“There have existed, in every age and every country, two distinct orders of men—the lovers of freedom and the devoted advocates of power.”
~Robert Hayne, 1830
We’re Not In Kansas Anymore: The Progressives Rejection of the Founder’s Understanding of Freedom and the Constitution
It is not uncommon to hear people describe themselves as progressive. Hillary Clinton, for example, uses the label to describe her politics, as do a growing number of otherwise self-described “liberals.” She said:
“I prefer the word ‘progressive,’ which has a real American meaning, going back to the progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century. I consider myself a modern progressive.”
What does it mean to be a progressive? What is the importance of the term relative to our lives today? Who were the progressives, the political ancestors of the today’s Democrats? Most importantly is whether or not progressivism is hostile to individual freedom; understanding so helps clarify what is in store for us when we hear politicians and activists tell us they favor progressive policies.
Progressivism was a major reform movement that began in the late 1800s. The movement shared the intellectual roots of European state theorists such as Hegel and Marx. In 20th century Europe their ideas came to fruition in the forms of communism in Russia, national socialism––that is, Naziism––in Germany, and fascism in Italy, respectively.
These movements were ideological cousins of American Progressivism, certainly not isolated from one another; their respective leaders read the same philosophers and made the same arguments, albeit in their respective cultural contexts. Before the outbreak of World War II, American progressive intellectuals had many good things to say about Mussolini and Hitler. Their admiration for these dictators was drawn from their ability to mobilize and centrally plan national economies and society in general, to give “direction” to the otherwise “chaotic” social processes of democratic societies and capitalism. Progressives’ admiration for authoritarian rulers was not quelled after the ravages of the war were over. On the contrary, they went on to admire the machinations of Stalin’s heavy-handed ruling of the inhabitants of the Soviet Union.
The leading American Progressive intellectuals of the day were John Dewey, Charles Beard, Joseph Ely, Herbert Croly, and Walter Lippman. These pioneers of the Progressive movement were the intellectual force that laid the path for the policies of some significant future administrations. The first Progressive president was Teddy Roosevelt, the second Woodrow Wilson elected in 1912. FDR’s New Deal of the 1930s took up where Wilson’s New Freedom left off, bringing to reality many of the Progressives’ aspirations in the form of a vast and deep expansion of government control of the economy.
The movement arose as a reform movement in response to rapidly changing economic, social, and political conditions in America. These changes were brought about by massive industrialization, the rise of large corporations, an accelerated form of capitalism, a sharp rise in immigration, and the closing of the western frontier. Progressives differed on the nature and course of remediation for these social changes, but they widely agreed government must be heavily involved in addressing social solutions.
The progress sought in Progressivism was to be an ongoing process through which society at large would evolve benefit under the guise of “the state,” administered by specialists, scientists, and the expertise of elitst intellectuals. They also agreed that only government so populated with and administered by elitists could be up to the job. Such a government, they argued, has the resources and the expertise could accomplish such an organizational task.
And this leads us to the rub.
Progressivism advocates—then and now—a total break from the principles of freedom articulated in our founding documents, particularly the Declaration of Independence. It seeks to either get around or dismantle limitations on government power, the very constitutional limitations established in the Constitution for the protection of individual freedom.
For this reason, the progressives desire for something old in world history, not something new. Remember President Coolidge?:
No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people.
Those who wish to proceed in that direction cannot lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.” (July 5, 1926)
As such, in the context of individual freedom progressives seek to roll back, not forward, the hands of progress; they seek regression, not progression.
And that is the rub.
Don’t Be So Negative
By a total break from the principles of the freedom articulated at the Founding I mean a turning on its head the very definition of freedom. Progressives continued to use the term, freedom as they do today.
At the Founding liberty was understood in a negative sense: the more government is restrained and kept out of the affairs of citizens the more freedom citizens can enjoy and the pursuit of happiness goes unabated. Understanding man’s proclivity to acquire power and restrict the freedom of others, the Founders formulated a Constitution with many hurdles, obstructions, and roadblocks to governmental intrusions on the activities of citizens. Separations of powers, a divided Congress, staggered elections, an independent court system, and representation by consent, were all established to impede government power hostile to freedom. The key was freedom from x, y, and z made possible by a sufficient, but not total, absence of government.
