“If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy.”
Thomas Jefferson, 1802
“I believe in the people: in their honesty and sincerity and sagacity; but I do not believe in them as my governors.”
Woodrow Wilson, 1891
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Last weekend I wrote about American conservatism as the intellectual legacy of the finest political thinkers from the Enlightenment onward. On Thursday I highlighted the wisdom of Alexis de Tocqueville & Abraham Lincoln. Back in May I editorialized about the role of religion in American heritage. Now it’s time to look at the other side of the coin: the foundations of American liberalism.
What’s In a Name?
Let’s start with a common area of confusion: the use of the term “liberal” to describe the American Left. Common usage of “liberal” and “conservative” often identifies the former with a willingness to try new things and the latter with a desire to preserve that which came before. This isn’t terribly useful when applied to politics (who among us is a down-the-line supporter the old just because it’s old, or the new just because it’s new?), but it does speak to one aspect of each ideology: conservatism seeks to preserve the principles of the American founding, while liberalism discards the founding in favor of newer ideas. But this is also what makes “liberal” such a misleading moniker for left-wing thought: it suggests a relationship to the classical liberalism espoused by the Founding Fathers where none exists; in fact, modern liberalism is largely a rejection of classical liberalism.
Classical Liberalism’s Lockean Foundations
The Founding Fathers were heavily influenced by 17th-century English philosopher John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government. (Other thinkers, such as Montesquieu, played significant roles as well, but here we’ll elaborate on Locke, so we can understand progressivism’s repeated self-proclaimed deviations from Lockean thought.) Locke first asked the reader to envision a theoretical state of nature in which we can observe man as he is essentially, outside of government. This shows us two things: first, all men are equal in that none can be seen to have any sort of divine claim to rule over any other; and second, all men have perfect freedom over their own lives, liberty & property, and perfect freedom to defend them with whatever force they see fit. But if everyone were to carry out justice on their own, the resulting chaos would be intolerable. So to live in peace, men form a social compact with one another, in which they surrender to whole, in the form of government, the right to judge & punish transgressions against their rights. Accordingly, the Founders crafted a government based on immutable principles of justice instituted among men for the sole purpose of securing the people’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The early progressives were largely inspired by 19th-century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel’s The Philosophy of History. Hegel envisioned history as a transcendent, almost conscious, force, which is moving on a set course toward freedom, its every turn for the better, even if we can’t see the benefit. He defined freedom not as free reign over one’s own life, liberty & property, but as liberation from dependence on any material need outside of one’s self, a dependence which corrupts the individual’s will. History has a rational, universal will that acts through the passions of people (not their reason), and can be discerned through the State, whose will is pure because it isn’t tainted by dependence on anything external. The universal will is not to be confused with the majority’s will, which is no more than a collection of impure individual interests. We become free to the extent that we recognize the universal will and adjust our personal wills accordingly, thereby becoming pure. Hegel rejected Locke’s state of nature and determined that, because history is constantly moving to truer, better things, no political principles are truly universal; they are temporary, good for their time only until their usefulness to history is exhausted and they are replaced with something new.
Key texts—Woodrow Wilson: The Essential Political Writings and American Progressivism: A Reader, edited by Ronald Pestritto, The Promise of American Life and Progressive Democracy by Herbert Croly, Liberalism and Social Action by John Dewey.
President Woodrow Wilson echoed Hegel’s rejection of Locke—he saw no state of nature in which man enjoyed perfect freedom, concluding instead that, since only government can ensure freedom, government must also be the source of freedom. Wilson also rejected Lockean social compact theory—he thought government had its roots in, and was essentially an enlarged or evolved version of, the family. Wilson believed that our moral identity was defined by the relationships we make with one another, and consequently, man had no real moral standing outside of the state. He fully embraced Hegel’s conceptions of temporary truth and historical progress working through passion—he rejected Aristotle’s observation that governments could revert to older & corrupted forms, instead believing that democracy was here to stay and that history would essentially iron out whatever kinks arose along the way for us.
