This Tuesday in Emporia, constitutional scholar Matthew Spalding
delivered a lecture titled “Liberty and the Constitution.” An important topic presented in this lecture is that modern American progressivism is in opposition to the principles of liberty as expressed in the founding of the United States.
Spalding said that the great theme of the American founding was self-governance. America is unique, he said, because we laid down ideas on paper in the form of our Constitution. Prior to this, politics had been based on who had the most power.
Private property and religious freedom were important aspects of the American founding. To the founders, property rights were deeply moral and philosophical. Property is not just land, but intellectual creations, too.
Religious liberty was an important theme of the American founding. Prior to this, there was no such thing as religious liberty, Spalding said. Your religion would be determined by the religion of your king. Sometimes other religions were tolerated, but as in England, it simply meant they “wouldn’t burn you.”
Rule of law is another important aspect of liberty. Man creates laws, and we are ruled by those laws. Because Americans valued law so much, we did something that no other country had done: we wrote it down in the form of a Constitution. Other counties had constitutions, but they were merely writings of history, not rules for how law should operate.
All men possessed the same rights, because of nature, because we are human beings. Rights do not come from governments, or kings, or courts. That, the American founders said, is self-evident.
After the Civil War, different world views arose. In particular, Germany in the late nineteenth center was the hotbed of technology and transformation of government.
When Americans went overseas to study Europe after the Civil War, we became aware of the radicalism of the French Revolution. It was anti-religious. Everything was to be torn down, even the calendar. That changed the European tradition, and new sets of ideas came into fashion.
These ideas that were imported into the United States included relativism (there is no self-evident truth) and historicism (all things change). These ideas are in opposition to the principles of the Constitution, and are the basis of modern progressivism, which holds these beliefs: There is nothing permanent. Everything changes. Rights are not grounded in the nature of human beings; instead rights evolve and change. Because rights change, government changes, too. When rights expand, so does government. With more rights, there is more for government to secure.
Germany had invented the administrative state, or the bureaucracy. Based on their belief in science, they invented new, scientific ways of organizing government. There were to be experts: people to run things.
In America, power and authority which the Constitution delegated to the legislature and executive was instead given to the bureaucracy. Congress created agencies.
There also arose the idea of a “living” Constitution. The founders’ Constitution was old and viewed by progressives as a barrier to progress. By interpreting it differently, it became a living document.
The culmination of progressivism was the Great Society on the 1960s. Congress passed huge, vague laws that gave authority to bureaucrats. “Congress passed a law: clean the water.” How to do that was left to bureaucrats.
The present wave of progressivism — like the others before — is based on an intellectual, moral, and cultural attack on the ideas of the American founding. Progressives believe the American founders were wrong. Limited government is a constraint, they say, and to make any progress, we must have more government.
Spalding said that if we were to read Woodrow Wilson’s speeches during the 1912 election and substitute the word “change” for “progress”, we’d see a similarity to the debate of today. Healthcare, he said, was proposed in the progressive platform of 1912, based on the German model of health insurance.
The argument of modern academics is that the growth of government is inevitable and good. Today, the progressive argument about government growing and expanding without limit, the question has never been settled by the American people. “The American people, as civil-minded as they are, still think they govern themselves, and they object when someone says they will govern for them.” That is good, Spalding said.
There are two grand choices we face today. One path is progressive liberalism, based on the French Revolution arguments that deny rights, liberties, and the Constitution. The goal of this path is to transform America into something different with a new form of government: bureaucratic and centralized, efficient and European.
The other path is to recover a form of constitutionalism. Spalding says that the immediate future — perhaps the next few years or decades — is the time to give serious consideration to this choice. The present path of government is unsustainable, and we must decide if there are to be limits on the size of government.
The current healthcare proposal that says we must buy insurance provides an example, he said. “If the commerce clause of the United States Constitution gives Congress the authority to regulate the doing of nothing, then government is truly unlimited.”
A question from the audience from someone who identified himself as a progressive said that progressives aren’t trying to make America like a European nation. It’s social Darwinism that upsets progressives, he said, citing the lack of child labor laws and robber barons as examples. Today, there are powers and corporations that are destructive, and progressives need to reclaim power and participation in government.
Spalding replied that social Darwinism (from the right), like progressivism (from the left), deny human nature. Both use the state to achieve their objectives, and that’s the problem. Neither believe in self government. Many modern ideologies, stemming from the French Revolution, reject the deeper philosophical ideas of the American founding.
The questioner asked “Equality, liberty, fraternity: this is a rejection of the human condition?” Spalding replied yes, the American and French Revolutions are deeply at odds with each other. “The fact that I would point to is the French Revolution did not lead to constitutional government. George Washington died in bed peacefully. The French Revolution lead to the guillotine.”
Matthew Spalding is the Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at Heritage and is the author of We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future (ISI Books, 2009). He is also the editor of the Heritage Guide to the Constitution, an indispensable collection of essays on the founding document.
Two additional lectures have been scheduled for the 2010 season. Jonathan Bean, a professor of history at Southern Illinois University, will be speaking on liberty and race in American history on Feb. 23. Benjamin Powell, professor of economics from Suffolk University in Boston, will be speaking April 8 on the topic, “In Praise of Sweatshops.”
The Lectures on Liberty series is underwritten by the Fred C. and Mary R. Koch Foundation in Wichita.