Free Markets, Free People

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.”



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33 Responses to A duel to the death – progressivism v limited government

  • The idea of “natural rights that pre-exist government” is silly and arbitrary.   In this world you have the right to do whatever you want, limited by the consequences of your actions.  That’s it.   All other rights are human constructs, often very sensible ones, but not natural. All claims about other natural rights rest on assumptions that are unfalsifiable and bring in people’s own personal sentiment.    One can argue that some conceptions of rights yield better social results than others, but as carbon based life forms we simply make choices and deal with the consequences of those choices, interacting with others.  Religions, ethical systems, governments, markets, notions of ‘rights’ — those we make up as go, how we wish.   That’s how free we are.

    • {eyes rolling} You doth protest too much. Hah! You silly dense righties and your prattle about “natural rights.” See, we all have the right to do whatever we want, limited by consequences. Which means that we wise leftists can do whatever we can get away with.

      Meanwhile, you thick righties limit yourself with stupid ideas about “honor” and “responsibility” and “tradition.” Don’t you get it? We’re completely free to make up moral and ethical systems as we go along. So if we want a new moral right to healthcare, we just make one up! And if we want to remove rights that people have had for centuries, we just get rid of them! Isn’t that great!

      Of course, only we wise progressives are smart enough to make up entirely new moral and social systems out of whole cloth, and invent new moral rights and delete old ones, and that’s why progressives are ascendent. We understand that you’ve got to just be brave to remake society in your own vision, and of course sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.

      But that “whatever you get away with” stuff doesn’t apply to companies or the personal lives of proles common citizens. Nope, there we wise progressives have to impose rules for everything you do, because the era of de-regulation is over. Just admit it dense righties, because the oil spill proves it. We wise leftists are going to regulate you until you eat right, get enough sleep, have exactly 2.3 kids, and work in precisely the job where we think you contribute the most to the greater good.

      We wise leftists have to run things because only we understand the greater good, and only we have the courage to ignore silly ideas from the past as we pursue leftist utopia. Certainly, you inbred, sterile, Nazi-like, code-word-racist righties can’t do it. Also, we understand how unlikely quantum events superpose, and how the real world is so unpredictable because of the Hindenberg Uncertainty Principle, so we have to run everything to deal with the uncertainty. Why, you dense righties probably don’t even understand Dilbert Space and how important it is to quantum physics!

      Well, maybe some of you grunt engineer types do, but it’s not the sort of understanding possessed by we wise, intuitive leftists. We see how quantum physics and post-modernism all fit together, each contributing ironclad reasons why we ought to be telling you proles what to do. Instead of you running your own lives and spending your own money using your ridiculous obsolete concepts like “responsibility” and “honor.”

      It’s simple, really. We wise leftists are like the protons and neutrons that make up the nucleus of society. The protons are the politicians, and the neutrons are the wise, beneficient academics like me, plus our comrades colleagues in the media. You thick righties are like buzzing electrons, just buzzing all over the place, and you have to be brought under control by us, or who knows where you might end up! Why, you might superpose and do quantum funneling and end up in more than one place, which has to be painful.

      There! Don’t you feel like you understand the world so much better now that I’ve applied quantum physics to explain it to you?

      I’m so glad I can be back here explaining these things to you. Which I do for your own good, and certainly not because of some weird psychological obsession with lecturing down to dense righties to boost my own self-worth. No. I’m just having fun. And don’t start up with how having fun by irritating other people is mentally sick! There’s nothing wrong with me! By the holy laws of quantum physics and post-modernism, I decree it!

      Though I don’t buy post-modernism. Except when I do. Which isn’t a contradiction. See, post-modernism is such a magical body of knowledge that you can use it to disprove itself! And then when you need it, it pops back in as a multiple truth, just like those quantum funneling electrons.

      I explain all this in my book “Righties in the Mist: My life explaining the world to dense righties in their natural blog habitats, which I do for their own good and not my own obsessive nature, I decree it.” The publisher says I need to tighten up the title a bit, though.

    • Thank you, Scott. I don’t recall when I’ve seen a more honest account of the naked, amoral soul of leftism.

      So if, as a society, we decide that Jews are sub-human animals and decide to exterminate them, the only thing we have to fear is the consequences? I mean, by your explanation, there really isn’t anything else wrong with it. It’s just a new ethical system made up by carbon-based life forms. Who are we to judge, eh?

