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Core Value of Progressivism
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Mar 11, 2013 17:25:38   #
There is a fundamental core value underlying Progressive philosophy. It is the primary rationale for their understanding of the purpose of government. It is a view of human nature that differs considerably from the Conservative view. It is the reason they reject “individual liberty” and believe that only government control can be the source of true freedom. It is a simple concept, or belief, that has profound ramifications for their world view.

There was a period in philosophical discourse (late 1600s through the 1700s) called “The Enlightenment”. Philosophers of this period rejected the idea of “divine right” that had been used as a basis for royal rule and hereditary privilege for many centuries. Instead, they believed in natural equality of all people, natural rights, the sanctity of property, and an inborn desire to pursue happiness. America's founders were heavily influenced by these ideas.

Not long after the US Constitution was adopted a revolution followed in France. It did not go well, and was marked by a period known as “The Reign of Terror”. Philosophers were repulsed by the brutality which they associated with Enlightenment teachings and rather quickly turned away from them.

The successes of science and the “scientific method” in influencing inventions and technology were already evident, and philosophers began thinking about scientific societies. This is evident in the writings of Marquis de Condorcet. “All the causes which contribute to the improvement of the human species, all the means we have enumerated that insure its progress, must, from their very nature, exercise an influence always active, and acquire an extent for ever increasing. The proofs of this have been exhibited, and from their developement in the work itself they will derive additional force: accordingly we may already conclude that the perfectibility of man is indefinite.”

“...The perfectibility of man...” This would become an aspect of social philosophies from that time on. It is a foundational aspect of Communism as well as Naziism, Fascism (as defined by Mussolini) and Progressivism. These ideological philosophies differ in their approach to achieving this perfectibility, but they all expect it to be a result of following their agenda.We see this clearly in the writings of John Dewey, the “father” of modern education and prolific philosopher of the late 1800s up to the 1930s.

Unfortunately, Dewey doesn't speak in short concise sentences. He can be rather difficult to follow. In the quoted sections below, he refers to two versions of liberalism. Older liberalism refers to liberty as understood by Enlightenment philosophers and our Constitutions authors. New liberalism refers to liberty as defined by Progressive philosophers. The full text source of the following quotations can be found at:

In the chapters available on-line Dewey traces the development of liberalism from John Locke's natural rights ideas through the Industrial Revolution and into the Great Depression era.

"Gradually a change came over the spirit and meaning of liberalism. It came surely, if gradually, to be disassociated from the laissez faire creed and to be associated with the use of governmental action for aid to those at economic disadvantage and for alleviation of their conditions. In this country, save for a small band of adherents to earlier liberalism, ideas and policies of this general type have virtually come to define the meaning of liberal faith. American liberalism as illustrated in the political progressivism of the early present century [1900s] has so little in common with British liberalism of the first part of the last century that it stands in opposition to it."

The new liberalism “stands in opposition to” the old liberalism. He sees this new liberalism as a force against oppression. His portrayal of oppression up to the Industrial Revolution is very similar to Marx. Like Marx he sees the change from a land ownership based economy prevalent in Europe to a centralized manufacturing ownership based economy as the introduction of a new form of oppression. He believed that this new oppression was/is based on, or at least protected by, the natural rights and property rights championed by “old” liberals and codified in our constitution.

"These statements do not imply that these liberals should or could have foreseen the changes that would occur, due to the impact of new forces of production. The point is that their failure to grasp the historic position of the interpretation of liberty they put forth served later to solidify a social regime that was a chief obstacle to attainment of the ends they professed. One aspect of this failure is worth especial mention. No one has ever seen more clearly than the Benthamites [early British liberals] that the political self-interest of rulers, if not socially checked and controlled, leads to actions that destroy liberty for the mass of people. Their perception of this fact was a chief ground for their advocacy of representative government, for they saw in this measure a means by which the self-interest of the rulers would be forced into conformity with the interests of their subjects. But they had no glimpse of the fact that private control of the new forces of production, forces which affect the life of every one, would operate in the same way as private unchecked control of political liberty. But they failed to perceive that social control of economic forces is equally necessary if anything approaching economic equality and liberty is to be realized."

Elsewhere in the same book Dewey says,
“But the values of freed intelligence, of liberty, of opportunity for every individual to realize the potentialities of which he is possessed, are too precious to be sacrificed to a regime of despotism, especially when the regime is in such large measure merely the agent of a dominant economic class in its struggle to keep and extend the gains it has amassed at the expense of genuine social order, unity, and development. Liberalism has to gather itself together to formulate the ends to which it is devoted in terms of means that are relevant to the contemporary situation. The only form of enduring social organization that is now possible is one in which the new forces of productivity are cooperatively controlled and used in the interest of the effect liberty and the cultural development of the individuals that constitute society. “

For those of you too young to remember 1935, keep in mind that the US was in the midst of the Great Depression which began in 1929. World War II was still five years away. Russia was under Communist control, Germany under Nazi control and Italy under Fascist control. All of these countries had adopted centrally planned economies and government controlled industries. All of them seemed to be having economic success. All of them had prominent vocal advocates in the US. Only some British kook named Churchill seemed to be concerned.

In 1964 President Johnson gave the commencement address at the University of Michigan. In it he echoed John Dewey who he sometimes referred to as Dr. Johnny.
"The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.

Your imagination, your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society .

The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in out time. But that is just the beginning.

The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.

It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what it adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.

But most of all, the Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.

