The language of the early progressives often expressed a ‘general will’ or the ‘will of the people’. This concept took exception to the Constitution’s focus on individual and natural rights. The framers often spoke of minority rights and the potential for the tyranny of the majority.
The early progressives took great exception to the primacy of individual rights and natural rights. The idea of rights in nature that government should be designed to secure was criticized at the time of the founding considered as unrealistic by Edmund Burke and other conservative thinkers. Friedrich von Getz was critical of the French and the Americans for their embrace of the idea of natural rights but commended the Americans for restricting its application in the Constitution. However legitimate the concept of natural rights as expressed in the Declaration, the concept combined with the founders’ understanding of human nature directed them to the primacy of individual rights and limitation on the concentration of power. Protection of minority rights and property rights became the center of not just the American Constitution but the concept of classical liberalism itself.
Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson turned this upside down, contending that property rights should be determined according its ability to serve the greater good, the general will. This shift of the Progressive Era from the primacy of minority rights to a majoritarian will defines the progressive pivot in American politics. The question is who or what determines the will of the majority. For Wilson it was the president as the sole nationally elected official.
While the progressives pushed for greater democracy they also pushed for great administration from experts not subject to the political process. They justified this inconsistency by delegating the responsibility of the administrative state to the popularly elected president, but over time the executive control of the federal agencies has greatly deteriorated.
Wilson and Roosevelt thought that Congress was unaccountable because it was so divided, that democracy was better served by concentrating power in the single popularly elected office of the president. This was as far from the thinking of the founders as one could get. From Federalist #63:
From these facts, to which many others might be added, it is clear that the principle of representation was neither unknown to the ancients nor wholly overlooked in their political constitutions. The true distinction between these and the American governments, lies IN THE TOTAL EXCLUSION OF THE PEOPLE, IN THEIR COLLECTIVE CAPACITY, from any share in the LATTER, and not in the TOTAL EXCLUSION OF THE REPRESENTATIVES OF THE PEOPLE from the administration of the FORMER.
The people were to be represented but not in their collective capacity. The breaks on central power was not meant to thwart democracy but to slow it down to dissipate passion and allow reason to emerge. It was a firewall against populism. Some progressive thinkers, surveying the wreckage of WWII, came to reassess the need for restraints on concentrated power.
Hayek posed another benefit of minority rights. It was not just the protection of special interests at the expense of the majority. Most of our social improvements and progress come from the work of a distinct and very small minority, and allowing them to flourish benefits us all. But neither Teddy Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson could assure us that future leaders now depending on majority will would understand that the protection of minority rights would so well serve the greater good of the nation.
The notion of a knowable ‘general will’ to be discerned by a single popularly elected president seems a sure road to a populist demagogue. The Constitution is a thoughtful design for managing our inherent differences. Pretending these differences do not exist is merely a premise to force one’s will on another.
Ronald Pestritto notes in America Transformed that Woodrow Wilson wrote,
that the will of majorities is not the same as the general will: that a nation is an organic thing, and that its will dwells with those who do the practical thinking and organize the best concert of action: those who hit upon opinions fit to be made prevalent, and have the capacity to make them so.50
In other words the elite knew the general will better than the public itself. It is an intellectual strain to comport this with a concept of democracy, but it bears repeating that ‘democracy’ and ‘demagogue’ share a common root. A majority and a general will, while different to Wilson, still reflects a collective that founders saw a need to restrain.