The Good State and the Bad State, Progressivism, Part III

What Constitution?


Most Americans pay homage to the U.S. Constitution. Public officials swear to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, both foreign and domestic,” and the late Sen. Robert Byrd, who wrote the book on pork barrel spending, carried a copy of the document with him at all times.

Almost everyone in authority claims to revere the Constitution. However, few people of them believe they should be bound by the limitations that define the document.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws imposed at all governmental levels that attempted to regulate business hours and employee pay. Today, the U.S. secretary of labor dictates much labor policy.

More than a century ago most Americans would have been shocked to see federal agents visiting businesses and even private dwellings. Today, federal agents are a part of daily life, as the government regulates more and more of our private affairs.

How did Americans go in a hundred years from people who had little contact with the federal government to now having much of their lives controlled by federal policies? How did the State grow so large and so powerful? In a word, it was “Progressivism.”

Guy Rexford Tugwell, one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s most influential advisers, noted that Progressives had a very different view of the State than did the framers of the Constitution. He wrote:

The Constitution was a negative document, meant mostly to protect citizens from their government…. Above all, men were to be free to do as they liked, and since the government was likely to intervene and because prosperity was to be found in the free management of their affairs, a constitution was needed to prevent such intervention…. The laws would maintain order, but would not touch the individual who behaved reasonably. [Emphasis added.]

However, that state of affairs, according to Tugwell, was not acceptable. He continued:

To the extent that these new social virtues developed [in the New Deal], they were tortured interpretations of a document intended to prevent them. The government did accept responsibility for individuals’ well-being, and it did interfere to make [them] secure. But it really had to be admitted that it was done irregularly and according to doctrines the framers would have rejected…Much of the lagging and reluctance was owed to constantly reiterated intention that what was being done was in pursuit of the aims embodied in the Constitution of 1787, when obviously it was done in contravention of them. [Emphasis added.]

Nothing to Fear?

As Tugwell duly noted, the Constitution was written to protect individuals from the ravages of government because people understood that government power was something to be feared. However, after Progressives took control not only of government but also of other important social institutions, like education and the news media, they convinced people that they could have good government.

Progressive literature of the day, from Ida Tarbell’s “expose” on the Standard Oil Company to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, claimed that the real threat to individuals came from businesses, and that government needed to defend citizens from the ravages of private enterprise. Obviously, the kind of government needed to protect people by regulating and controlling businesses needed to be much larger than the government in place.

The catalyst for the expansion of the “good State” was World War I and then later the Great Depression. State intervention was justified in the name of “protecting America” and ultimately (and ironically) “protecting” the Constitution.

Progressives won the day because they gained control of the institutions that serve as “gatekeepers” in civil society, and they also won because intervention begets more intervention. For example, the Federal Reserve System, a favorite of Progressives, helped create the Great Depression and the New Deal, which, in effect, overthrew what was left of the constitutional order.

Today, the United States is what I call a “Progressive Democracy,” bearing little resemblance to the republic that existed 200 years ago. However, no matter how “advanced” government may claim to be, it still is government and needs to be controlled.

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December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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