quite worded as you wrote. It was stated as Russ's solution to set up a question, If that's my solution, "..does that make me Burkean or Paine kind of guy?"

And, Levin did respond. Part of his response:

"But the debate about preserving our entitlement system and government programs in general is a debate about reforming a set of welfare institutions that are themselves intended to advance a particular vision of change. And that vision is a Progressive kind of archetype that Paine certainly would have recognized."

Adam H. writes:

I know the claim isn’t original to Levin, but he, or anyone who claims Burke as the particular founder of conservatism, has an uphill battle ahead of them. Burke was a Whig (an Old Whig, perhaps, but still a Whig) allied against the conservative Tories, and praise for Burke has been at least as vocal from liberals as conservatives. While his ideological positions were complicated, some (like Marx) would even say inconsistent, one thing you can say with certainty was Burke was anti-imperialist, whether the empire in question was his own country or another. That’s hardly a position widely or consistently held by conservatives (springs to mind Dinesh D'Souza criticizing Obama by calling him anti-colonial).

There seems to be a general agreement in this podcast that conservatism is associated with limited government, yet its defining characteristic seems to be using government power in support of traditional social institutions – enforcing social policy aligned with prevailing religious mores, for instance.

And I don’t know how Levin can claim gradual reform as the defining characteristic of the right-wing at a time when a considerable number from that end of the political spectrum are calling for the overthrow of the U.S. government. Gradual change is the province of the political center while radicalism is associated with both extremes – not just the left. European fascism and South American military juntas are examples of factions coming mostly or entirely from the right-wing that took control of governments, often through the deposition of democratically-elected leaders, and imposed radical political changes.

Steven writes:

Seth, I was paraphrasing Russ, so you are correct to say that the wording was a bit different. Do you have any thoughts on the substance of the statement?

Thanks.

Roger McKinney writes:

I think there is a 900 pound gorilla in the room that everyone is ignoring. Burke got his views of society and human nature from traditional Christianity, as did Adam Smith. The doctrine of original sin makes Christians very pessimistic about the good that man can achieve.

Paine and most others in the French Revolution rejected the traditional Christian view of human nature in favor of blind faith in the natural goodness of man. They blamed Christianity for suppressing that natural goodness, though most others added the oppression of private property.

The two views of human nature came from their respective religions. Hayek makes a similar point in Fatal Conceit that religion convinced people to follow principles, such as property, when there was no short run benefit in doing so, but the benefits were long term and to all of society.

Sally writes:

Good discussion. But one bewildering point I have regarding Russ' solution for the health care in Amercia:

Russ says, "I would prefer to see consumers pay with their own money; I'd get rid of the subsidies that government provides for health care through both explicit programs, like Medicare and Medicaid as well as the tax/subsidies of private health care. I'd want to see poorer people helped via private charity and all the ways that that would flower and blossom if government weren't involved in providing it and using our taxes. And that would be my solution."

For this to work, medical insurance would have to be illegal; the poorer people relying on charity would be essentially beggars; certain stable middle class people with health crisises would quickly find themselves those 'poor people' relying on charity; it's at the Charities' descretion who is to be treated or not (we're not even talking forms and redtape for help from charities); it's a system we have had for decades and it is not a good system. I'm surprised Russ hasn't thought out the implications of his believe that charities will help the poor pay for their medical bills.

Russ Roberts writes:

Sally,

Not sure why you say that medical insurance would have to be illegal. I'm hoping to have an EconTalk episode in the future on the implications of government aid to the poor being reduced or eliminated. The only other point I would mention here is that a charity-based system is not one we've had for decades though we did have something like it until roughly the 1930s. It had flaws, of course. All systems do, including the current one. Whether those flaws would be equally disturbing today is an issue I hope to discuss along the way in that future episode.

Simon writes:

Russ, you should think about having an anarcho-capitalist libertarian on the show one day, such as Tom Woods or Walter Block. I'm troubled by the fact that many of your guests incorrectly portray anarcho-capitalist libertarianism, and these portrayals are never really challenged or explored.