The progressives rejected the notion of negative liberty secured through a limited government, of “natural rights” and any subsequent limits of power set up to secure those rights. They viewed the Constitution as a roadblock to progress, not a bulwark of freedom. They saw unbridled freedom in capitalism as the chief enemy of their notion of freedom and sought to use government as the means to the end of social progress.
Seeing individuals as actual or potential victims of capitalistic oppression, progressives believed the only way to liberate people was through the force of government headed by scientific experts. Government, then, should be used in a positive way to proactively liberate people from social and economic oppression in order to secure a higher social progress. Progressive freedom, then, is the freedom to become x, y, and z made possible through government-directed societal arrangements.
From Woodrow Wilson:
Freedom today is something more than being let alone. The program of a government of freedom must in these days be positive, not negative merely… Without the watchful interference, the resolute interference, of government there can be no fair play between individuals and such powerful institutions as trusts.” (1912)
The idea of natural rights belonging to the people, rights beyond the reach of government, rights preceding government that must be secured and protected by government, had to go. Any rights enjoyed by the people are positive rights granted and recognized by the government. What is the importance of this difference? If rights are “positive” because they are the product of laws and legislators and the actions of bureaucrats, then those rights can be modified, altered, or done away with at the discretion of the state, as “progress” dictates. Rights can come and go at the caprice of those in power.
(If you have a right to material welfare, such as healthcare, how much healthcare are you entitled to? How often may you received treatment? Who decides these questions? Your “right” of healthcare is up the discretion of the government.)
According to the Declaration, you’ll recall, rights such as Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness come from nature, are gifts of God, and therefore precede government. According to the progressives something close to the reverse needs be believed. Rights come after governments because “rights” are the results of positive actions taken by those in power.
This is important when we look at the new lists of rights proclaimed by the progressives, rights such as the freedom from want echoed during the Great Depression. Keep this difference in mind when you today hear any number of things called “a right” that requires the positive action of government.
The New Freedom: Not Your Daddy’s Oldsmobile
What about freedom? In order to shift from a negative understanding of liberty to a positive understanding the very definition of freedom has to be altered, amended, or outright changed, hence the “New Freedom” of Woodrow Wilson’s 1912 presidential campaign.
Progressives simply do not think there is, or should be, individual political freedom as understood during the Founding. (If someone calls themselves progressive and still hold to the idea of individual freedom, they will be unsettled when they read the words of past and present progressive intellectuals and politicians.) At the same time they did not disparage or reject the public use of the word, freedom; they simply redefined the meaning to suit their centralized authoritarian agenda.
(Herein lies good news for partisans of freedom! Then, as now, public figures felt the need to at least give public lip service to the words, freedom and Constitution. It is our job to publicly win back the definition and understanding of the words.)
Progressive assumption: Individual freedom in its economic manifestation of free market capitalism allows for the exploitation of the poor by the elite few. An economy unplanned and not controlled by “experts” is chaotic and wasteful of scarce resources. The Founders’ individualistic freedom promotes such selfish and reckless capitalistic gain.
Progressives believed individuals are part of a larger social whole, a whole that needs to be formed and molded to their vision of reality and mankind. In order to create this new and improved society, individuals need to be directed and formed toward that end. And for their own respective good, of course. Here is the Progressive intellectual John Dewey:
“Democracy has many meanings, but if it has a moral meaning, it is found in resolving that the supreme test of all political institutions and industrial arrangements shall be the contribution they make to the all-around growth of every member of society.”(The Reconstruction of Philosophy)
People have certain individual capacities and those capacities are stifled by untrustworthy groups of other citizens (businesses, schools, etc.) unless the benevolent hand of government protects them from these malevolent economic forces, namely, the corporation. Such a task requires the positive use of public authority to arrange society in ways best suited for the advancement of human welfare. To do this individual liberty needs to take a backseat to the ordering of society.
Here is more John Dewey:
It [the state] places a discount upon injurious groupings and renders their tenure of life precarious. In performing these services, it gives the individual members of valued associations greater liberty and security. It relieves them of hampering conditions which if they had to cope with personally would absorb their energies in a mere negative struggle against evils.”
