Progressivism is a reform movement that began in the late 19th century during which leading intellectuals and social reforms sought to address the economic, political, and cultural questions that had been brought about by the Industrial Revolution. It was a total rejection in theory and a partial rejection in practice of the principles and policies on which America was founded.
Creating individuals versus protecting individuals pretty much sums up the difference between our Founding Father’s concept of government and the progressive/communist concept of government.
Our Founding Fathers believed that all men were created equal with certain inalienable rights, obliged to obey the natural law under which they had not only rights but duties. We are obliged “to respect those rights in others which we value in ourselves” (Thomas Jefferson). Our main rights were life and liberty, including the liberty to organize one’s own church, to associate at work or at home with whomever one pleases, and to use one’s talents to acquire and own property. For our Founders, it was a natural moral order – rules discovered by human reason that promote human well-being, rules that can and must guide human life and politics.
Progressives rejected these claims as naïve and unhistorical. According to John Dewey, man was not born free; freedom was not a gift of God but a gift of the state; “something to be achieved.” Man is but a product of his own history through which he collectively creates himself. Dewey wrote that since humans are not naturally free, “natural rights or natural law” exist only in “the kingdom of mythological social zoology.” . Dewey wrote that “natural rights and natural liberties exist only in the kingdom of mythological social zoology.”
Our Founders believed that government began with the recognition that, what man is given by nature, i.e. his capacity for reason and the moral law discovered by reason, is more valuable than anything government can give him. Government, while necessary, can also be a threat to liberty. “If man were angels, no government would be necessary.” (James Madison) But, since men are not angels, without government, human beings would live in “a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger.” Government is by extension always and fundamentally in the service of the individual with the responsibility to enforce the natural law for members of the political community by securing the people’s natural rights. Liberty that was to be secured by government is not freedom from necessity or poverty, it is freedom from the despotic and predatory domination of some human beings over others.
According to progressives the Founders’ ideas were defective because they relied on limited government. Their goal is freedom from the limits imposed by nature and necessity, and the fulfillment of human capacities as a primary task of the state. As Dewey wrote: “The state has the responsibility for creating institutions under which individuals can effectively realize the potentialities that are theirs.”
Political society is “formed by a voluntary association of individuals governed by certain laws for the common good,” according to the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Government was to be conducted under laws made by locally elected officials accountable through elections by those who chose them. The people would be directly involved in governing through their participation in juries selected by lot.
Of course progressives treat the social compact idea with scorn. Charles Merriam, a leading progressive political scientist wrote “The individualistic ideas of the “natural rights school of political theory, endorsed in the Revolution, are discredited and repudiated. . .The origin of the state is regarded, not as the result of a deliberate agreement among men, but as the result of historical development, instinctive rather than conscious; and rights are considered to have their source not in nature, but in law.”
Our Founding Fathers, both Christian and Jew, believed in the God of the Bible as the author of liberty and natural law by which people are guided. Whereas progressives want to redefine God as human freedom achieved through a defined left-wing political organization or else reject God outright as a myth. John Burgess, a prominent progressive political scientist wrote that the purpose of the state is the “perfection of humanity, the civilization of the world; the perfect development of the human reason, and its attainment to universal command over individualism; the apotheosis of man (man becoming God).” Progressive religious ministers such Walter Rauschenbusch redefined Christianity as a social gospel of progress.
Our Founders believed the purpose of government was to protect the private sphere which they regarded as both the high and low, of the important the merely urgent, of God, religion, and science, as well as providing for the needs of the body. Government had to be limited both because it was dangerous if it became too powerful and because it was not supposed to provide for the highest things in life.
Progressives on the other hand view the state as divine and the private sphere as a realm of selfishness and oppression. Woodrow Wilson, in an unpublished writing, said that a society like the Founders’ that limited itself to protecting life, liberty, and property was one in which “all that government had to do was to put on a policeman’s uniform and say – Now don’t anybody hurt anybody else.” Such a society, he proclaimed, was unable to deal with the conditions of modern times, leaving men at the mercy of predatory corporations that would leave the poor victimized by the wealthy. Such a government must be abolished.
The Founders’ domestic policy concentrated on securing the persons and properties of the people against violence through tough criminal law and civil law to provide for the poor to have access to private property by allowing them to buy and sell through voluntary contracts. The burden of proof was on government if there was to be any limitation on the free use of that property, thus licensing and zoning were rare. Laws regulating sexual conduct aimed at the formation of lasting marriages so that children would be born and provided for with minimal government involvement. They tried to promote morals by laws and educational institutions that would encourage such virtues as honesty, moderation, justice, patriotism, courage, frugality and industry.
Once again progressives disagree. They feel it is government’s duty to protect the poor and victims of capitalism through redistribution of resources, anti-trust laws, government control over the details of commerce and production. Government must become involved in the “spiritual” development of its citizens, not through the promotion of religion but through protecting the environment, education and through subsidy and promotion of the arts and cultures.
Foreign and domestic policy were to serve the security of the people in their person and property, according to the Founders. Foreign policy was conceived primarily as defensive. Foreign attack was to be deterred by having strong arms or repulsed by force. Alliances were to be entered into with the understanding that a self-governing nation must keep itself aloof from the quarrels of other nations and government had no right to tax or endanger the lives of their citizens to spread democracy to other nations.
Progressives push the socialist belief that scientifically educated leaders of the advanced nations should not hesitate to rule the less advance nations in the interest of ultimately bringing the world into freedom, or at least their version of freedom. Charles Merriam, a progressive political scientists said that “The Teutonic races must civilize the politically uncivilized. They must have colonial policy. Barbaric races, if incapable, may be swept away. . .”
Our Founders believed laws must be made by a body of elected officials with roots in their local communities while progressives believe politics was too complex for common man to deal with. Only those educated in the top universities, preferably the social sciences, were thought to be capable of governing. Ergo, progressives must take power out of the hands of locally elected officials and political parties and place it into the hands of a central government which would establish administrative agencies, run by scientifically trained experts, to translate the people’s will into concrete policies.
There are men regarded today as brilliant economists who deprecate savings and recommend squandering on a national scale as the way of economic salvation; and when anyone points to what the consequences of these policies will be in the long run, they reply flippantly, as might the prodigal son of a warning father: “In the long run, we are all dead.” And such shallow wisecracks pass as devastating epigrams and the ripest of wisdom. Henry Hazlitt, “Economics in One Lesson”