Friday, April 11, 2008

Burke and Paine

The debate within the political left continues. Recently, Marko Atilla Hoare wrote that the left/right divide had been replaced by that of pro- versus anti-West.

Bob from Brockley responded with a detailed argument that among other things brought in a passage from a recent post by Peter Ryley in which he wrote (emphasis added):

there are those that are firmly anti-totalitarian but have little or no critique of domestic politics. They have made their peace with the establishment and the legacy of Thatcherism. However dramatic their declarations of human rights, they are Tom Paines abroad but Edmund Burkes at home.
The emboldened phrase has been picked up on as an excellent summary of the divide between the "Decent" left and the part that, while disliking the more froth-flecked leftist extremists who have linked up with Islamists, feels uncomfortable with the Neo-Conservatism of people like some of the Harry's Place bloggers, Nick Cohen and Oliver Kamm. (Given that Neo-Conservatism is a movement that started in the American Democratic Party, I think this label is fair and, I believe, Kamm at least would not query it).

I suspect also that they are uncomfortable with any suggestion that they dilute their sectarian dislike of what they see as conservative domestic policies, and wish to flaunt their trademark antipathy to Margaret Thatcher; Hoare had written that a broad centrist consensus of "welfare capitalism" had arisen, but the dissenters are not reconciled to capitalism.

The debates between Burke and Paine have come to represent the disagreements between left and right - Paine stands for the radical tradition and Burke for the conservative, which is reasonable enough in broad terms (though Burke was an Irish Whig he stands in some ways as the father of English conservatism).

In more detailed terms, though, it's a bit more complicated. Paine was certainly a radical. He was deeply involved in the American Revolution, then went to France and took part in theirs, even becoming a member of the French Assembly. It is from that assembly that we get our terms "right wing" and "left wing", based on the seating arrangements. Perhaps the first sign that this is not straightforward is the fact that Paine sat on the right of the French Assembly, in opposition to the sectarian violence of the Jacobins.

The man regarded as the Founding Father of capitalism and free-market economics is Adam Smith, so one might expect that being a "Burke at home" would include being a supporter of Smith. Luckily, Burke and Paine knew of Smith and of his work Wealth of Nations - the book that could be said to have founded the modern study of economics. Even more luckily, they brought Smith into their argument. Paine compared Burke unfavourably to Smith. In Part One of Rights of Man, Paine wrote:
Had Mr. Burke possessed talents similar to the author of "On the Wealth of Nations." he would have comprehended all the parts which enter into, and, by assemblage, form a constitution. He would have reasoned from minutiae to magnitude.
As a supporter of the American Revolution, Paine would have felt Smith was a sympathiser - Smith argued against colonialism and in support of the revolutionaries. In return, Paine was a supporter of economic freedom with the rider that he, in Part Two of Right of Man, laid some of the theoretical foundations of the modern Welfare State. This is, in passing, in complete accordance with Marko Hoare's suggestion of a consensus in support of "welfare capitalism" - he could have counted both Paine and, I think, Smith as supporters of that consensus. Burke took a swipe at Adam Smith when he lamented:
The age of chivalry has gone: the age of economists, sophists and calculators has arrived.
But despite this, and to complicate matters further, Burke was a personal friend of Smith and agreed with much of what he wrote.

So both Paine and Burke agreed in large part with Adam Smith's ideas - unsurprising, insofar as Smith's ideas were (and remain) plainly broadly correct.

Smith's ideas about the importance of enforceable contracts - still a foundation of the idea of free-market economics, though one that the left in general seems unable to understand, imagining that the free-market is some sort of Darwinian hell where might is right - chimed with Paine's fervent belief in the importance of constitutional democracy, a constitution being a form of contract, but one that limited the powers of governments. In Part Two of Rights of Man, Paine wrote (emphasis added):
Here we see a regular process — a government issuing out of a constitution, formed by the people in their original character; and that constitution serving, not only as an authority, but as a law of control to the government.
Burke felt Britain already had a constitution, founded on the Bill of Rights - Monarchy limited by representative democracy. In fact, Burke gave us a seminal definition of representative democracy in his address to the electors of Bristol:
Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
A characteristic of those involved in this debate who feel closer to Paine than Burke is that, on this point, they agree with Burke: democracy should be representative, and particularly not direct.

They tend also to want absolute powers to be reserved to the government, and exercised in ways that deny individuals the freedom to choose their own forms of association (capitalist ones, for example), and that assume the government is entitled to take whatever of the property of its citizens it sees fit, for purposes that can include redistribution.

Paine was a proper Liberal. He believed in free trade, personal liberty, unfettered free speech. He wanted a secular, constitutional democracy. In none of these things do those who seek to associate themselves with him actually agree with him.