Out With The Old, In With The New Freedom
Under progressive philosophy, freedom is understood as a condition brought upon individuals by the state, not a right already naturally possessed by the individual. Furthermore, the state decides which groups of people are worthy of such freedom, termed “valuable associations.” Progressives continue to use the word, freedom; they simply redefine its meaning.
F.A. Hayek, in his broad study of international socialism:
“The subtle change in the meaning to which the word, freedom, was subjected in order that this argument should sound plausible is important. To the great apostles of political freedom the word had meant freedom from coercion, freedom from the arbitrary power of other men, release from the ties which left the individual no choice but obedience to the orders of a superior to whom he was attached. The new freedom promised, however, was to be freedom from necessity, release from the compulsion of the circumstances which inevitably limit the range of choice of all of us, although for some very much more than for others. Before man could be truly free, the ‘despotism of physical want’ had to be broken, the ‘restrains of the economic system’ relaxed.” (The Road to Serfdom, p. 30-31.)
And there it is, the heart of the matter: Progressivism prefers collective social welfare over its perceived adversary, individual freedom. It is an either or situation: you are free one way or free their way. If individual freedom triumphs progress is not possible. To be “free” in the progressive sense is to be liberated by government forces from unpleasant social circumstances created by your fellow citizens. For the Founders, freedom is protected by government. For the Progressives, freedom is having your physical welfare secured by government, your physical welfare being a protection from the perceived excesses of others’ individual freedom in the marketplace.
In his second year as president FDR echoed the progressive theme and insisted on “a broader definition” of freedom. Here is an example from one of his famed radio addresses, the “fireside chats” whereby Roosevelt sought to encourage the nation and educate citizens on his understanding of freedom. He dismissed
…a return to that definition of liberty under which for many years a free people were being gradually regimented into the service of the privileged few. I prefer that broader definition of liberty under which we are moving forward to a greater freedom, a greater security for the average man than he has ever known in the history of America. (1934)
(Good questions here would be, Are people by themselves incapable of avoiding exploitation? Will they by themselves be “regimented” into service? Need we the paternal nurturing of The State as if we are helpless children in the wilderness of unbridled individual freedom?)
For Roosevelt and the progressives individual freedom was itself insufficient and even detrimental to society. They could build “a greater freedom” beyond individual freedom. The understanding, the very definition, had to be broadened and changed. How is this greater freedom achieved? Through government, not in spite of government.
This new understanding of freedom is important because without it the progressives would not be able advance the scope of government power into the lives of Americans who, since the Founding, have a negative, individual understanding of freedom and all the suspicions of “big government” that go along with that understanding.
Changing the definition and understanding freedom changes the fundamental relationship between you and your government. The progressives would deny a citizen is free or could be free existing in a country where the negative understanding of freedom prescribed his relationship with his government. So, too, would a partisan of individual liberty deny that citizens in a progressive socialist state are free. Why? The role of government in each vision is diametrically opposed. People cannot be free, individually free, when their government orders the walk of their daily lives, economically and politically, and becomes the caretaker of their welfare.
A Right To Your Rights?
One of the new freedoms mentioned above illustrates the difference: freedom from want. Want in its extreme leads to hunger, ill health, deterioration of the family, or worse. To liberate citizen A from want, they require either money directly redistributed to them or given employment to offset the cause of their misery, want. Given this understanding of the right to be free from want, government has every justification to reach into the pocketbook of citizen B, confiscate their property, and redistribute that property to citizen A. Citizen A is liberated, however temporarily, from want at the cost citizen B’s right of property.
Citizen B’s right of freedom has been damaged as he has that much less of the fruits of his labor to provide for his own welfare. In this case, the government has laid claim to a right to the property of B in the name of securing the right of progressive freedom from want for A.
Changing the definition of freedom, you see, changes and convolutes our understanding of rights. In a free society your rights require nothing from other citizens, require no intrusion into the freedom and property of others.
You have a right to free speech, for example. It does my freedom and property no damage for you to exercise your right to free speech. You have a right to the free exercise of religion. Jefferson noted that, “It neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket” if you worship one God or a hundred gods. You and others may assemble freely to protest the government for any grievance, real or perceived, and it costs nothing of other’s property for you to do so. Your Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness takes nothing from my Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness.
