A duel to the death – progressivism v limited government
George Will’s column today is a “must read” if for nothing more than this succinct description of why government exits (and why it should be a “limited” government:
Government’s limited purpose is to protect the exercise of natural rights that pre-exist government, rights that human reason can ascertain in unchanging principles of conduct and that are essential to the pursuit of happiness.
Will uses his column to describe the dueling concepts of government that have arisen in this country. He identifies, properly in my estimation, Woodrow Wilson as the first “progressive” President and the one who began this move away from limited government that had served the nation so well to that point, to the more progressive version. It is a version we’ve yet to escape. FDR was just a continuation of the Wilsonian ambition who happened upon the proper crisis at the right time (sound familiar?).
With our recent discussion of rights and privileges in the comment section of a post, I found this to be dead on target:
Wilsonian progressives believe that History is a proper noun, an autonomous thing. It, rather than nature, defines government’s ever-evolving and unlimited purposes. Government exists to dispense an ever-expanding menu of rights — entitlements that serve an open-ended understanding of material and even spiritual well-being.
The name “progressivism” implies criticism of the Founding, which we leave behind as we make progress. And the name is tautological: History is progressive because progress is defined as whatever History produces. History guarantees what the Supreme Court has called “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”
The cheerful assumption is that “evolving” must mean “improving.” Progressivism’s promise is a program for every problem, and progressivism’s premise is that every unfulfilled desire is a problem.
And, progressivism’s method of choice for all this improvement is the vehicle of “big government”. What other institution can carry out such a massive project. And who has the time or patience for cultural change or to let markets sort it all out. Besides, only government allows the use of force.
Of course, as Will implies, the method of expanding government is the expansion of “rights” or entitlements and the declaration that only government is capable of ensuring their fulfillment. This flows directly from the Wilsonian idea that it is government’s job, as society evolved, to identify, enable and protect new “rights” as they emerged.
He repudiated the Founders’ idea that government is instituted to protect pre-existing and timeless natural rights, promising “the re-definition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order.”
The result, as William Voegeli correctly identifies it, is government’s “right to discover new rights.” The result is preordained:
“Liberalism’s protean understanding of rights,” [Voegeli] says, “complicates and ultimately dooms the idea of a principled refusal to elevate any benefit that we would like people to enjoy to the status of an inviolable right.” Needs breed rights to have the needs addressed, to the point that Lyndon Johnson, an FDR protege, promised that government would provide Americans with “purpose” and “meaning.”
Although progressivism’s ever-lengthening list of rights is as limitless as human needs/desires, one right that never makes the list is the right to keep some inviolable portion of one’s private wealth or income, “regardless,” Voegeli says, “of the lofty purposes social reformers wish to make of it.”
Lacking a limiting principle, progressivism cannot say how big the welfare state should be but must always say that it should be bigger than it currently is. Furthermore, by making a welfare state a fountain of rights requisite for democracy, progressives in effect declare that democratic deliberation about the legitimacy of the welfare state is illegitimate.
How many time have you heard the international criticism of the US for not having a national health service? That’s symptomatic of Will’s last point. Progressivisim, or at least the European equivalent, has had its way in Europe and we see the result today. Will correctly identifies the fatal flaw of progressivism – the lack of a limiting principle. Instead, progressivism sees the job of government in an ever expanding role of catering to almost any need or desire it can imagine and make a “right”. The most recent government invented right is the right to health care. The fact that the fulfillment of that “right” involves the labor, time and abilities of others doesn’t seem to register with progressives. Having identified the right and legislated it into existence, it is simply the role of those others, forced by the state, to fulfill that new right.
All of this, of course, leads to the inevitable conclusion – such a system is unsustainable:
“By blackening the skies with crisscrossing dollars,” Voegeli says, the welfare state encourages people “to believe an impossibility: that every household can be a net importer of the wealth redistributed by the government.” But the welfare state’s problem, today becoming vivid, is socialism’s problem, as Margaret Thatcher defined it: Socialist governments “always run out of other people’s money.”