DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The writer Yuval Levin contends that our divisive political culture comes down to two competing ways for Americans to view their country.
YUVAL LEVIN: You look at the world, it's imperfect. There are good things and bad things. Are you struck first and foremost by the good or are you struck first and foremost by the bad? Do you think this is something to build on or do you think we've got to start over?
GREENE: Levin traces those competing world views back to the age when Americans won independence. In his new book "The Great Debate," this editor of a conservative journal identifies those two points of view with two men, Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine.
LEVIN: Burke wants to fix society by making it more like the best of itself. Paine thinks that modern societies are just badly broken, that we have the principles that we need to build better ones and he wants revolution.
GREENE: Levin sees Paine as an early American liberal, while Burke is often a hero to conservatives. Centuries after their deaths, both Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine are still quoted by columnists or politicians when they want to ground their arguments in history. Levin argues their ideas really do inform our modern debates over Social Security, federal budgets, income inequality and Obamacare.
Levin spoke with our colleague Steve Inskeep about reconstructing the time when Burke and Paine famously argued with each other, writing speeches and pamphlets about the news of their day, the late 1700s.
LEVIN: Edmund Burke was an Irish-born English politician. He was one of the great figures in parliamentary politics in the last 18th century. He was in the House of Commons for about 30 years.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This is the time of the American Revolution, the French Revolution, a lot of things going on in the world.
LEVIN: A time of incredible, intense political crisis in British politics, in Anglo-American politics, and he is a reformer, first and foremost. He wants to fix problems with the institutions of the British system, but he wants to fix those problems so that they don't grow so big that they invite radical changes. He wants to fix them in order to save the system.
And then when the French Revolution comes in 1789, he sees a huge threat to the traditional system that the British had enjoyed and becomes a great defender of the contours of the English constitution.
INSKEEP: The French got rid of their king, chopped off the head of the system, so to speak, and his argument was...
LEVIN: They wanted to get rid of it all and start over and they thought they had the right idea.
INSKEEP: We should keep monarchies, was what Burke was saying. He favored monarchy.
LEVIN: Yeah, he thought we should keep the best of what we have and build on it.
INSKEEP: How was Thomas Paine a different person?
LEVIN: Paine was an English-born immigrant to America, much more familiar to us Americans. He was a prominent figure in the era of the American founding. He wrote "Common Sense." He wrote "The Crisis Papers." Made public arguments for independence.
INSKEEP: He was like a pamphleteer, basically...
LEVIN: A pamphleteer, but he turns out also to have been a pretty serious political thinker, and 10 years after the American Revolution, as revolution is brewing in France, Paine goes there. He's in Paris. He's in London. He's one of the great defenders of the French Revolution to the English-speaking world. And Paine is a real radical, a real revolutionary.
He thinks that that enlightenment has made available to us the right principles of government, and rather than try to fix all these broken systems that are basically despotic, that basically abuse the weak and the poor, we should start over and build the right kinds of systems on the right principles.
He he's just not impressed by Burke's concern that we keep a continuity, that we keep what's worked, that we keep what's made people happy and try to build on that to fix the problems we have. He thinks, no, this is a system that just can't be fixed.
INSKEEP: What was Paine going for? Is individual liberty the right way to put it?
LEVIN: Yeah, that's certainly one way to think about it. Paine wanted to liberate the individual from the constraints of the past, from the constraints of other people's opinions. He thought that every human individual should be perfectly free to decide the course of his own life to the extent that was possible.
INSKEEP: Now, let me ask about Edmund Burke, because his notion of keeping things as they are, that kind of traditional conservatism, is very appealing, but it led him to a lot of conclusions that don't seem too appealing to us today. For example, he argued that it makes perfect sense that people born to wealth or born in an aristocracy would be allowed to rule the country because they're the people who have access to education. They're the people who have access to manners and knowledge.
LEVIN: Yeah. A lot of the time, in thinking about Burke, the question is what's the alternative? That's the question he works from. Burke begins from a very limited sense of what human beings can really achieve on their own. He thinks that human beings are basically fallen creatures. People have a lot of limitations, a lot of problems, and he's surprised that anything works in society.
And so he's terribly impressed by the institutions that do work. He thinks governing takes prudence, prudence takes education, takes a certain kind of life experience. Now, that doesn't mean that people born to power should have power and no one else should. Burke himself in his own life is a counter example. He was not an aristocrat.
He was born to what we would think of as a kind of middle class family in Dublin and he certainly thought that the paths to power should be open to people who prove themselves. But he did think that it should be a little harder to prove yourself if you don't come from a place where you've had the right kind of education, where you've had the right kind of preparation to govern.
That obviously is a very hard idea for us to take and it's never been part of the American ideal, not even of American conservatism, for the most part. But it speaks to his basic disposition, which is you've got to start with a society as you find it and look for ways to improve it, rather than throw away everything that previous generations have built for you and start over from scratch, you know, with a dream.
INSKEEP: Is it strange that we're in this political moment in which liberals can actually seem rather conservative because there arguing, we've built up a pretty good country here over the last few generations and it's conservatives who seem to want to tear everything down.
LEVIN: Yeah, absolutely. If you just step back and look at the basic shape of our debates today, you would think conservatives want to change everything and liberals want to stop them, and so in effect the left and right are reversed. But I think it looks that way because what they're arguing about is itself an application of the liberal world view, a liberal welfare state built up over the course of the 20th century that embodies or exemplifies a certain way of thinking about politics.
And it's a way of thinking that Paine would've recognized, a way of thinking that is based in a kind of enlightenment idealism, especially about egalitarianism, about equality, that thinks that that can be achieved by applying expert knowledge, by centralizing power and knowledge, and combating it is a conservative view that I think Burke would have recognized that says what we need is more dispersed social knowledge, we need to allow the institutions that exist between the individual and the state, civil society, markets, families, to sustain that space between the individual and the state, which is really where we live.
INSKEEP: Burke, in this book, I think on page 131, writes about the danger of theory in government. You want to deal with what's real and not what would theoretically work. Have conservatives in some way embraced theory far too much? Tax increases, always bad in theory. Free enterprise, always good in theory - and not looked at the more complicated realities of governing and of the way economies work.
LEVIN: Yes. I think that has happened to some degree and it's happened in part because when conservatives turn philosophical, what they often reach for is actually a kind of radical idea of the American Revolution that's a lot more like Paine than like Burke. I think what Burke would offer them is a reminder of the need to be constructive, to be practical.
And Burke didn't say there shouldn't be principals in politics, but he said that trying to apply a theory, a wholesale theory, directly to political life was always going to be a problem, because theories inevitably can't be as complex as life itself.
INSKEEP: Yuval Levin is the author of "The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left." Thanks for coming by.
LEVIN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.