“The thesis of the state socialist is, that no line can be drawn between private and public affairs which the State may not cross at will; that omnipotence of legislation is the first postulate of all just political theory.” — Socialism and Democracy, Woodrow Wilson, 1887.
Progressivism represents a radical departure from the Founders’ understanding of the purpose and ends of government. Comparing and contrasting the arguments of the Founders and of the Progressives regarding six key principles of government — the meaning of freedom; the purpose of government arising from the meaning of freedom; the elements of domestic policy; the extent of foreign policy; the centrality of the consent of the governed; and the size and scope of government—shows decisively that Progressivism is not a logical outcome of the Founders’ principles, but rather a conscious rejection of them. The Founders argued that government exists to protect man’s natural equality and natural rights. The Progressives countered that government exists to achieve equality for individuals, particularly economically.
One of the leading Progressive scholar from the 1880s onward was John Dewey (1859-1952).Dewy taught mainly at Columbia University and devoted much of his life to redefining the idea of education. His thinking was influenced by the German philosopher G.W. F. Hegel, and central to it was a denial of objective truth and an embrace of historicism and moral relativism (Historical Relativism). As such he was critical of the American founding.
Dewey stated in his 1935 book, “Liberalism and Social Action.”
“Thus from various sources and under various influences there developed an inner split in liberalism. This cleft is one cause of the ambiguity from which liberalism still suffers and which explains a growing impotency. These are still those who call themselves liberals who define liberalism in terms of the old opposition between the province of organized social action and the province of purely individual initiative and effort. In the name of liberalism they are jealous of every extension of governmental activity. They may grudgingly concede the need of special measures of protection and alleviation undertaken by the state at times of great social stress, but they are the confirmed enemies of social legislation (even prohibition of child labor), as standing measures of political policy. Wittingly or unwittingly, they still provide the intellectual system of apologetics for the existing economic regime, which they strangely, it would seem ironically, uphold as a regime of individual liberty for all.
But the majority who call themselves liberals today are committed to the principle that organized society must use its powers to establish the conditions under which the mass of individuals can possess actual as distinct from merely legal liberty. They define their liberalism in the concrete in terms of a program of measures moving toward this end. They believe that the conception of the state which limits the activities of the latter to keeping order as between individuals and to securing redress for one person when another person infringes the liberty existing law has given him, is in effect simply a justification of the brutalities and inequities of the existing order. Because of this internal division within liberalism its later history is wavering and confused. The inheritance of the past still causes many liberals, who believe in a generous use of the powers of organized society to change the terms on which human beings associate together, to stop short with merely protective and alleviatory measures--a fact that partly explains why another school always refers to "reform" with scorn. It will be the object of the next chapter to portray the crisis in liberalism, the impasse in which it now almost finds itself, and through criticism of the deficiencies of earlier liberalism to suggest the way in which liberalism may resolve the crisis, and emerge as a compact, aggressive force.”
In essence Dewey believed the classical liberalism of John Locke and our Founders was an outdated way of thinking and not relevant to the social conditions of the day. This is what is meant by Historical Relevance. Dewey went on to state:
“The demand for a form of social organization that should include economic activities but yet should convert them into servants of the development of the higher capacities of individuals, is one that earlier liberalism did not meet. If we strip its creed from adventitious elements, there are, however, enduring values for which earlier liberalism stood. These values are liberty, the development of the inherent capacities of individuals made possible through liberty, and the central role of free intelligence in inquiry, discussion and expression. But elements that were adventitious to these values colored every one of these ideals in ways that rendered them either impotent or perverse when the new problem of social organization arose.
Before considering the three values, it is advisable to note one adventitious idea that played a large role in the later incapacitation of liberalism. The earlier liberals lacked historic sense and interest. For a while this lack had an immediate pragmatic value. It gave liberals a powerful weapon in their fight with reactionaries. For it enabled them to undercut the appeal to origin, precedent and past history by which the opponents of social change gave sacrosanct quality to existing inequities and abuses. But disregard of history took its revenge. It blinded the eyes of liberals to the fact that their own special interpretations of liberty, individuality and intelligence were themselves historically conditioned, and were relevant only to their own time. They put forward their ideas as immutable truths good at all times and places; they had no idea of historic relativity, either in general or in its application to themselves.”
