It has been established that progressives disagreed fundamentally with James Madison and most of the other American founders on the basic facts about human nature and its impact on democratic government. In particular, they did not share the founders’ view that the greatest threat to republicanism was majority faction. The founders’ fear of tyranny of the majority was outdated, progressives contended; the real problem of their day was tyranny of the minority. The people, argued Theodore Roosevelt, were calling for their government to take action—to regulate corporations and propertied interests, for example—yet the institutional structure handed down from the founding placed too much distance between the people’s will and those in government who actually make policy.
Pestritto, Ronald J.. America Transformed (p. 244). Encounter Books. Kindle Edition.
Pestritto’s latest book, America Transformed, is his best and a great compilation of the intellectual roots, contradictions, and the legacy of progressivism.
The first contradiction is the drive to greater democracy while driving more policy making to unelected administrators. Progressive thinkers like Goodwin, Wilson, and Dewey had a faith that bureaucrats would better serve the public interest objectively than elected officials. They replaced the separation of powers with the separation of politics from administration. Their belief that administration would not be subject to political partisanship seems naive today. Croly believed the new mandarins of progressive policy would behave like selfless altruistic priests and were uniquely capable. He was unaware of the dispersal of knowledge nor cognitive limitations of even the brightest and most credentialed. While progressive thinkers argued for the legitimacy of progressive power they assumed a competency that is often unsupported by experience.
The second contradiction is that greater majoritarian democracy and greater central power would be less subject to special interests. As George Will pointed out in The Limits of Majority Rule a larger central government is more subject to the pull of special interests and less likely to serve the general will (to the extent that such a definable will exists). The progressive thinkers in its early days had yet to encounter the term ‘regulatory capture’.
From Will’s essay:
So, we must ask: How aberrant, or how frequent, are abusive majorities? A related but different question is: When legislatures, which are majoritarian bodies, act, how often are they actually acting on behalf of majorities? My belief, based on almost half a century observing Washington, the beating heart of American governance, is that as government becomes bigger and more hyperactive, as the regulatory, administrative state becomes more promiscuously intrusive in the dynamics of society and the lives of individuals, only a steadily shrinking portion of what the government does is even remotely responsive to the will of a majority.
Rather, the more that government decides that there are no legal or practical limits to its proper scope and actual competence, the more time and energy it devotes to serving the interests of minority — often very small minority — factions. So, paradoxically, as government becomes bigger, its actions become smaller; as it becomes more grandiose in its pretensions, its preoccupations become more minute.
The third contradiction is the belief that the principles of the founding were not permanent, but merely contingent on the time period. Progressives like many of its European influencers doubted the permanence of any principles applying to the human condition. After a century of progressive policies it is time to consider the mere contingency of the principles of the progressive movement to the economic conditions of 1900. There were clearly conditions of the time that led to the rise of progressivism that are no longer the center of our controversies.
At the root of our political differences is an understanding of human nature and the nature of knowledge. By dispersing power vertically (federalism) and horizontally (checks and balances) to avoid the tyranny of concentrated power they also created a structure of economic freedom that capitalized on the dispersal of knowledge.
There is an irony that the government that accepts the flawed and permanent nature of man, as the founders understood and accordingly designed government, have proved to be far less oppressive than the governments that seek to improve his basic nature.
At the root of progressivism is a drive for continuous reform and big ideas. There are periods where such is called for but every market correction is not the Great Depression and every disparity in outcome is not the return of Jim Crow. There is the desire as Daniel Henninger wrote “that any tear in the social fabric should be mended with permanent entitlements or subsidies.”
But reform is seductive; visible shortcomings compete with vaporous promises and unseen or frequently grossly underestimated costs. A passion for reform obscures tradeoffs.