Near the end of this extremely absorbing book, Yuval Levin frames a series of canonical questions:
Should our society be made to answer to the demands of stark and abstract commitments to ideals of social equality or to the patterns of our own concrete traditions and foundations? Should the citizen’s relationship to his society be defined above all by the individual right of free choice or by a web of obligations and conventions not entirely of our own choosing? Are great public problems best addressed through institutions designed to apply the explicit technical knowledge of experts or by those designed to channel the implicit social knowledge of the community? Should we see each of our society’s failings as one large problem to be addressed by building on what works tolerably well to address what does not?
And most profoundly:
What authority should the character of the given world exercise over our sense of what we would like it to be?
As Levin points out, the answers to these questions are not mere abstractions: on the contrary, they fundamentally shape current public policy over a host of issues, from heath-care reform to anti-poverty programs. And they in turn spring from and reflect two distinct sets of ideas, indeed two distinct dispositions, conservative and progressive, which he identifies with the right and the left of American politics.
Not only that: The Great Debate argues that these ideas enter the American political bloodstream almost from the moment of the founding itself, via the climactic public clash in the 1790s between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, the prime movers in a pamphlet war that convulsed and engaged readers on two continents. The touchstone of domestic US political debate is, then, not capitalism vs. socialism, nor even religious fundamentalism vs. a cosmopolitan secularism, but an earlier and deeper disagreement over the nature of the modern liberal political order itself.