We learn the value of our principles when we abandon them.
A study of progressivism in America merits a return to the founding principles. Early progressives sought “Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends”, removing the shackles to big government in the pursuit of equality beyond mere political representation. The yeoman individualism of the march west seemed poorly suited for a population that shifted from rural to urban and from farming to industry. The rise of large national commercial and financial concerns aided by the network of railroads required greater central political power to meet the demands of greater central economic power.
The fallacy was the belief that greater administrative power could remain nonpartisan; that the growing power of the central government to protect the voters from the influence of special interests would not become a special interest itself. Progressivism in the first era (1900-1920) was a movement shared by both parties. By the rise of the New Deal the term progressivism had changed to ‘liberal’, but the ideals and aims of the New Deal reflected the progressivism of its greatest champions such as Bob La Follete. The dramatic growth of the administrative state under the New Deal and its offspring in the Great Society became distinctly partisan. More government workers depended on the larger role of the state and a growing group of proxies in local and nonprofit roles also relied on government funding.
The growth of the government as its owns special interest accelerated when government workers were allowed to unionize under Kennedy. FDR had rejected the desirability or possibility of such, but once the power of government accelerates it is difficult to stop. Today there are more union workers in the government sector than there is in the private sector.
The founders’ concern for the checking the power of government was derived from its understanding of human nature and was expressed clearly in Federalist #51:
“It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices [checks and balances] should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
We too often understand principles most when we abandon them. The philosophies of the early progressives not only discounted the founding principles as only relevant contingent on its period, but doubted the permanence of any principle as restrictive to the expansion of knowledge. It became an intellectual rationalization for political pruposes.
Gregory Collins writing Bipartisan Burke in National Review similarly wrote of the clarification of conservative principles by their abandonment in the French Revolution; a distinctly different path taken from the American War for Independence, which largely retained British political institutions.
““Conservatism” as a conscious political doctrine emerged after Burke. Yet the core tenets of his criticism of the French Revolution — the dangers of abstract reason, the fallible nature of man, the distilled wisdom of the ages, the perils of leveling society, the menace of social engineering, the virtue of prudence, the complexity of circumstance, the sanctity of property, the hazards of fiat money, the balance between conservation and reform, the limits of voluntary contracts, and the intergenerational responsibilities of civil society — have all settled as guiding principles of conservative thought in its various intellectual strands.”
Not only is the growth of central government power antithetical to the founding principles, it has proven as short of necessary competence as it is short of legitimacy. As economics has rivaled politics for our attention new scholarship has observed the dispersed nature of knowledge that separates knowledge from power at the federal level.
As the government has sought to centralize solutions to personal and local problems, we are more disappointed in the outcome. While the constitution is imperfect it is worthwhile to return to its core principles to explain our current short comings. The Constitution was not designed to achieve unity but to establish a means to moderate differences. A unity of will assumed by progressives has proved to be illusory.
David French in his recent Divided We Fall suggests a return to federalism; let California be California and let Tennessee be Tennessee. For those stuck in the 1960s that believe that any increase in state power is a guaranteed return to Jim Crow he clearly states those limits as well. “Federalism ends where the Bill of Rights begins.”
There is room for evolution of our political heritage without abandoning principles that stand up to generations of experience and scrutiny. The attack on the moral and rational basis of our political heritage by the woke zealotry only blinds us to established principles and solutions without offering any alternative.