Where Did the Left Vs. Right Fight Start?


To know where you’re going, it helps to know where you’ve come from. We’re all the result of decisions made by previous generations. But everything has to start somewhere, even political arguments.

Yuval Levin has done a great service to political junkies everywhere, then, with his recent book The Great Debate. It’s an attempt to trace today’s liberal vs. conservative divide back to its origins. As he explains in the subtitle, Levin finds the roots in the differences between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke.

The only problem is that, while Burke is certainly a suitable (and often celebrated) figure on the right, Paine’s ideas don’t translate well into modern liberalism.

To begin, consider Paine’s views on intergenerational relationships. “Every human individual in every generation has the same relation to society as every other person in every other generation,” he thought, according to Levin. “The political actions, decisions, rules, and achievements of past generations do not constrain the present or define it.”

Well, that’s actually the very opposite of modern liberal thought.


In the left’s worldview, one can never overcome slights of the past. If you’re a minority, for example, you need affirmative action programs. And your children will. And your children’s children will. Not because you have been discriminated against, but because past generations were once discriminated against, and that discrimination can, apparently, never be overcome.

Levin also explains Paine’s focus on the importance of individualism. “Human beings should be governed by their own choices and actions, rather than those of others, and the social relations one happens to have inherited upon arriving in this world ought not to be the decisive factor in the trajectory of one’s life,” Levin writes, explaining Paine. But this idea, too, is foreign to today’s liberals. Look no further than ObamaCare.

When it suited his purposes, President Obama was happy to repeatedly promise that “if you like your health care you can keep it. Period.” Now, we know that many people will be losing the coverage they liked. Period. So the president’s message has changed.

If your health coverage was inferior, the administration now explains, of course you’ll lose it. You’ll supposedly get something better. And cheaper. And so forth.

Leave aside the fact that this means Obama lied, repeatedly, about whether you could keep your health coverage. This highlights the way progressives look at American individuals: They simply aren’t smart enough to know what’s best for themselves, and need the government to tell them how to live.

This thread weaves through liberal thought. Progressives invented ballot initiatives, such as California’s system of frequently putting issues directly before the voters. Yet when voters make the “wrong” choice, such as in California where they overwhelmingly banned homosexual marriage (twice!), liberals demand courts step in and make the “right” ruling. So much for the power of the people.

Of course, Paine did give us some good, maybe great, ideas.

For example, he favored having all laws expire every generation. “The British, for want of some regulation of this kind, have a great number of obsolete laws,” Paine wrote. Americans today suffer under plenty of such laws.

Levin’s own magazine recently detailed one such law. In National Affairs, Jay Cost traced the history of Medicare. The short version: An overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, elected in 1964 (in the wake of the Kennedy assassination), scrambled to enact a health plan for the elderly. Rather than deal with the usual political disagreements, though, the House simply combined three very different plans, one proposed by Democrats, one by Republicans and a third proposed by the American Medical Association. These became Medicare Part A, Part B and Medicaid.

Paine was correct. If Medicare and Medicaid had been enacted with, say, a 20-year drop dead date, lawmakers would have been forced to deal with their problems decades ago. Instead, they’ve simply passed the buck to future generations. Every law, not just controversial ones such as the PATRIOT Act, should come with an expiration date.

Until now there hasn’t been a suitable “creation myth” available to explain where the left and right in American politics came from. Levin’s book shows Burke is a good choice as the father of conservatism. From the left? That’s an open question.


image illustration via Wikimedia Commons