For instance, the claim made in this episode that libertarianism is only about "rugged individualism" to the exclusion of civil society. Anarcho-capitalist libertarianism only has one real principle, which is a negative one, namely, no one should initiate or threaten force against another person or his property without the latter's consent, and the philosophy notes that individuals in government routinely breach this principle through taxation (forced confiscation of income under threat of incarceration) or regulation (forced action or inaction under threat of incarceration). Anarcho-capitalist libertarianism doesn't have anything in particular to say about how people should organize themselves, and in fact is open to any form of organization anyone wants as long as it doesn't breach the aforementioned non-aggression principle. Moreover, basic economics and logic tell us that since no person can adequately provide for all of his needs (material or emotional), each person will specialize in what he's good at and produce goods or services to VOLUNTARILY trade with others to gain what he can't produce for himself. Thus the philosophy almost presumes, if not "requires", widespread and rich cooperation among individuals in society, but says that this must be voluntary, not coerced by others, including those in the government.

The other misconception I heard in this episode is that libertarianism is utopian. I've always thought of this as a strange characterization to be made by someone who believes we ought to have a government. The world is not perfect because (a) humans are imperfect and (b) there are scarce resources relative to human wants. Having one group of people (in the government) coercing others to use their property or live their lives in accordance with the views of this first group solves neither of these problems. To paraphrase Thomas Sowell, if humans are imperfect, what species of being are we going to install in government? And per Hayek, the most efficient way to satisfy human wants given scarce resources is to take advantage of the aggregate knowledge of all individuals, which can only be discovered through market pricing.

Thus there is a good case to make that those who believe in government are the utopians, since they believe that treating the broader population as objects to be manipulated by others through coercion is the most efficient way to satisfy the rich fabric of human wants (never mind that it strikes me as wholly immoral for one man to rule another without his consent).

It is also utopian to believe that humans who have a legal monopoly on the use of force (which describes those in government) will restrain themselves from exercising that force. Even the much-vaunted U.S. Constitution has failed in this regard (per Lysander Spooner, either the Constitution was designed to get us to we are today in terms of a runaway federal government, or it was powerless to stop it, but either way it has been a failure).

Anarcho-capitalist libertarianism recognizes both the folly and immorality in trying to perfect or even improve the world through one man coercing another. The question is not which system of organizing society is perfect, but which is the least worst solution. Anarcho-capitalist libertarians believe that coercion is the worst solution. There is a very rich body of literature and thinking that deals with natural objections to this concept, which literature and thinking unfortunately is not routinely taught in schools and colleges. Guests such as Woods or Block could provide those of your listeners who are not that familiar with this philosophy with a taste of some of this thinking.

Adam H. writes:

Roger McKinney wrote:

I think there is a 900 pound gorilla in the room that everyone is ignoring. Burke got his views of society and human nature from traditional Christianity, as did Adam Smith. The doctrine of original sin makes Christians very pessimistic about the good that man can achieve. Paine and most others in the French Revolution rejected the traditional Christian view of human nature in favor of blind faith in the natural goodness of man. They blamed Christianity for suppressing that natural goodness, though most others added the oppression of private property.

The mixed metaphor of the ‘900-lb gorilla in the room’ is surprisingly apt here. The idea of Christianity as requisite for particular insight into human behavior naturally leading to certain political ideologies is highly amenable to whatever post-hoc self-contradictory rationalizations anyone wishes to lend to it, and tends to be inappropriately inserted wherever anyone so desires.

That anyone deeply pessimistic about human nature would necessarily desire less government intervention than someone with a utopian view of man’s natural goodness is counterintuitive at best. One would think the more skeptical you were about human nature the more government intervention you would think necessary for society to function. Certainly, conservative Christians tend to favor all sorts of restrictive social policy in accordance with their religious views, but I’m not sure why they don’t extend that skepticism to other policy as well.

