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Liberalism’s Two Camps

November 12, 2010

Yuval Levin in The Wilson’s Quarterly:

In a rip-roaring debate in the early 1790s, Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke fleshed out two distinct strains of liberalism whose differences continue to animate our political life today. Paine was the archetypal progressive liberal. Burke, though often considered simply a conservative, is better understood as representing a conservative interpretation of liberalism. At the heart of their disagreement, which on its surface was about the revolutions taking place in America and France, lay a “not-so-obvious fact: That where we stand on many of the great questions at the heart of liberal democratic politics often depends decisively upon our view of the relationship between the present and the past,” writes National Affairs editor Yuval Levin.

aine, a political writer and activist who lived in England, America, and France over the course of his life, believed that the Enlightenment should usher in an era of revolutions. With the newfound tools of reason and political science, leaders should seek to transform society to make it more just and more sensitive to human equality and rights. Paine wrote that for every child born, “the world is as new to him as it was to the first man that existed, and his natural right in it is of the same kind.” He should not be bound by the past, but should choose anew society’s design. Choice was central to Paine’s philosophy. He agreed with his friend Thomas Jefferson that it would be a good idea for every law to come with an expiration date so that it would not be imposed upon future generations without their active consent. [More]

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