      Of course, with your vast study and knowledge of German morality, you would understand that issue quite well, I suppose.

    • As for myself, I’ll stick with the Enlightenment.  WAY better results than your notions would get us, as demonstrated by the ENTIRE 20th century.
      And there’s this, too…  The Constitution was specifically a delegation of certain (i.e., a few) of the rights of the governed, and by extension the rights of the states they established, to a central government.  It WAS the “natural rights” government.  If we’re going to have something else now, there should be a clear break with the charter that is the only legitimate mandate for the federal government’s existence, and the states and people should have the chance to opt out of the collective.

      • As for myself, I’ll stick with the Enlightenment. 

        What? Don’t you know that was created by white males?!? That it’s just an excuse for the patriarchy to greedily subjugate the rest of society?

        You should report for re-conditioning immediately. Please seek out your nearest specialist in gender and race studies, or in an emergency a leftist political science professor, and immerse yourself in diversity-speak and post-modernism. In only a few weeks, you’ll be able to cast off your Elnlightenment shackles and enter the wonderful world of progressivism.

        • I’d never finish the course…

          • No, you’d probably do something moral and Enlightened like dropping it, instead of doing something like Erb suggests is perfectly acceptable, to wit – Beating the instructor into a bloody pulp because you wanted to and they couldn’t stop you.

        • No, you’d probably do something moral and Enlightened like dropping it, instead of doing something like Erb suggests is perfectly acceptable, to wit – Beating the instructor into a bloody pulp because you wanted to and they couldn’t stop you.
          A perfectly utilitarian option, after all.  I mean, since he argues that “rights” are perfectly plastic.  I have to go back to a point I made earlier…if we are fundamentally changing the compact that was EXPLICIT in the Constitution (government acts as our delegate, using such rights as we impart to it), we should offer all of us…and the individual states…the chance to opt out of the new deal.

    • Our “right to do as we wish” isn’t simply limited by the consequences of our actions. As a practical matter, it is also limited by the actions of other forces, including nature and whoever may want to impose their will upon us. Reducing rights to this level essentially destroys any morality, and makes conquest, theft, and rape all reasonalbe acts. It isn’t surprising that a leftist such as yourself would have this view; after all the major progressive efforts are all really just theft on a massive scale.

      As far as making up governments, markets, ethics, etc., as we go, well I suppose you can, but made up systems such as socialism fail, usually with catastrophic results. Capitalism really isn’t a made up system; it is a natural system that is really just the end result of the moral code of “Thou shalt not steal”.

      Further, there is nothing silly about “natural rights”. One could consider them god given, or natural via some other mechinism, but the idea that rights are inherent and exist regardless of the existance of government is, at the very least, a usefull tool. Even in primitive anarchy, the concept that I have a right to my property and a right to defense (and the means to defense), and a right to worship as I choose, etc., is a powerful concept. The idea that rights are human constructs really is nothing short of moral relativism, where crimes such as slavery are really not any worse than, say, not providing (forcing others to provide) “free” healthcare to all.

    • “Religions, ethical systems, governments, markets, notions of ‘rights’ — those we make up as go, how we wish.   That’s how free we are.”
      So, you teach people eh?
      And it’s your contention that the world is actually one giant system intended for sociopaths and those of us adhering to these moral codes are malfunctioning…..

    • I am trying to understand Scott’s argument, but his paragraph seems contradictory. 

      He starts by telling us “In this world you have the right to do whatever you want, limited by the consequences of your actions”.  But, this leads to how “the consequences of your actions” are actually defined and enforced.  If those consequences are defined and enforced by government, then there are no, and never have been, any natural rights.  All rights, then, by definition, are either specifically granted by government, or, if government offers no consequence for an action, temporarily granted since their is no guarantee government will not define consequences for that action in the future.

      What is really interesting about his argument is that since all rights are defined by government, then logically we can infer, according to Scott, a person may or may not have a specific right based on the specific instantiation of the government he lives under.  The implication, then, is all rights derive from government and there are no rights that accrue simply by being human.  Further, Scott is arguing that any right may be curtailed, at any time, by government since all rights flow from punishment or lack of punishment by the state.  Locke would be horrified.