When Dewey stated; “It blinded the eyes of liberals to the fact that their own special interpretations of liberty, individuality and intelligence were themselves historically conditioned, and were relevant only to their own time” he was in substance saying the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence were relevant only to the times the document was written. The terms Live, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness had a far different meaning to progressives like Dewey and Woodrow Wilson than our Founders. It was Wilson, a follower of Dewey’s progressivism, who stated in his 1913 What is Progress Speech:
“Some citizens of this country have never got beyond the Declaration of Independence, signed in Philadelphia, July 4th, 1776. Their bosoms swell against George III, but they have no consciousness of the war for freedom that is going on today.
The Declaration of Independence did not mention the questions of our day. It is of no consequence to us unless we can translate its general terms into examples of the present day and substitute them in some vital way for the examples it itself gives, so concrete, so intimately involved in the circumstances of the day in which it was conceived and written. It is an eminently practical document, meant for the use of practical men; not a thesis for philosophers, but a whip for tyrants; not a theory for government, but a program of action. Unless we can translate it into the questions of our own day, we are not worthy of it, we are not the sons of the sires who acted in response to its challenge.”
The answers to the following six questions illustrate the primary differences between the Founders and the Progressives.
1.) What is freedom? The Founders argued that adult human beings possess the right to be free from being ruled by others by the very fact of being born human (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.) Additionally, the Founders argued that nature gives no human being a right to rule over, or to enslave, another human being. The Progressives argued that freedom is a product of human making, and not a natural right. The Progressives taught that there are two levels of freedom—negative freedom (freedom from subjection to the will of others), and positive freedom (or effective freedom, which requires both the forming of the individual in the ethical ideal as defined by government experts and masterminds, and also providing that individual with access to all the resources he needs to that end.) This is a radical departures from the principles of our founding.
2.) What is the purpose of government? The Founders argued that government exists to protect man’s natural rights. If it fails to do this, it is unjust. The Progressives, having rejected natural rights, believe that government exists to create rights and to ensure that human beings are made equal.
3.) What constitutes good domestic policy? The Founders conceived of domestic policy as those things required for the protection of natural rights in the context of relations among fellow citizens. This list includes the criminal law, the civil law, the protection of the family, and the promotion of minimal citizen morality through government support of education and religion. Most of this fell within the power of the state and local governments as put forth in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution. The Progressives countered that domestic policy should focus on equality and income redistribution, along with proper formation in the morality preached by Progressivism, because natural rights are nonexistent and true freedom requires “creating” people’s characters and giving them the necessary resources. They tasked federal and state government bureaucracies, rather than local governments, with achieving this end. In contrast to Madison’s belief than man was an imperfect creature with passions and ambitions the progressives believed man’s character could be molded and improved by government, especially through education and indoctrination.
4.) What constitutes good foreign policy? The Founders believed that foreign policy serves the same purpose as domestic policy: the protection of the citizens’ natural rights. A strong national defense and the protection of borders are necessary to achieve this end; imperialism is not. The Progressives, on the other hand, saw foreign policy as a tool for spreading democracy and for improving the lives of “inferior” races through imperialism. The first Progressive to hone this belief was Theodore Roosevelt by his actions in Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. To some extent even today those who claim the label of “conservative” believe this progressive doctrine of “spreading democracy.”
5.) How important is the consent of the governed? Consent of the governed, as the Declaration states, is the only just means by which government derives its power and authority. It can never be discarded or ignored without becoming unjust and tyrannical. The Progressives rejected this argument. Without rejecting consent altogether, Progressives wanted to separate the institutions of government as far from the people as possible. They favored removing political power from local communities and centering it in state and federal bureaucracies staffed by “experts.”
6.) Should government be limited or unlimited? The Founders believed in a government limited by its primary mission of protecting the natural rights of the people. Government was supposed to be powerful in regard to providing a strong national defense and to protecting individual rights by effective law enforcement and free markets. Beyond that, government was expected to leave people alone and set up self-governing private associations (families, churches, businesses, and clubs) to take care of the daily affairs of life. The Progressives completely abandoned limited government. The private sphere was no longer to be treated as private. An unrestricted government, they claimed, could effectively solve all social and economic problems, both for private institutions and individuals — in essence the “nanny state.”
