We’re honored to feature an excerpt of an interview of Yuval Levin by Charles Kesler. You can watch and read the first excerpt here. Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the editor of National Affairs, and author of, most recently, “The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right.” Charles Kesler is a senior fellow at The Claremont Institute and editor of The Claremont Review of Books.
Charles Kesler: With Tom Paine, we arrive at a figure who is … Central might be a little bit too strong, but important in two revolutions. I mean, he was the author of “Common Sense” and “The Crisis” over here in the American revolution, then marvelously found himself in France just at the right time to participate in the opening acts of the French Revolution and to get himself thrown in prison.
Paine raises the question, “What is his relation to the American revolution,” and, “What’s the American revolution’s relation to American conservatism these days?” What role should the American founding or the American Revolution (call it what you will) play in today’s formulations of conservatism?
Yuval Levin: Well, I think that the order that we as conservatives have been trying to conserve is impossible to understand without the American founding; and, more than that, it owes itself to the American founding. Paine understood and articulated something very important about the American founding, not everything about it. His idea of the founding was much more radical, I think than the founding itself, more radical than Jefferson, even, and certainly more radical than the average view of the American living at the time and even of the American founders.
Charles Kesler: What do you mean by that?
Yuval Levin: Well, Paine saw the American founding as a philosophical event. It’s also why he found himself in France when he did and why he had that great timing in the age of revolutions. Paine said himself that he was a revolutionary more than an American. And of course it’s impossible to avoid that. Paine only arrived in America a year and a half before the Declaration of Independence.
Charles Kesler: He had an uncanny eye for revolution.
Yuval Levin: He had an extraordinary ability to find himself in the right place at the right time. What he believed was happening in America was the dawn of a new age, essentially an inevitable age that could only be stopped by the worst kind of despotism, which he thought was what was happening, is what the actions of the British meant in America. What that age meant was the dawning of a political order that answered the political ideas and especially through enlightenment. It was about equality, about the freedom of the individual. Paine held to, I think it’s fair to say, the most radical form of a Lockean liberalism, which is not itself the most radical form of liberalism, by any means.
He found himself at home in America and thought that the American Revolution should be understood in terms of the first chapter in an era of revolutions that he spread around the world. He very much connected the American Revolution and the French Revolution.
The connection between those two was a controversial question in America, was in some sense the controversial question of the error of the French Revolution here. For Paine, there was no question. It was all about opening this new age of individual liberation, of equality and liberty and democracy.
Of course, that was partially right, so the spirit of Paine is very much alive in anyone who wants to preserve the spirit of the American Revolution. I think it doesn’t account for everything about the revolution. It isn’t everything that conservatives should conserve. Also, Paine’s disposition and Paine’s attitude about knowledge in the role of policy and politics isn’t really what conservatives try to conserve or ever have.
His disposition is radical. That is, he was first and foremost outraged at the bad and believed that it could be undone only by overthrowing the tyranny of the political order that we inherited and starting over on the right foundations. In that sense, he was literally a radical. He wanted to go to the core, to the root, to the beginning and thought that you could almost return to a kind of state of nature and from it build in the right way and get to the right kinds of institutions.
That’s not exactly what the American Revolution did. The American Revolution believed that it had more to draw on than that, so tried to draw the best out of the English tradition and to build new ideas upon that and to build a new political order upon that.
Charles Kesler: Where do you draw the line there? I mean, Paine is in favor of human equality, liberty, natural rights, consent of the governed, social contract, limited government in some large sense of the term just like Jefferson, just like Adams, just like Hamilton, or just like Madison.
Yuval Levin: Well, Paine was a believer in absolute democracy. He didn’t believe in the division of powers. He was an opponent of the Constitution, though he was very careful not to say too much about it. He certainly didn’t believe in the bicameral legislature and in federalism the way it took shape in the constitution. He was a believer that opening up democracy, allowing it to have its way was the right approach to government and that anything else was a compromise with realities that didn’t need to be compromised with anymore and shouldn’t be compromised with.
I think Paine was much more radical than Jefferson and much less practical than Jefferson and certainly much more so than Madison, let alone Hamilton and Adams.
Charles Kesler: Well, certainly in his later career when he became openly anti-Christian, he far exceeded the bounds of American opinion and even of American radical opinion.
Yuval Levin: Paine, I think also shows you how that radical form of liberalism can lead to a much greater belief in the power and role of government, ultimately, so that you can see in the course of his career a development from what is essentially radical libertarianism to the early roots of welfare state thinking. By 1800, he is writing about creating a system by which government will help the poor. His belief always was that if you liberate the right principles, all these problems should be solved, including poverty, including war.