      So, too, would the authors of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.  Scott’s claim is what we would expect from someone who believes people are subservient to the state.

      • ” Locke would be horrified.”
        Locke – pffffft, did he have many letters after HIS name, representing degrees from accredited American Universities as Scott and many of  his friends do?  Did he have a blog site where he discussed many of these issues on a regular basis?  Did he have extensive knowledge of foreign policy and political science and study these things like Scott does?
        No, he’s some dusty old white male thinker from stinky old Europe where everything was run by monarchies.  Why do you even bother to mention him at all?


      • He’s never understood the point that the ability to do something doesn’t mean you have a right to do it. The rest, of course, is predictable.

      • This may be Erb’s most honest post ever, and explains why he feels no compunction with absolutely ignoring the truth whenever it appears. Of course, by being honest he exposes a whole host of lies that he’s made in the past.  Before, we knew his facts were made up. Know we know many of his moral and emotional arguments were were fiction as well.

         For example, supporting the health care bill because people have a ‘right ‘ to it.  He just admitted there is actually no right to health care, its just something he made up. Every other argument for Obama’s health care bill has been thouroughly disproven, but he’ll still argue in favor of it, knowing that if he lies enough, he probably won’t get called on all of them.

        Another is his claim that one of the reasons he opposed the war in Iraq was the number of Iraqis killed (never mind that the number of Iraqis killed has been far lower since Mar 2003 than it was in the decade prior).  The number of Iraqis killed should only be a factor if those people have a right to live.  However, using the clearly fabricated numbers about the death toll got others (that apparently did beleive in natural rights)  to join his opposition to the war, so he used them as long as he could get away with it. 

        As a bonus, I know havew a deeper understanding that he uses the term ‘silly’ when an opposing viewpoint is clearly proven and cannot be allowed to get to his students unchecked.

        Of course, there is still some uncertainty. Erb may really beleive that there are no natural rights, or he could just realize that the only way to justify the socialism he so desires is through the concept that there are no natural rights. The enigma continues.

        • Well analyzed. The link between his post and his frequent lying occurred to me also.

        • There’s no enigma – he’s an elitist.  He doesn’t really give a rat’s ass about rights for the little people, he’s interested in telling them (us) how to live, and he’s interested in being in the “above the rules” social set that establishes the rules for the little people to follow.

        • Actually he demonstrates Will’s point precisely. His version of rights has no “limiting principle” and hence is useless.

    • Of course your viewpoint, while it might have just as much intellectual validity as a doctrine of natural rights, leads to exactly the sort of abuse of rights that we have come to expect from modern government.
      While a strong doctrine of natural rights tends to reign in governmental overreach(as was the case before the 1960’s).  Therfore empiricaly my beleif system is superior to yours. (ie it works)

  • I suggest that, more simply, the debate is between two types of government:

    — One that takes care of the people

    — One that protects the people

    To my mind, there is a world of difference between these two.  The former is proactive, interested in providing all sorts of charity to the people.  The latter is much more reactive, only becoming involved when a person’s rights are threatened by some other person / group.  The former would provide me (if it could afford it) with a bunker, armored vest, and bodyguards; the latter will find and punish people who do me harm.

    I know which government I prefer.  The government that can do FOR you can also do TO you.

    Incidentally, I think an argument can be made that TR was actually the first progressive president.  His “trust busting”, interference in the coal miners strike, and other interventionist policies would be perfectly sensible and commendable to Wilson, FDR, LBJ, and Imeme.

    • Incidentally, I think an argument can be made that TR was actually the first progressive president.  His “trust busting”, interference in the coal miners strike, and other interventionist policies would be perfectly sensible and commendable to Wilson, FDR, LBJ, and Imeme.

      I agree, and for another reason; TR fundamentally broke with the Constitution in setting up the Federal government as the owner of vast sections of land in the West.  The Constitution was specific about what lands the feds could own, as the Founders knew that land=power.  TR was the first Progressive, and Wilson was the fullest expression of Progressivism.

      • Eh, I’m not really sure I’d buy that – Look at the progressive premise Will is hi-lighting. I may not particularly agree with what TR did, but I don’t see him trying to implement that premise.