In 1897 Wilson wrote in his essay entitled; Socialism and Democracy:
“The socialist does not disregard the obvious lessons of history concerning overwrought government: at least he thinks he does not. He denies that he is urging the resumption of tasks which have been repeatedly shown to be impossible. He points to the incontrovertible fact that the economic and social conditions of life in our century are not only superficially but radically different from those of any other time whatever. Many affairs of life which were once easily to be handled by individuals have now become so entangled amongst the complexities of international trade relations, so confused by the multiplicity of news-voices, or so hoisted into the winds of speculation that only powerful combinations of wealth and influence can compass them. Corporations grow on every hand, and on every hand not only swallow and overawe individuals but also compete with governments. The contest is no longer between government and individuals; it is now between government and dangerous combinations and individuals. Here is a monstrously changed aspect of the social world. In face of such circumstances, must not government lay aside all timid scruple and boldly make itself an agency for social reform as well as for political control?
'Yes,' says the democrat, 'perhaps it must. You know it is my principle, no less than yours, that every man shall have an equal chance with every other man: if I saw my way to it as a practical politician, I should be willing to go farther and superintend every man's use of his chance. But the means? The question with me is not whether the community has power to act as it may please in these matters, but how it can act with practical advantage — a question of policy.'
A question of policy primarily, but also a question of organization, that is to say of administration.”
Some 48 years before Wilson wrote his essay on Socialism and Democracy the French classical-liberal economist Frederic Bastiat wrote his famous essay. The Law in which he stated:
“Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain."
Thus Wilson, like Dewey and other progressives of the day, believed in an administrative state that would, through the use of bureaucrats, experts, and masterminds, rule every aspect of life in the United States with the goal of making a better world for all. They saw the increase of immigration, especially from Eastern and Sothern Europe along with the increase in science and technology from the industrial revolution, and the rise of corporate power over politics as serious threats to the common man. Hey also believed that if property was left to the citizens it would mismanaged and it was the federal government’s responsibility to take control of as much land as it was able. Today in the western states the federal government controls nearly 50% of the land while in the northeast, where the original 13 colonies were established, a mere 3%.
As you can see from the comparisons progressives wanted more and more government control by experts and masterminds in the belief they could make a better world for all. While statists in every sense they were no fools. They still believed in a civil society with strong criminal laws and a fiscally sound government — even if they had to increase taxes to make it sound, which they often did.
Eventfully the influence of the Franklin Roosevelt era in progressivism finally morphed in today’s “liberalism” a far cry for the “Classical Liberalism” of our Founders. With the passage of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Legislation in 1965 this new liberalism took roots in the United States. Things like the welfare state, federal control of education, multiculturalism, sexual expressionism, abortion, environmentalism, and borrowing in order to spend were on the rise both in the legislatures and the courts. The progressives of the 1930’s to the 1950’s would never have gone along with restricting the irrigation water to the farmers of California’s San Joaquin Valley in order to protect the Delta Smelt, am insignificant fish in the San Francisco Bay. They would have put humans before a subhuman fish. The progressives of the Dewey era in no way considered these as part of their progressive agenda.
If Bastiat were alive today, he would be disappointed with our failure to keep the law within its proper domain. Over the course of a century and a half, we have created more than 50,000 laws. Most of them permit the state to initiate violence against those who have not initiated violence against others. These laws range from anti-smoking laws for private establishments and Social Security “contributions” to licensure laws and minimum wage laws. In each case, the person who resolutely demands and defends his God-given right to be left alone can ultimately suffer death at the hands of our government.
To achieve this transformation the colleges and universities became the church of liberalism and the professors became the ministers, priests and pastors of this new theology of government. They have become the experts and masterminds of the Godless religion of liberalism.
Today we are in a battle for the soul of America. We can either return to the fundamental principles of our founders or continue on the path of liberalism and statism we are traveling today — a path that will lead to tyranny.