In response, Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act, also referred to as “The War on Poverty”. The mid '60s also saw the beginning of the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who was later assassinated. His role as the figurehead of the movement was taken primarily by Rev. Jesse Jackson. Rev. Al Sharpton and Lewis Farakhan are also influential. Significant civil rights legislation was passed. Around this time another important social development took place. It was, as the song said, “The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius”:
. Harmony and understanding
. Sympathy and trust abounding
. No more falsehoods or derisions
. Golden living dreams of visions
. Mystic crystal revalation
. And the mind's true liberation
. Aquarius!
. Aquarius!

Slogans of the time were “make love, not war”, “if it feels good do it” and so on. While these cannot be identified as elements of Progressive philosophy, they are indisputably a part of modern liberalism.

So where have we come since 1964? The following is from:

"The poverty rate among blacks was nearly cut in half in the 20 years prior to the 1960s, a record unmatched since then, despite the expansion of welfare state policies in the 1960s.

Unemployment among black 16 and 17-year-old males was 12 percent back in 1950. Yet unemployment rates among black 16 and 17-year-old males has not been less than 30 percent for any year since 1970 -- and has been over 40 percent in some of those years.

Not only was unemployment among blacks in general lower before the liberal welfare state policies expanded in the 1960s, rates of imprisonment of blacks were also lower then, and most black children were raised in two-parent families. At one time, a higher percentage of blacks than whites were married and working.

...While many politicians and "leaders" have claimed credit for black progress, no one seems to be willing to take the blame for the retrogressions represented by higher unemployment rates, higher crime rates, and higher rates of imprisonment today. Or for the disintegration of the black family, which survived centuries of slavery and generations of government-imposed discrimination in the Jim Crow era, but began coming apart in the wake of the expansion of the liberal welfare state and its accompanying social dogmas. "


While the above relates only to the black population, less pronounced but similar affects are seen in the white population as well. Another American philosopher who wrote several years before Dewey would not have been surprised by the results.

”I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. — I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.

In my youth I travelled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.

There is no country in the world where so many provisions are established for them; so many hospitals to receive them when they are sick or lame, founded and maintained by voluntary charities; so many alms-houses for the aged of both sexes, together with a solemn general law made by the rich to subject their estates to a heavy tax for the support of the poor.

Under all these obligations, are our poor modest, humble, and thankful; and do they use their best endeavours to maintain themselves, and lighten our shoulders of this burthen?

– On the contrary, I affirm that there is no country in the world in which the poor are more idle, dissolute, drunken, and insolent.

The day you passed that act, you took away from before their eyes the greatest of all inducements to industry, frugality, and sobriety, by giving them a dependance on somewhat else than a careful accumulation during youth and health, for support in age or sickness.

In short, you offered a premium for the encouragement of idleness, and you should not now wonder that it has had its effect in the increase of poverty. Repeal that law, and you will soon see a change in their manners. St. Monday, and St. Tuesday, will cease to be holidays.

SIX days shalt thou labour, though one of the old commandments long treated as out of date, will again be looked upon as a respectable precept; industry will increase, and with it plenty among the lower people; their circumstances will mend, and more will be done for their happiness by inuring them to provide for themselves, than could be done by dividing all your estates among them.”

 – Benjamin Franklin, On the Price of Corn, and Management of the Poor, November 29, 1766, The London Chronicle
Mar 12, 2013 13:37:56   #
Thank you for a comprehensive review of how the thinking got off track - and I agree with everything you covered. However, the reality of what you said needs to be put into more modest form to have any impact on the many who will not take the time, nor have the interest, to think through the history and concepts of economic philosophies.

A few simple concepts need to be noted and understood and then logically extended. I offer one in particular - from Dr. Walter E Williams, a collegue of Dr. Sowell you reference -

Dr. Williams offers the single most important thing necessary to understand economics - think of that dinner you had last night - the potato - the farmer did not grow that potato because he loves you. If one can stop and think about how potatoes come to be, what is it that makes them available and priced where I can afford them - and realize it is the same force that makes all of the other goods and services I avail myself of.

Thanks again for a well written compreshensive piece.
Mar 13, 2013 18:07:40   #
To Dave,
I'm glad you found the piece worthwhile. Your advice about presenting simpler concepts is appreciated. I decided to address an audience (very small audience) that wants a better understanding of Progressivism. There are many on both sides of the political divide that only have a superficial, and often incorrect, idea of what they are voting for. Campaign slogans can be very misleading. My great great grandmother used to say, "You can't trust a politician any further than you can throw a bull by the tail."

For people who want a comprehensive understanding of both Progressivism and Conservatism as well as the historical events around their development my web site has a paper that attempts to do just that.
Mar 14, 2013 22:35:27   #
L.E. Liesner
The progressive movement filtered into the academia of our country in the late 1800's and has flourished there ever since. From them we get the words "living constitution", which, to them means that the Constitution should be changed to meet the daily needs of the government without due process of the amendment route. They have been trying to separate the Declaration of Independence from the Constitution of the United States, which would render the Constitution to a mere antiquated piece of parchment and allow their politicians to do as they please. The Declaration of Independence tells us that our rights come from our Creator, while the progressives believe our rights come from the government which they will control and then control us. Our government today probably has far more progressive in it then it has conservatives, and they are in both parties. As conservatives, our duty is to get everybody interested in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States in the hope that the progressives will be nullified.
Mar 15, 2013 08:32:05   #
Well said (and I'm an agnostic) - but the concept that rights are God given, or a matter of nature, is the element that makes the Constitution both unique and important.
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