Our Founders and the classical liberal intellectuals they followed got the basics of government right and thus launched two centuries of freedom and opportunity leading to hope, unprecedented economic growth and astounding human flourishing and wellbeing.
However, a century later a counter movement arose and has continued to gain until now, undermining freedom and opportunity and diminishing hope, growth, wellbeing and flourishing.
That counter-movement was progressivism. It has assumed other names such as: modern liberalism (as distinguished from classical liberalism), third way and political correctness. Early European proponents said fascism. Recently, all these statist populist factions seem to have returned to the label of progressivism, so we’ll use that brand to encompass them all.
The Founders, led by Washington, Adams, Franklin, Jefferson and Madison – who were enlightened by men such as John Locke and Adam Smith – left us a legacy of six parts. They are: the rule of law; limited government with separation of powers; personal liberty; individual rights; strong property rights; and high levels of economic freedom.
These elements greatly changed the course of history, replacing a world of little opportunity, fatalism and extremely slow economic growth with remarkable human flourishing, hope and growth. Before these classical liberal ideas took root, a person’s lot in life was almost always roughly the same as that of his parents. Social and economic mobility was essentially unknown, as was economic growth.
President Lincoln, the founder of the Republican Party, led us in forging a permanence to the Founders’ legacy. However, after him, the original progressive movement developed in Britain, Germany and Italy before being exported to America.
Here it was taken up first by Republican Teddy Roosevelt. Thereafter, it was embraced and led mainly by Democrats, including Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Carter, the Clintons and ultimately Obama. In the 20th and 21st Centuries, only Presidents Reagan and Coolidge stood strong against progressivism.
Progressives disdain the rule of law, preferring instead the so-called living constitution, which guts the words of our founding documents by declaring they mean whatever is convenient at the time. Progressives basically idolize government and abhor its constraints, which is why they’ve had no complaint about presidents who rule by executive decree.
The progressive alternative to limited government with separation of powers is the modern administrative state. Not only has it slowed economic growth to a crawl that looks likely to persist indefinitely, but it has also become the most oppressive force people face today, from the local zoning board to the IRS, BLM and EPA.
Progressives view personal liberty as a quaint idea that often gets in the way of central planning and control by our enlightened betters – that is, the progressives themselves. All history has shown that people pursuing their own interests in a market context do great and wonderful things to the benefit of other folks and society as a whole. Personal liberty does the job, but statism in all its forms fails.
The progressive alternative to individual rights is group rights. By their nature, individual rights belong to everyone and thus are fair and socially constructive. By contrast, group rights are not rights at all and not fair because they apply only to members of favored political client groups. In short, they’re wrongs.
The progressive alternative to strong property rights has mainly been redistribution. Strong property rights operating in market systems are fair because they let folks retain the fruits of their creative and productive activities, thus rewarding people for socially productive behaviors. So, they foster cooperative behavior throughout the society. The progressives’ arrogant and destructive desire to level everything leaves everyone but insiders roughly equally poor and oppressed. That’s what Friedrich Hayek, who saw the progressive vision unfold in Germany, warned about in “The Road to Serfdom.”
Since FDR, progressives have stifled economic freedom with the metastasizing administrative state, excess government spending, taxes, debt and other intervention. Another favored and resurgent tool is economic nationalism and protectionism. This and the other five progressive hobby-horses increasingly have slowed growth of the economy and thus also human wellbeing and flourishing.
The fateful battle pitting progressivism versus the Founders’ legacy of freedom, hope, growth, opportunity and human well-being will be decided in the coming few years.
Ron Knecht is Nevada State Controller. Geoffrey Lawrence is Assistant Controller.