        • I think I’ll stand with Goldberg…and my ability to observe conduct.  TR WAS the daddy of progressive policy, acting as he did to VASTLY expand the role and power of the central government, and thereby doing violence to the restraints of the Constitution.  Wilson did a lot to aggregate the ideas circulating at the time, and codify the Progressive ideal.
          We tend to like TR lots better…he WAS lots better as a person…but you can’t let that stand in the way of objectivity.

  • Cancer evolves and progresses if left unchecked.

  • Off topic…totally, but you have to see this video….

      • But if Tom Lehrer had followed his advice I wouldn’t have my jaded and warped sense of humor.

      • That reminded me of something I heard in Starbucks last week. They had the new Dixie Chicks CD displayed, but it only had two women on the cover. I don’t know much about the Chicks, but I know there used be three. So I said “Hey, we’re missing a Chick here.” The barrista said “They got rid of the loudmouth.”

  • 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.”

    That, of course, is a perfectly correct and demonstrable statement.  But it is also only pragmatic; it fails to consider the moral wrong of big government.  The notion that what I earn (or what my relatives earned and wished to pass to me) belongs rightfully to someone else (who may take it from me), makes each of us slaves or drones by degree.  I cannot abide that notion, in any degree.  I will, and do, support payment for the necessary functions of government.  It is a transaction, if made  on those predicates.  I do not, and never could, support the concept it is moral to take from me…or give to me…the product of work, genius, skill, luck, or inheritance.

    • Ragspierre – “the moral wrong of big government

      What, are you saying that it’s morally wrong to provide medical care to sick people who can’t afford it, food to hungry people who can’t afford it, or housing to cold, homeless people who can’t afford it???  Aren’t you willing to give just a LITTLE of your money to help other people???

      This is the “progressive” argument.  It is persuasive because it appeals to emotions and the decency, generosity, and general kindness of the American people.  OF COURSE we want to help the less fortunate.  Nobody wants to see folks, especially kids, go without food or medicine or shelter. 

      The “moral wrong” is that the left twists the voluntary charitable impulse into an imperative, robbing the individual not only of his money but his basic liberty: instead of deciding who he wants to help and how much he wants to give, the government will make that decision for him and put him in jail if he doesn’t comply.  Robin Hood is a nice story, but it shouldn’t be a basis for government policy.

      • Robin Hood is a nice story, but it shouldn’t be a basis for government policy.

        But even the Robin Hood story is perverted; he was TAKING BACK what the people earned AFTER the powerful took it…by their “right” (but they were just good utilitarians, doing what came naturally)…and giving it BACK to those who earned it.  Now, we’ve got a new class of Barons, and much the same process as before.  I think I read an excerpt from a journal by Thomas Becket (when he was a noble) where he notes that he fed 40,000 people, which is where baronial power really came from.

        • Ragspierre[E]ven the Robin Hood story is perverted; he was TAKING BACK what the people earned AFTER the powerful took it…

          But libs think feel that this is exactly what they ARE doing.  The beliefs that people with money somehow took it from somebody else who really deserves it and that a key function of government is to give it back are, as I understand it, the basic principles of “social justice”.

          I also note that lefties have a perverse view of what constitutes “the powerful”.  In the Robin Hood legend, it was very straightforward: Prince John, Guy of Gisbourne, the Sheriff of Nottingham, and the other assorted villains were powerful because they were armed, corrupt and could take by force whatever they liked.  To your lefty, the “powerful” don’t have to be so blatant.  They can get their money – steal it, really – through trickery or “gaming the system”.  Perhaps you recall some of our more dimwitted commentors claiming a few weeks ago that modern advertizing campaigns actually give power to corporations: the ability to make a slick ad and entice people into voluntarily buying a product is the equivalent of taking their money by force.  In a like manner, the AIG execs were demonized as thieves because they had negotiated good contracts for themselves; to lefties, they had effectively robbed their shareholders and the taxpayer just as surely as if they’d gone to them with a gun in one hand and an empty sack in the other.

          Let’s face it: anybody with a little more money than somebody else can be demonized by the left (cf. Lenin, Stalin, and the various demons of the Soviet Union) as an excuse to take what they have and give it to somebody else.  Demonization is necessary so that lefties can feel virtuous about themselves and NOT like the common thieves that they are.