Tradition and Democracy in Burke and Paine

In a wonderful new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of the Right and Left, Yuval Levin shows that much of Edmund Burke’s greatest work was aimed at refuting Thomas Paine, just as much of Paine’s greatest work was designed to rebut Burke. Levin also shows persuasively how both of these men’s views find echoes in today’s ideological struggle between the right and left. Paine championed reason as an immanent force of nature that allows man to discover all social truths, including the deistic truths of religion. In Burke’s view, tradition provides ballast to man, who, far from seeing wholly through the prism of reason, is blinded by partiality, circumstance, and limited knowledge.

I strongly encourage readers of this blog to pick up a copy of this important and lucid work. For me, the book raises some questions about Burke’s relative enthusiasm for tradition and relative disdain for democracy. When Burke was alive, these positions were two sides of the same coin. For Burke, tradition was a way to capture what worked over a long period and the judgment of many minds through the centuries. These were indicia of tradition’s beneficence. Democracy, even representative democracy, in its turbulence and focus on the present, threatened to overturn this source of social stability and wisdom.

But Burke’s veneration of tradition over all of methods of social regulation sits less well today. Because the world now changes a lot faster than in Burke’s day, tradition is less likely to be a good guide to present policy. Democracy, like tradition, is also a method of getting the views of many minds. While still imperfect, an extended voting franchise works better in our day than it would have in his. A larger number of people are better educated and have a larger stake in society, both in protecting their property and human capital.

To be sure, majorities under the passions of the moment can be too quick to think they can “begin the world over again,”  (link is no longer available) in Paine’s own words. Majorities must be circumscribed by constitutions that preserve the status quo on fundamental rights and structures until a new, very substantial consensus is reached. And even ordinary legislation, at least at the federal level, rightly requires more than majoritarian consensus to overturn market and or locally created norms because of bicameralism and the Presidential veto. It is interesting in this respect that Paine was himself not an advocate of simple majoritarianism (a point Levin does not emphasize) but wanted to require all legislation to get 60 percent support before passing.

It has turned out that democracy may be the most effective restraint on the enthusiasm of Paine’s progressive followers for remaking the world though their concept of reason. If “reason” is thought to be readily accessible to those trained in its ways, elites, whether judges or bureaucrats,  will be naturally seen as  reason’s enforcers.  And they will be liable to reorder society far more quickly than is democracy. Democracy, with its multiple perspectives and entrenched interests, often constrains the power of the “calculators and sophisters ” that Burke feared would put society on a path of constant revolution and reaction.