“Progressivism was the reform movement that ran from the late 19th century through the first decades of the 20th century, during which leading intellectuals and social reformers in the United States sought to address the economic, political, and cultural questions that had arisen in the context of the rapid changes brought with the Industrial Revolution and the growth of modern capitalism in America.” M. Spalding, T.G. West and W.A. Schambra, ‘The Progressive Movement and the Transformation of American Politics’, www.heritage.org. July 2007
I have referred to progressives and to the progressive movement from time to time in these columns, without carefully defining the concepts. So I shall now rectify that omission. Following closely the approach of T.G. West, I shall identify the progressive movement in terms of its categorical rejection of the fundamental principles that underpinned the Founding of the United States.
1. The rejection of nature and reliance on history
The Founders argued that all men are created equal and that they are endowed with inalienable rights to life and liberty and (I would argue) with an imprescriptible right to property. This natural moral order comprises rules, discovered by human reason, that promote human flourishing.
The Progressives dismissed these arguments as naive and unhistorical. In their judgment, liberty is not endowed by God but by the state. Man is a social construct. As Thomas Dewey wrote: ‘Natural rights and natural liberties exist only in the kingdom of mythological social zoology.’
2. The purpose of government
For the Founders, the gift to man by nature – the capacity to reason and the moral law discovered by reason – is more valuable than any gift from government. Yet, since men are not angels, government is necessary for the security of liberty. Government, in this sense, is always and fundamentally in the service of the individual. Its purpose is to enforce the law of nature, to secure an individual’s negative freedom from the despotic and predatory domination by some men over others. In the Founding, the purpose of government is not to secure positive rights such as the freedom from want or poverty.
The Progressives disparaged this limited view of the role of government. In their judgment, the role of the state is to free individuals from the limits imposed by nature and necessity. The primary role of the state shifts to the fulfillment of human capacities, that is to the provision of positive freedoms. As Dewey wrote: ‘Laws and institutions are means of creating individuals.’
3. The relevance of consent and compact as the basis for society
The Founders argued that political society is formed by a voluntary association of individuals through a social compact. This consent extended beyond the Founding to embrace its ordinary operations. Government under a universally-endorsed rule of law was a fundamental premise of this social compact.
The Progressives poured scorn on this notion. As Charles Merriam wrote: ‘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.’
4. The limits of government
For the Founders, government – though grounded in the divine law (that is, the laws of nature and of nature’s God) – was itself a human artifact, compromised by all the strengths and weaknesses of human nature. As such, it must be limited, both because it was dangerous for it to become too powerful, and because its role was not to provide for the highest things in life.
The Progressives, in contrast, viewed the state as divine and the natural as low. Private property was singled out for particular criticism, with many progressives referring to themselves as socialists. As John Burgess wrote: ‘the most fundamental and indispensable mark of statehood is the original, absolute, unlimited power over the individual subject, and all associations of subjects.’
Although there is much more to the Progressive Movement than I can outline in this short column, the distinction outlined above between the philosophy of the Founders and that of the Progressives surely serves its purpose. Readers will perhaps now understand more clearly the distinction that I make between classical liberalism and progressive liberalism. They may also understand why I refer to President Obama as a progressive socialist.
Hat Tip to Sneaker