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The Eternal order vs. the eternal now

19/01/2015

Politics, sex and religion; these are the three taboo subjects our parents told us not to discuss lest pleasant conversation give way to incivility and possibly worse. Being a politically interested person, I broach political issues carefully in everyday life yet often find entrenched positions based on philosophies lead to less than respectful discourse. Perhaps the reason behind such a social convention is the moral framework which people have built around these areas of life. Such a framework of understanding cuts at the heart of an individual’s value system or moral sense of being. A profound sense of identity which explains why people hold the views they do.

Sometimes when engaging in political discourse, avoiding the counsel of our elders, positions on political issues seem instantly intractable and discourse can quickly descend into unpleasant and unproductive sets of two monologues where people talk at cross purposes and cannot reach any commonality.

Over Christmas I read a fascinating book which seeks to explain the origins of “left” and “right” as we know them in the traditional political paradigm and how people’s opinions often tend to fall consistently on one side of the spectrum. The Great Debate, Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the birth of right and left by Yuval Levin (an American conservative) traces the origins of this political discord back to the ferocious debate over the French revolution and its two strongest actors; the conservative Edmund Burke who valued the preservation of existing time tested institutions married with incremental change and the enlightenment liberal, Thomas Paine who sought to reform the system from new beginnings. Burke opposed the revolution as he saw it destroying that which was functional in the French system to create a hypothetical grand new society whereas Paine saw the French system as fundamentally broken and unjust granting inherited authority to an aristocracy holding a sense of entitlement.

The Eternal order vs. the eternal now

One of the key underpinnings for the disagreement between the two philosophers and outspoken men of letters was in the relationship between different generations and the nature of consent.

Burke held that our society is inherited from our forebears and we hold a duty of care to those previous generations who have forged institutions to have stood the test of time and a responsibility to make things manageable for future generations. Burke was not opposed to change and recognised its inevitability in a dynamic world (social and economic change is certainly apparent in today’s world) but he believed in seeking to constantly reform existing institutions, society risked sacrificing that which is good in the somewhat vainglorious hope of creating something better. Change will happen and the statesman should recognise that change but it should also be managed so as to minimise its disruption of functioning institutions.Our existing institutions and laws also help to provide certainty for individuals, businesses and civil associations to plan for the longer term.

In contrast with Burke’s deferential reverence for existing institutions and our forebears, Thomas Paine rejected the inheritance of those institutions, instead he believed each new generation should create institutions which reflect the society in which they live not the society of their forebears. In this manner consent must constantly be affirmed and re-affirmed by each new generation. In Paine’s view the laws have no meaning if the living have not consented to them and do not hold ownership over them.

There are flaws with each approach. Burke’s reverence for existing institutions may make him appear to be an apologist for the status quo when it isn’t clear laws have value or relevance today merely because they are old. Laws introduced at one time may have had some relevance at that time (or were the result of advocacy from one interest group) but their persistence may not be due to efficacy but rather public apathy or unawareness.Public choice scholar Mancur Olson noted many programs of public support come into being and persist because the benefits accruing to a small vested interest are significant but the costs are small and diffuse spread as they are amongst many citizens within society. The recent police response in New Zealand to disruptive market player Uber, a car hire service which has been opposed by existing participants holding an entrenched position raises the question of relevance of existing laws around paying passengers makes me more sympathetic to Paine’s reaffirmation of Consent. However, Paine’s constant reaffirmation and reforming of consent (he also believed laws should be repealed every 30 years) risks upending the functional parts of society and values too highly the rationality of human beings acting on imperfect knowledge.

While Burke’s cautious conservatism underpinned by respect for the eternal order (and our forebears) has merit in recognising the immutability of human nature and limits of our knowledge, Paine’s view of the eternal now forces us to question the political orthodoxy of our time. Levin gives a good summation of the philosophical ideas underpinning the political cleavages in our society. This is well worth reading.

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