Paine v. Burke

What is the origin of the divide between today’s political Left and Right in the United States?  It’s a fascinating question, and according to Yuval Levin, in his book, The Great Debate, which I’ve just read, the modern Right-Left debate originates in the conflicting worldviews of two non-Americans: Thomas Paine, representing the origins of the Left, and Edmund Burke, representing the origins of the Right. 

Thomas Sowell’s contention in his book, A Conflict of Visions, is that the origin of this division is a fundamental disagreement about the basic moral capabilities of human beings.  Those who believe humans are fundamentally capable of great achievement beyond the ordinary scope of human behavior – especially in the form of moral sacrifice or altruism – tend to fall on the political Left, while those who believe humans are inherently constrained and limited tend to fall on the political Right.

One specific that I’m not sure Sowell touches on – but that Levin does – is the question of exactly why those on the “unconstrained” side view humans (or at least some humans) as being capable of extraordinary moral achievement.  This is where Levin’s outline of the political vision of Thomas Paine, patron saint of the political left, according to Levin, is particularly useful.  

Here’s the key:  for Paine, improving a society morally or politically is not a case of asking humans to be something beyond what they are, but what they actually are.  If man is naturally peaceful, altruistic, non-discriminatory – then asking him to morally reform himself or his institutions in dramatic fashion is less a call to change his nature than it is for him to revert to his true nature.   

Paine’s belief was that all of human history had been in error about man’s true nature and about the true principles of best, fairest governance.  Only through the empiricism of the Enlightenment were humans finally beginning to understand nature in the world, and the nature in themselves. Levin cites specifically Isaac Newton’s discoveries in physics, which seemed to promise an understanding of nature as a series of rational rules – which Paine believed was possible in government, too.  He took it for granted that human nature was distinct and unchanging over time, something whose abstract rules could be understood like those of natural science.  In fact, to best understand man’s true nature and his truest needs from government, one needs to look back at his *original* nature: presocial, natural man.  

What does one see in this state of nature?  For Paine, presocial man is primarily an individual, and, because he has no inherent relations or social distinctions, he is by nature equal to all other men.  He writes in Common Sense, “Men are all of one degree, and consequently . . . all men are born equal, and with equal natural right, in the same manner as if posterity had been continued by creation instead of generation.” This, for Paine, is the origin of the doctrine of natural rights.

This is interesting for two reasons.  First, it’s so interesting to my modern ears – used to reading influential thinkers who focus on the rights and responsibilities of groups – to hear a thinker postulate that man is an individual by nature.  “A nation,” writes Paine, “is composed of distinct, unconnected individuals, [and] . . . public good is not a term opposed to the good of individuals.” Men begin to band together out of a need for satisfying their material needs and also for companionship: “No one man is capable without the aid of society, of supplying his own wants, and those wants, acting upon every individual, impel the whole of them into society, as  naturally as gravitation acts to a center.” Man is pushed toward society by the desire for friendship, with Paine considers imperative for happiness.

Second, it’s interesting that Paine believes men inherent band together to form associations, which Paine calls “society” – and yet this is different than government.  It is only after some time that men in groups find they need government.  For Paine, society is natural, but government is a contrivance.  And, for the whole history of humanity up until his own time, a poor one.  Paine believes that somewhere back long, long ago, because humans did not have the empirical tools to truly understand human nature, their governments took the wrong form – monarchies, tyrannies, oligarchies, theocracies.  Kings and nobles Paine brushes aside as mere brutes whom history has given a veneer of respectability: “Could we take off the dark covering of antiquity, and trace them to their first rise, we should find the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang . . .  chief among plunderers.” 

Because all governments to this point were illegitimate, we must completely blow up our antiquated system of rule – which Paine believes will not necessarily lead to the dissolution of society – the war of all against all, or to a barren, predatory state of nature, as Hobbes thought – but back to a kind of natural “society” formed by individual men naturally desirous of social bonds.  From there, a government that understands the newly discovered rational principles of human nature must be established – specifically one that respects man’s inherent individuality, equality, and natural rights – all of which point toward the necessity of a social contract in which all rulers must rule at the direct behest of the people.

Paine is quite optimistic about the success of such an outcome.  Overthrowing whatever the current (illegitimate) system is represents no drastic step – it is merely that we “go back to nature for information” to “regenerate” society – and as he famously put it, “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” This is a huge assumption that rests of a very different understanding of human nature than not only a thinker like Hobbes, but of one such as Burke, who viewed the tearing down of government as more akin to setting fire to an old growth forest: perhaps “regeneration” would come eventually, but not for many, many years, and at the cost of vast, precious ecosystem of plants, animals, and earth.  Frankly, I agree more with Burke. I don’t share Paine’s confidence that we can somehow drop our government without enormous, lethal repercussions — let alone that we can quickly revert to a harmonious “natural” society while we replan our system of rule.  That’s a stretch so great to imagine that I can’t even begin to picture it, and I’m not sure I even understand how that works.

