I attended a Hillsdale College Free Market Forum in Atlanta last week. I was able to meet Don Boudreaux from Café Hayek, one of my daily go to blogs, and Ronald Pestritto, a history professor at Hillsdale.
Ron authored three books on my bookshelf: American Progressivism: a Reader, Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism, and Woodrow Wilson: The Essential Political Writings . They are an excellent window into the origins of the Progressive movement.
In an address on the Principles of the Entitlement State, he spoke of the redefinition of liberty by Franklin Roosevelt in his Commonwealth Club Address in 1932. FDR spoke of the transition of the United States from its founding due to the settlement of the continent and the industrial revolution. This is consistent with Woodrow Wilson who found principles embedded in the Constitution to be contingent on the times and unsuitable for modern political life.
The framers saw liberty as a natural right which preceded the government, and that the citizens instituted government to protect those rights. With liberty perceived to be threatened by a new economic order FDR sought power for the government to protect individuals from threats to their liberty from sources other than the government such as the powerful business trusts. Instead of a protector of liberty the government could grant liberties due to its power. The more power the government had the more liberties it could bestow. This innocent sounding transition from the protector to the grantor of rights was used to justify the growth in power of the government that characterized the Progressive movement.
George Will characterized the Progressive pivot as the point where liberty was superseded by majoritarian democracy in his essay in National Affairs, The Limits of Majority Rule. Pestritto contends that perhaps it is more accurate to say that liberty was redefined by FDR to require the power of the state to do more than protect pre-existing natural rights.
The outcome of a century of growing Federal Power in the name of Progressivism and the evolution of the entitlement and regulatory state allows us to see the dangers of uncontrolled government power and the wisdom of the original principles of limited government power. Would the original Progressives have approved of the expansion of government to its current size and power?
William Voegeli in Never Enough mirrored Pestritto’s examination of the redefinition of language by FDR:
“According to Sidney Milkis, “FDR’s deft reinterpretation of the American constitutional tradition” gave “legitimacy to progressive principles by embedding them in the language of constitutionalism and interpreting them as an expansion rather than a subversion of the natural rights tradition.” Significantly, FDR conveyed this orientation by enthusiastically embracing “liberalism” as the designation for the New Deal’s philosophy, sending the term “progressivism,” with its clearly implied critique of the American founding, into a long exile. To do so he wrested “liberalism” away from the defenders of limited government, who acceded unhappily to calling themselves “conservatives.”