What about a “right to healthcare”? How can everyone have healthcare provided for them at no cost to them without that act of government first confiscating and them redistributing the property of other citizens? And if that happens, are we freer or less free to choose our own medical services with our own money, or has such a government program established for us the number of choices we have available? The number of services we may attain? The very doctor we can or cannot consult?
If there is one “single payer” healthcare system, are we free to choose other options? No! Government would have the sole monopoly on services, all at the cost of our freedom and through the increased confiscation of our property.
What about affordable housing? Is this a right? Not without government subsidies, and where do subsidies come from? And what happens to the prices of homes and thus the amount of choices available? What if a government policy was injected into the housing market through quasi government agencies, and that policy failed and taxpayers were forced to bail out those agencies…hello Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae
These examples highlight the principle of the matter of positive rights and redistribution of property. What about the practical results? Practically, such policies inevitably harm the very people they set out to assist. “Affordable housing” creates a massive artificial demand for housing, thus driving up the cost of housing. Is this more affordable for more people? Nope.
Making college tuition “affordable” started in the 1970s with state and federal government subsidies. What has happened to college tuition over the last three decades? It has far out stepped the rate of inflation and the general cost of living, forcing middle class families to seek subsidized loans and private loans, thus adding to the problem.
Rent controls creates disincentives for construction of new housing and renovation of old housing for lower income families, artificially drives up the demand for housing while lowering the supply, and forces the market to focus on high-end luxury properties. Who gets hurt? Low income families in need of housing.
Such are the fruits of looking to government to “broaden our freedom” and secure our material welfare. What will “affordable healthcare” look like in ten years if we continue to abide the notion of government-created rights?
The “S” Word
Okay, let’s say it: socialism. There is a real public reticence to talk about socialism, or even bring up the word. Let’s discuss it here.
Can you define socialism? Most think of it as a system where the government controls most everything. While not untrue, this definition is lacking. Socialism is an applied form of Marxism, as is fascism and communism. Socialism means the state owns and directs most of the means of economic production, that economic activity is directed primarily by central government planners and not by the demands of a free market, and that government is the primary owner of capital. In whatever degree, a forced redistribution of income, from the wealthy to the poor, occurs through the dictates of the ruling class. Karl Marx and other communists believed socialism is the middle stage of society, coming out capitalism and entering communism. Countries can be socialist in varying degrees, depending on how close they are to outright communism or how much freedom they allow to exist.
Dick Morris (love him, hate him, trust him or not) handles the question this way:
“Socialism is not an epithet or even an economic philosophy. Whether a nation is socialist or not is determined by a single, simple statistic — what percent of the economy (GDP) goes to the public sector? When Obama took office, the U.S. public sector (federal, state, and local) spent about 30% of GDP. Now it is 36%. If Obamacare lives to be fully implemented, it will pass 40%.” (April 2010)
Regardless of the nuances of the ideology, I notice a general response from people when the “S” word is brought up: It can’t happen here! seems to be the attitude. (Or, worse yet, there are significant numbers of Americans who embrace it and want to usher in socialism.) The public seems to think America is somehow either impervious to socialism or, more likely, that whatever the socialist agendas coming out of Congress they are somehow not socialist because, well, this is America. This is bad news as it greases the tracks for socialism to roll right over our society. But, as we’ll see, this attitude could be a good sign.
We would do well, however, to dispossess ourselves of such illusions. As a teacher long ago taught me, if it looks like a dog pile and smells like a dog pile, need you step in it to make sure it is a dog pile? What we need to constantly remind ourselves is that, yes, socialism can most certainly happen here and, no, we need not try it out for a while and “step in it” to see if it really is socialism. Individual freedom and socialism are antithetical to one another. Where there is more of one there is mostly absent the other. History has examples of societies going from free to socialism but it is a difficult task to go from socialist to freedom.
So let’s not step in it.
The Paternal State
Questions for thought: Other than children, the clinically insane, and the most challenged among us, are people capable of caring for themselves? Providing for their own retirement? Making choices concerning their children’s education? Incapable of avoiding exploitation?