They are left-wing, alright - inheritors of the sectarian hatreds and extremisms that drove the French Revolution into first the Terror, then the arms of an Emperor and thereby murdered any chance that the beacon that had been lit in Philadelphia might burn also on the European continent. They are a part of the tradition that led from the Jacobin nightmare to the nightmare of Soviet oppression.

Thomas Paine was not a part of that tradition and chose to sit on the right of the French Assembly to demonstrate, unequivocally, his opposition to it. He was a genuine Liberal, part of a tradition that has almost no representatives alive today; perhaps Friedman was the most recent notable successor. This tradition had some simple principles:
  • Governments should be limited in their powers, by constitution
  • Governments gain legitimacy from the people, not from monarchs, and should be republican
  • Governments should be secular, both guaranteeing religious freedom and keeping religion away from the public domain
  • Governments should defend and preserve economic freedom at home through free markets
  • Free markets require government protection of the law of contract
  • Free markets depend on government protection of property rights
  • Governments should protect free trade, imposing neither tariffs nor quotas
  • Governments should protect the poor and the vulnerable
  • Governments should support the indigent
In Paine's mind, these principles were all based on the natural Rights of Man. Those who now seek to associate themselves with Paine in this debate do not agree with all, if any, of these principles.

In his post, Bob from Brockley argued against Marko Hoare's Pro-West/Anti-West analysis as follows:
But my most important quibble is that the West, whatever that is, has all too often not been the embodiment of the values Hoare describes here as “Western”: “he extension of the liberal-democratic order across the globe, through the politics of human rights, promotion of democracy, universal values and interventionism (not necessarily always military)”.

Most importantly, while the West was on the right side in the fights against fascism and Stalinism, its involvement in the third of what Hitchens calls the great questions of the twentieth century, colonialism, has tainted its claim to represent freedom and democracy.
In this, he was guilty of simplification: people like Smith and Paine had argued against colonialism as early as the late eighteenth-century. Paine and many other Liberals fought against the slave trade and were finally first to abolish it, then to drive Britain into what might be a unique fight against slavery around the world, something that occupied the Royal Navy into the twentieth century and that might actually have cost more than the profits that had been gained from the slave trade. The Liberal tradition cannot be blamed for colonialism - it fought it - and it is this tradition Hoare means, I am certain, when he writes of the "West".

In passing, it's interesting that there is so much debate today that refers to these great figures from the eighteenth century. Why is this? Why do they remain so very relevant today?

I have a rather simplistic notion of a possible answer. Mankind was, and in many parts of the world remains, smothered by a religious ignorance characterised in part by a violent suppression of free thought. The Reformation, driven by the printing press, weakened this in Europe sufficiently that free thought became possible and this led to an explosion of ideas we call the Enlightenment. And in general, they got many things right first time, because those things are actually very simple. Human freedom is the most important thing. Economic freedom leads to prosperity. Intellectual freedom leads to knowledge. Political Freedom is prerequisite for those first two freedoms and the greater it is, the better they will flourish. Everything else is just adding detail to these basic, unalterable truths.

Historically, the right were the enemies of freedom, and they remain so, at least on the censoring, censorious, protectionist, monarchist Tory right.

It is a great shame, and the source of many of our problems, that the left has also become, in very large part, even more determined and relentless enemies of freedom than such Tories.


bob said...

Excellent post Peter. I'll read more slowly and reply!

Peter Risdon said...

That's generous of you, Bob - especially since, reading it back, I think I misrepresented your position slightly and for the worse.

I look forward to your full reply.

dearieme said...

Very interesting. But let me pick a nit: "Paine and many other Liberals fought against the slave trade and were finally first to abolish it". It was abolished at the behest of Wilberforce, who had been much helped by Pitt: Tories both.

Nick Cohen said...

Er but I'm not a neo-conservative or any type of conservative. I did however say here although I agreed with Paine Burke wasn't always wrong. Is this the ideological error that has been picked up on?

The Plump said...

Just a small reflection on your final question. The continuing interest in these figures is partly because the questions raised by the Industrial and French Revolutions have yet to be resolved (if they can be), partly because of their contemporary significance in setting the terms of the debate, but mainly because they got stuck on the standard University curriculum! How I wish that interesting and original figures - the French ultra liberals, the English Ricardian scialists, etc. - were given the same time and respect.

Shuggy said...

The debates between Burke and Paine have come to represent the disagreements between left and right - Paine stands for the radical tradition and Burke for the conservative, which is reasonable enough in broad terms

You could have left it there with that observation: names come to represent political positions. You can't expect that these categorizations to fit with the historical figures on the messy details. Same could be said of Lenin, Trotsky, Napoleon or whatever. You could say the way that historical figures are used is more metaphor than analogy.