When it didn’t happen by itself, Paine came to believe that government could help it happen, if it was the right sort of government, if it was a fully democratic government. He writes in an essay called “Agrarian Justice” in 1797, what it essentially kind of description of a proto-welfare state. It provides benefits directly to the public to alleviate poverty. That’s not where Burke was ever headed. The path from radical individualism to safeism is much easier for Paine and, I think, is much easier for the people who have followed Paine to the more radical approach in the liberal society that followed Paine, because ultimately, a lot of it is about ends.
When the means that Paine believed in didn’t achieve those ends, the followers of Paine and even of Jefferson became open to far different kinds of means because the utopian ends were the point for them. I think you start to see in Paine’s own career, how the belief in limited government is the first thing to give way when it turns out not to work in practice the way that he had hoped.
Charles Kesler: Would he say in defense of himself that both the scheme of agrarian justice and the beginnings of a welfare state and the rights of man are meant for England, I mean, meant for a society that has been aristocratic and has been warped by the experience of aristocracy, but not meant for a more natural society, in his terms, as the United States?
Yuval Levin: Well, I wouldn’t say that they were not meant for the United States. Paine, in “Agrarian Justice,” in one of the later editions of it, in 1802, there’s an American introduction to agrarian justice and he seemed to think it would have some value in America. Now, Paine thought America did have a kind of aristocratic past, at least certain parts of America, that had to be overcome.
I think he would make a form of that case, but ultimately that case amounts to saying that this wouldn’t be necessary in a perfect society, but it is necessary in a real society. That means that it’s necessary. Every society has its history and its limitations. The idea that you can start over and not have to confront the burdens of the past is certainly something Paine always hoped for, but I think it’s fair to say it’s something that is ultimately not possible.
Charles Kesler: Which would you say is the more American debate, though, between Paine and say, Adams, or his critics in America (of which he had many), precisely because he was a simple government man, not a complex government man, didn’t really trust or didn’t think checks and balances were really necessary in that kind of thing? French almost in his thinking, as far as that goes. Is that the debate, or is the Burke-Paine debate the American debate?
Yuval Levin: Well, I think that the Burke-Paine debate is actually a deeper form of that same debate. I think Burke and Paine brought out in each other really their deepest views. They forced one another to think about the roots of their beliefs. The view that Burke is articulating is very similar to the one that Adams make that argues against Paine. Burke is also a believer in complexity.
Ultimately, because he thinks that that complexity arose for a reason and that the reason is probably not entirely knowable to us, so that again, we should start with working institutions, keep those and build on them in ways that try to address their problems. That’s going to result in a very complicated government, in a government that has all sorts of arms and legs.
It’s not clear what its various vestiges are achieving, exactly. Burke was a reformer of some of those when it was clear they were excessive, but he also believed in maintaining them, more or less because they existed and were working. That certainly wasn’t Paine’s view. What the Burke-Paine debate allows you to see—there was no real debate with Adams. Of course, Paine never really quite answered Adams. Adams insulted him in very abusing ways, but it didn’t exactly get down to profound ideas, like the age of Paine. He loved that his name was Paine. It was such a wonderful thing for John Adams.
The Burke-Paine debate gets to ideas and ultimately gets to the question of how we should think about the sources and the roots of politics. For Burke, the key fact is that politics has to begin from the given world. That means that it has to be a politics of generational connections. It has to be a politics of gradual improvement. Paine simply rejected that, including the generational question.
Paine makes explicit something that a lot of other liberal thinkers don’t, which is that the state of nature idea as a source of our understanding of rights means that there is no importance to the connection between generations. Every person has to be thought of like the first person in the world.
To Burke, this was sheer insanity and it would be impossible to build a society by beginning from that premise. The Burke-Paine debate shows us therefore, that our heritage, our inheritance is very complicated. We want to believe and do in the sort of idea of rights that Paine articulates, but the roots of that idea, as Paine lays them out, I think are not ultimately supportable. Those ideas come from somewhere deeper, somewhere further in our intellectual heritage, in British history and in Western civilization, in places that a lot of liberals were not comfortable talking about then and are not comfortable talking about now.
The danger of not talking about it or of not seeing those roots, is that it can very easily become utilitarian if you have no roots. It really can be all about ends. At that point you lose the case for limits. That’s exactly what happens in Paine’s own thinking.