Meanwhile, Paine’s faith is just as great that this new, rational system of government will alleviate many of the problems encountered hitherto in all human history: “Can we possibly suppose that if governments had originated in a right principle, and had not an interest in pursuing a wrong one, the world could have been in the wretched and quarrelsome condition we have seen it?” Paine simply writes off all of human history as being beside the point; far from offering valuable lessons for political theorists and leaders, history is to be seen as merely a catalog of unnatural, ignorant suppositions, wholly unsuited to human societies. It is the rational investigation of nature, undertaken using reason, that should guide inquiry, not an attempt to learn from past failures of government in order to improve on them.


I won’t write here about the obvious contrasts with Burke.  I have written extensively about Burke’s ideas on this blog already, and Levin does a brilliant job of highlighting them in the book. Suffice to say, they are numerous and meaningful.

But Burke’s vision I understand. Paine’s vision was new to me, and its straightforward, uncompromising nature was striking for several reasons.

First, I’m starting to understand the genesis of natural rights and social contract theory much more clearly.  When you line up this vision against Burke’s, which defends the status quo of the British monarchy – especially when you agree so much with Burke’s theories of human nature, of the evolutionary character of history, of governance, and of institutions, as I do – it helps you understanding just how revolutionary the ideas of the American founding, if not the entire Enlightenment, truly were.  Just the notion that a government could be rationally designed in such a way as to respect the inherent equal rights of all citizens, with the election of leaders who serve at the behest of the populace – all of this was quite revolutionary and in many ways, despite what Paine would have us think, quite against the natural order of things.  Because Burke is right, not Paine: the whole of human history prior to the 18th Century cannot be dismissed as somehow “unnatural.” It is the most natural thing in the world for human beings to worship gods, fall prey to dictators, band together in warring tribes to kill and persecute, and, eventually, to seek some sort of peace and stability in hereditary rule.  Look around the world today: democracy too often seems like an delicate plant that we are trying to grow in soil it was not designed for.  Think of the failures of the so-called Bush Doctrine: the attempt to implant liberal democracy in the Middle East.  If this sort of government were so natural, why is it so hard to get it to flourish?  The answer is: because it’s not.

But there is surely something alluring about this vision.  It is appealing to imagine that it is possible to start over again.  Think of the appeal of this idea on a personal level: if we could just move to a different place, find a different situation, a different job, a different life, we could fix all of our problems and become new and better people.  Who wouldn’t want to believe that, deep down?  And who wouldn’t want to think that humans are fundamentally good people, penned in and held in check by institutions and contrivances that corrupt and frustrate us?  Seen in this sense, perhaps it is fair to say that Paine’s vision is more natural to believe in, but less natural to execute.  Or perhaps it is fairer to say that Paine’s vision is more idealistic and Burke’s more realistic. When I was younger, I think I would have favored Paine’s, even though my instincts, even then, were with Burke. But now I side more with Burke because I believe, as both he and Adam Smith do, that although humans are capable of tremendous good, that good is inherently limited in its scope.

Lastly — and this is sort of unrelated — I found it fascinating to read about a social vision that puts such emphasis on individuals as the key social organizing principle, and derives a powerful sense of universalism from that individual.  Clearly this is very different than so much of the modern critical theory that I’m often reading, which downplays the individual and the universal in favor of the primacy of group identity as a social and political metric.  I think that all three have their pros and cons. The importance of group identity cannot be downplayed in such a multi-everything society as our own, a society in which group identity is critically important in structuring how we see ourselves and how we are seen by others. But at the same time, a focus on groups can bring out the worst instincts in us — the sometimes ugly tribalism that’s hardwired into our brains and which can cause us to descend into bitter factionalism and partisanship. Individualism, meanwhile, avoids this pitfall; securing each person to the nation on an individual level just seems so basic and elemental and such a clear recognition of the uniqueness of each individual person. Clearly we are all more than the sum of our parts, or of our group identities. But individualism can leave us alone and adrift, unsecured to the kinds of group attachments that make life worth living (family, community, etc.) which Burke describes so memorably (our “little platoons”) and which Paine seems to say little about (at least in Levin’s account). And any political system that forgets about the importance of group attachments is surely missing the mark. Universalism is a powerful endpoint and goal for any social policy, a unifying ideal, and, as Paine indicates, a very naturalistic way of thinking about human law and governance. It is also counterintuitive, a push toward tolerance that we often lack. And it’s frankly hard to think of human beings in any other way, at the end of the day, than fundamentally similar in all the most important ways. But universalism can also glide over the particulars of individuals or groups; it’s a far-off end, not an immediate, of-the-moment one. It’s the forest, and in aiming for it, you can miss the trees.

Either way, this is all something I’ll surely keep thinking about, and I appreciate thinkers like Paine who proffer clear, straightforward, purified visions. These in turn help us clarify our own goals.