Friday, April 11, 2008

Tom Paine, Edmund Burke and Adam Smith

Peter Risdon writes in Freeborn John (11 April) Freeborn John - on Burke and Paine, prompted by 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 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

The whole post is interesting and you should read it (HERE) to cover some interesting contrasts in political philosophy between two important 18th century figures.
I liked the Peter Riley sentence: ‘However dramatic their declarations of human rights, they are Tom Paines abroad but Edmund Burkes at home.’

Partly, this is a problem of attempting to squeeze 18th-century figures into a post-20th century political spectrum. Frankly, it can’t be done without rounding out rough edges and ignoring evidence of greater complexity than is covered by the revolutionary French convention, and its accidental ‘left-right divisions – the Jacobins had sat on the opposite side of the hall the labels would have been quite reversed so Marx would have been a rightwinger and Pat Buchanan a leftwinger (a theme for a playwright to work with?).


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