Russ speculates that private charity may provide better healthcare than the government would. Leaving aside the evidence from the 19th and early 20th centuries is strongly against this proposition, it also seems to take an unusual faith in humankind’s essential generosity. This supposed pessimism about what good people can accomplish is then rather selective. Of course, many Christians argue the opposite – there’s a free-rider problem with private charity and human generosity is insufficient to the task of caring for the poor so government has to get involved.

Russ Roberts writes:

Adam H.,

I do hope to devote an episode of EconTalk to this issue of private charity but I do want to mention here that the evidence from the 19th and early 20th century is hardly decisive in thinking about what private charity might be today and how it might work.

How generous are people? In 2012, private philanthropy was $316 billion--that's in a world where government taxes are at a particular level and government spending discourages many types of giving. By the way, very little of that goes to the poor but that's because our taxes already fund government programs for the poor. I do agree that free-riding would cause private spending to be less than government spending, but in many areas (public schooling being one of the most obvious) the size of spending is a poor indicator of what is actually accomplished.

Generosity is a lovely thing. I prefer encouraging more generosity to forcing people to give against their wishes. I don't think that's a very attractive way to make the world a better place.

emerich writes:

Very entertaining and thought provoking episode. Also some good comments.

Both the conversation and the comments brought home to me once more how political labels confuse discussions of political philosophy. Burke was a Whig, and his opponents Tories, who were Royalists and believed in top-down government by Royalty. Today, in the U.K., if your views are closer to Burke than other parties you're a Tory and believe in limited government, unless you’re a High Tory, of course, in which case you’re in the wrong century.

In the U.S., if you're right wing, you're for small government; unless you're extreme right, in which case you're a neo-nazi or crypto-fascist, and want a mega-state to keep undesirables out and everyone else in line; unless your a anarcho-capitalist, in which case you’re also right wing and reject all government. "Liberal" parties in Europe until recently used to advocate freedom and limited government, though American liberals want expansive government and rules for everything. In the U.K., “Liberal” meant what Americans call Conservative, but starting this century we finally succeeded in confusing the Brits and now Liberal there means the same as here--and Britain’s Liberal party has withered away.

And there’s the answer for Russ as to why “Conservatives” are defensive. If you’re call yourself a Conservative, are you for limited government, or is your interlocutor going to call you a crypto-fascist or worse?

And needless to say, if you change upper-case "Liberal" to lower case "liberal" or "Conservative" to "conservative", that changes everything.

Warren Mills writes:

I really enjoyed and learned a significant amount from this episode (not uncharacteristic). Some of my earlier ideas on Burke were certainly challenged and I do see Burke in a different way. I will say, however, that I think there was too much of a correlation drawn between classical liberals and modern liberals; not explicitly, but it seemed implicit. Furthermore, I would like to have heard more of Levin's thoughts on Burke's (seeming) religious rigidity as far as controlling moral outcomes through "proper" policy. To me, this is where I see a convergence of sorts between modern liberalism and traditional conservatism; perhaps I am overstating that relationship. As always, I loved the program and wish to thank you all for bringing all this great information to us.

Ron Crossland writes:

As nearly all others have commented, terrific show. I will read the book.

While both Paine and Burke could have picked up a little more on the industrial revolution, I think only Paine might have been able to imagine the rate of social change the past century has produced and - despite conflict, economic depression, and regional exceptions - the general state of flourishing.

What I found particularly interesting is both the direct statements and metaphorical support both Russ and Mr. Levin used that suggests many live between the 40 yard lines. Which to me means not only borrowing from Burke and Paine, but from Hayek and Keynes.

What I would find as a good follow-up would be a discussion of the problems - inherent flaws - of those advocating closer to both goal posts.

Both markets and government have inherent problems - both of which are exacerbated by corruption. These are ongoing, pragmatic realities that those of us in the middle try to mitigate.

In terms of leaving poverty to voluntary contribution, I think the history of the world demonstrates this is among the least effective solutions, even when a property rights supporting, democratic capitalist society helps reduce the number of poor.

Paine's notion of redistribution might make sense to Piketty - perhaps under some modification, even to Burke.

Comments for this podcast episode have been closed
Return to top