Abstract Principles and The Tyrannies They Produce
In the matter of government and governing Thomas Paine had a simplistic, rationalistic approach. He took hold of some core philosophical principles (for example, the equality of all human beings) and insisted that a government reflect that abstract principle in all its operations. The consequence was a concentration of power in the hands of a governing elite. In other words, the paradox of Paine’s simplistic nostrums was that government, ostensibly subject to the rights of all men, inevitably became a Leviathan subjugating all men to its will.
Burke’s approach was far more moderate. Things came to be the way they were over a long time. Overnight, sudden change would inevitably destroy conventions, habits, practices–and the beliefs upon which they were based. An example of the difference between the two was the debate between Paine and Burke over the intent of the revolutionary assembly in France to divide that country into perfectly square districts, rather than govern according to Frances traditional, messy regions.
The eradication of traditional attachments and practices that would follow such a move . . . would not eliminate prejudices and attach people to their national identity, as the revolutionaries hoped. Instead, Burke argues, it would crush all attachment to community and leave an unrestrained Paris government in charge of a greatly weakened nation. [Yuval Levin, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (New York: Basic Books, 2014), p.132.]
The ancient Assyrians understood the implications of this basic idea.
When Assyria invaded, it razed cities, towns and villages. Once all was destroyed and the inhabitants either killed or exiled to the other side of the Empire, a newly displaced (foreign) people could be brought in to settle amidst the rubble, a new (perfect) civilisation could be built. [Incidentally, the Samaritans in biblical history were just such a displaced and transplanted people bought in to settle the newly razed Northern Kingdom of Israel.]
The notion abides to this day. An example of a modern “Assyrian force” is ISIS which requires the obliteration of historical and national monuments, a wiping out of the past, in order to replace an area of land with the complete and perfect Islamic “package”. All attachments to the past, all traditions, must be crushed and ground to dust in order to build the new.
Burke understood that a doctrine such as the “sovereignty of the rights of man” would unleash a quasi-despotic force in society.
They first undid all existing arrangements, weakening the people beyond repair, and then imposed an artificial order unconnected and ill suited to the character of those being governed. And in this radical rearrangement, he feared, were the seeds of an unrestrained political extremism, employing society as a kind of metaphysical laboratory. [Ibid., p. 132f.]
The radicals always become more and more radical as they seek further and further applications of their abstract doctrines. The abstract principle is pure and perfect; but human society is complex, imperfect, and inconsistent. The political radicals would give their lives to enforce greater, systematic conformity to “human rights” or “non-discrimination rights” or “gender rights” or “sexual rights”, and so on. Their extremist goals of perfection can only be achieved by tearing to pieces the fabric of society.
Burke argues that human ratiocinations upon abstract philosophical principles (for example, the universal rights of man) can never offer clarity or certainty. Man is far too frail and imperfect and limited for that.
This means that we must balance our reason against our passions and vice-versa, but even such a balance can offer little confidence. No person has within him the capacity to overcome the radical infirmity and imperfection of man. No individual is up to it, regardless of his intelligence or his grasp of the principles of science or the facts of nature. Rather, we must learn from the combined experience of many, and particularly from the lives of those who lived before us. [Ibid., p. 135.]
Thomas Paine’s rationalism would suppress all that does not comply with the abstract ideal. Burke’s moderation leads to a society with intrinsic inconsistency and messiness. Ironically, Burke’s prescriptions produce the more free and open society. Paine’s theories, however, produce a more centralised, controlled society in which “all the houses are made of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same”. Welcome to the world of Thomas Paine.
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