It was during the progressive period that the socialist groundwork was laid for the massive growth of government and diminishment of individual freedom during the New Deal. Some of President Woodrow Wilson’s wartime programs were the predecessors of FDR’s New Deal regulatory agencies. Paul Johnson notes that
“It was Wilson who first introduced America to big, benevolent government…Indeed, during this period, many federal government activities were set in motion, which went underground in the 1920s and then reemerged under Roosevelt’s New Deal, to become a permanent part of the American system” (History of The American People, p. 646)
The progressive era, culminating in the New Deal and reaching well into the Great Society of the 1960s, ushered into American politics and life the paternal state: The idea that government, to whatever extent, exists to service your needs and wants and decide for you what you cannot or should not decide for yourself–all in the name of public welfare, your own good, and, as we’ve seen, some progressive understanding of “freedom.” From cradle to grave, it is said, the nanny state will provide.
As you may have noticed, the progressive positive view of rights and “freedom” casts society into three classes: those using freedom to exploit others, those being exploited, and the ruling classes in government and the “intelligentsia” who set about to right the wrongs. In setting about to liberate one class, the ruling class exercises power over the other both remaining classes. The oppressors have their liberty curtailed and property confiscated, in whatever degree, in the interests of the greater public good, for welfare’s sake.
Do we live in a paternal state? Do we live in a free nation? Are we somehow balanced between the two?
Tug o War
“France could have all the socialism its capitalistic economy could support. ”—Francois Mitterand
I believe there is a quiet but momentous tug-o-war in this country and it started really got under way in 1936.
Why that year? 1936 marked the last fundamental shift in the center of national politics in this country. It marks FDR’s reelection and the signal by the American people that the progressive welfare state policies of the New Deal has some level of legitimacy in our nation’s politics. (Some legitimacy, I say. Remember, FDR and the progressives had to couch their agendas and policies in the terminology of freedom, hence the redefinition of the term.)
The New Deal policy of a redistributive welfare state became the center of politics from which policy was made. This remains the center of politics to this day. 1936 entwined progressive liberalism into our otherwise stubbornly free national political consciousness, and we’ve been sipping on this political oil-and-water cocktail ever since.
But how is the welfare state funded? From where does its wealth come? Here we see the tug-o-war emerging.
Our bounty of freedom has supplied the goods for the redistributors. Remember, we have always been the most free society in the world. Free market capitalism produces the wealth that socialists redistribute! Look again at the above quote from Francois Mitterand. He was the former president of France and an avowed socialist. He belonged to the Socialist Party. Mitterand understood the dichotomy of a modern socialist state like France: Before one class of people can confiscate the property of another class of people, there has to be property to confiscate. And the existence of property and property rights have always been a hallmark of free society. There is an odd and tenuous relationship between capitalism and socialism, a tug-o-war between freedom and collectivism.
Who is doing the tugging in this tug-o-war? On the one side you have the producers of wealth and defenders of the freedom that well know the source of their society’s prosperity. On the other side you have the collectivists. (Somewhere in the middle, slithering back and forth, lurks the government-sponsored monopolists—we’ll save them for a later discussion.)
What is at stake?
This is the good news for partisans of individual freedom. At stake in this tug of war is the very definition of freedom. Is it individual freedom or a collectivist progressive vision of freedom? Is it the true understanding of freedom or is it their “broader definition” of liberty?
Remember, still today in this country, even the most strident socialist agenda has to be cloaked in verbiage not offensive to freedom. It has to be marketed and sold, dressed up in enough freedom-friendly language for the American public to either buy it or to be made unafraid. Socialism is still a toxic word with the public, freedom euphonic to our ears. This is why American’s refusal to believe anything done by this or any past administration is socialist could be a good thing.
In order for Americans to accept socialism, socialists have to dress it up in freedom’s cloak. This gives us hope and an opportunity. No one, seeking to push any agenda onto the public, disparages freedom or the Constitution; they have to give freedom some kind of lip service. They are playing on freedom’s home field, not the other way around.
Partisans of freedom need not play word games like progressives. We simply need to educate ourselves and those around us, to let the lessons of liberty guide and instruct us. If enough people appreciate this fundamental understanding of freedom and the Constitution, no politician, elitist, or media talking head can sell us socialism.
The key is to make the most of this home field advantage and tug back: Reiterate—not redefine—individual freedom for what it is and reinvigorate a love for it and its blessings. The opportunity and necessity of tugging back is evident. Self-evident, actually.