In This Review

The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left
The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left
By Yuval Levin
Basic Books, 2013, 296 pp.

In this lively and probing book, Levin, one of the most influential conservative writers in the United States, looks at the ideas of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, towering figures in the late-eighteenth-century transatlantic Enlightenment, which continues to shape the political discourse of the English-speaking world. Levin argues that for all their differences, Burke and Paine shared an overarching liberal worldview -- and so do their ideological heirs, whether or not they realize it. Today’s Tea Party conservatives, Levin argues, have much more in common with Paine’s radicalism than with Burke’s conservatism. But Levin also notes that Paine moved away from his libertarian, small-government views early in his career and urged a greater government role in protecting the poor and the aged from the economic vicissitudes of the Industrial Revolution. Today, the argument between the radical, humanist Paine and the cautious, tradition-minded Burke is played out on both the left and the right sides of the American political divide. The Great Debate won’t settle any of the political disputes roiling U.S. politics today, but those who read it carefully will find it easier to understand their opponents -- and perhaps even to find some common ground.