He stressed that democracy was not government by consent of the governed (political questions were far too complex, and personal interests much too diverse, for this to be a realistic plan), but government by recognition of the universal will, as discerned and enacted by an unelected expert class trained in policymaking (as professionals attuned solely to this purpose, their will is pure). Incredibly, President Wilson claimed the Declaration of Independence’s political assertions did “not afford a general theory of government to formulate policies upon.” He believed there is “no doubt we are meant to have liberty, but each generation must form its own conception of what liberty is,” and saw the relationship between the individual and the government as a scale of competing privileges (not rights), which may be readjusted from time to time, as circumstances dictate. In accordance with the Hegelian conception of freedom, Wilson saw government regulation in private affairs such as property & income not as meddling in the rights of some, but as removing artificial constraints on people.
Herbert Croly, former editor of the New Republic & influential progressive thinker, likened history to a journey in the dark. Like a torch, the limited knowledge we possess at any given time only lights part of our path, and our temporary itinerary (latest political system) should never be confused for a complete map (final, eternal truth). He embraced the universal will conception of democracy and the idea that the individual only gains meaning as part of a society, and spoke at length about how democracy’s true task was the equal distribution of society’s benefits. Croly saw the individual’s dependence on income as an impurity in his will; a burden which forced everyone into the same material-gain mold and stifled individuality; therefore, it was the state’s task to liberate man from the profit motive, so man can pursue his dreams solely for their own sake. In one of progressivism’s most drastic departures from classical liberalism, Croly believed that, through the state, essential human nature could actually be improved (of course, part of his plan to achieve this involved moving the goalposts—he was sharply critical of any conception of God that emphasized behavioral restraint as contrary to liberty and little more than excuses for the preservation of old social orders).
Progressivism gave rise to the idea that merely having a legally-protected right to do something was not enough; rights also entailed a social obligation on the part of government to facilitate the ability to exercise that right. It saw government as a positive good with a proactive role, not a necessary evil with a limited role (effective government cannot really be limited, and besides, ever-improving human nature will eventually eliminate the need for such limits anyway). It sought to close the debate on what government should do and refocus discussion strictly on how to go about achieving it.
The Folly of Progressivism
A simple description of early progressive thought raises plenty of red flags, and exposes just how diametrically contrary to the American founding the modern Left is. Its take on moral relativism has no substantiation other than “history has decided,” which translates to little more than “might makes right”; its complete confidence in history’s trajectory is an article of unsupported faith that would make the most dogmatic Christian cringe, and to believe human nature is perfectible…well, that would require us to, shall we say, assume facts not in evidence.
As should be obvious, the expert policymaker progressives envision is but a man, subject to the same failings as the rest of us, including self interest (surely, power and job security are interests in the public sector every bit as much as in the private). Furthermore, as economist F.A. Hayek taught us, no matter how well-versed in a certain field he may be, even a well-meaning expert cannot possibly know all the knowledge necessary—the circumstances, needs, desires, relationships, and other variables at play with all individuals—to make just, sound decisions on the wide scale the progressive dreams of.
The progressive notion of freedom as liberation from all constraints is impossible to effectively put into practice; as their own writings show (and as Tocqueville understood), attempting to do so puts equality and true liberty in direct conflict.
Ultimately, progressivism is utopianism, a rejection of reality’s constraints in pursuit of a fairytale world free of imperfections. The Founders were neither as naïve or as arrogant as Wilson and his comrades: to them, invoking passion as society’s chief instrument of advance would be the height of irresponsibility, and as James Madison said, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” But they knew angels would assume neither role in society. They were acutely aware of man’s limitations, power’s ability to corrupt, and the need to check both.
The Picture Comes Into Focus
Bizarre though the stroll through early progressive thought may be, it’s also remarkable—once you understand the foundations, every aspect of the modern Left—their policies, their tactics, their dogmas—suddenly falls into place. The Constitution as a “living document,” judges and bureaucrats as unaccountable experts with tremendous power, the nanny-state mentality from healthcare to smoking bans, the thinly-veiled contempt for traditional religion, the disregard for personal responsibility, the routine practice of assigning ignorance & ulterior motives to dissent—it all follows from carrying progressive ideological presuppositions to their logical conclusions.
Again, you cannot effectively fight the Left if you do not understand what they are, what they really believe, and what they’re capable of. Today’s so-called liberals thrive on the historical ignorance of the average American, and they’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of it. But relying on ignorance is a dangerous strategy, because you never know when someone might come along who knows better. So take heart—the educated conservative is the liberal’s worst nightmare. Arm yourself with the history of progressivism and the wisdom of our forefathers, and nothing can stop you.