Michael Gerson: Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine: A rivalry that still reverberates

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  • Gildas LOGAN, UT
    Feb. 14, 2014 10:07 a.m.

    I think this is one of those occasions where two men who were rivals both had something valuable to say.

    Burke spoke evenly against Crown influence in Parliament and against secretive sessions of Parliament. He spoke against general warrants. I think, for transparency and individual rights, he would prove too liberal for current practice of "liberalism".
    He believed in a system of checks and balances, one in which the Executive had a part but not did not dominate. He is still quoted on the need for responsible political activism for: "all that is needed for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing".

    Paine made his own positive contributions, in writing "Common Sense" and Part I of "The Rights of Man". Part II is a different kettle of fish, in which he anticipated with approval and enthusiasm the idea of government National Insurance which libertarians would typically disapprove, and modern liberals would welcome.

  • 2 bits Cottonwood Heights, UT
    Feb. 14, 2014 9:36 a.m.

    WOW... it takes a TV Drama to get him to think about this and write about it?

    That's the problem with our "news" and our society now days. Unless we see it on MTV or in some pop-culture reincarnation of actual social-science or history... we won't think about it, we won't write about it, or care about it, it won't appear in our "news" papers. There has to be a TV Drama so we can relate to it, or a reality show that exposes something about human nature.

  • Roland Kayser Cottonwood Heights, UT
    Feb. 13, 2014 10:39 a.m.

    I have a great deal of sympathy for many of Burke's points of view, but his conservatism does not translate very well to America. Burke was a defender of rigid social classes who believed that the class one is born into is the defining characteristic of one's life. He believed that people could progress within their social classes, but could not move up to a higher one.

    He also believed that the aristocracy provided the best government because they had been raised to rule. His vision also presupposed a population that was tied to the land, precisely because people tied to the land tend to conservatism, which still holds true. Here in the U.S., virtually no one is tied to the land, which means his theories need alterations to work here.

  • Tyler D Meridian, ID
    Feb. 13, 2014 9:56 a.m.

    This article highlights nicely the difference between one’s political affiliation based on temperament (or emotions, which is how most liberal & conservative Americans today affiliate) and one’s political views based on rational (can be emotional as well) consideration of individual social problems.

    Clearly by this standard, Burke was a temperamental conservative who held some progressive views.

    Paine was a temperamental liberal and an analytical genius who was unsurpassed at finding the negative aspects in even our most cherished institutions & beliefs.

    Both are to be admired, but Paine is the more important historical figure… at least for our country. It is debatable (and I tend to think not) that we would have broken away from Britain in 1776 without Paine’s influence.

  • Irony Guy Bountiful, Utah
    Feb. 13, 2014 8:18 a.m.

    Paine was essentially a libertarian who despised the US Constitution as an instrument of oppression. Neither today's liberals nor conservatives would find much appeal for him. Burke was today's liberal. He stood against the monopoly power of English business interests and insisted that Americans did deserve direct representation. Gerson and Levin have their categories mixed up.

  • Diligent Dave Logan, UT
    Feb. 13, 2014 12:35 a.m.

    The book by Levin referred to by Gerson in his article sounds interesting. I know a slight amount more about Paine than I do Burke, though I both agree and disagree with both.

    IMO, Paine's push of the American people for total independence of the British was ultimately justified. Politically, what Paine was advocating was what Jesus meant when he spoke of putting new wine into old 'bottles' ('goatskin bags' holding a drink that can ferment and cause old 'vessels' of insufficient strength to burst). Americans and American society was a "newer vessel" that could contain Paine's radical changes. But France lacked a comparable "new vessel" (society) to keep from bursting from the "fermentation" of individual liberty. Whereas Americans and American institutions were younger and more 'elastic', such was not true with those in the old French culture. The "new wine" burst those "old bottles", once Paine left America for France to regurgitate there what had worked here.

    And, BTW, Thomas Paine came from England. Like Benjamin Franklin, who, for so long tried to keep America and Britain together, both became convinced there needed to be a separation and independence.