Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Paine vs. Burke

“Do we want to fix our health-care system by empowering expert panels armed with the latest effectiveness data to manage the system from the center or by arranging economic incentives to channel consumer knowledge and preferences and address some of the system’s discrete problems?”
That sentence comes from the concluding chapter of a book I have just finished reading.  Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate is a summary of the competing philosophies of Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke who were famous essayists and pamphleteers during the last part of the 18th century, and particularly during the American and French revolutions.  They are given credit for having articulated the disparate points of view that underlie what we have come to know as the liberal and conservative branches of politics.
To oversimplify, Paine – seen as a father of liberalism - believed that as individuals we are able, through the application of reason and principles, to reconstruct society in whatever way we see fit without regard to what came before or will come after.  Burke – a conservative - saw the institutions of society as reflecting the accumulated wisdom and experience of the past and believed that changes and improvements should come incrementally. 
As with so many other things, perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.  In general, I find myself agreeing with Burke, but as the same time I can identify with Paine’s high regard for the importance of the individual and impatience with those who resist measures that seems to be logical and reasonable.
Paine and Burke made enormous contributions to the modern, Western world as we know it and for that we should all be grateful.  And it is sobering to realize that the opinions we think we invented ourselves often have their roots in the thinking of people we never heard of.

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