Over the last couple of days I came across two striking articles, one in the American Thinker and the other in the National Review on the destruction of our republic due to the concepts of democracy and progressivism. The authors come to different conclusions. On the one hand, Mark Hendrickson concludes in his AT piece that “The republic they gave us has been corrupted and possibly lost forever.” Alternatively, Matthew Spaulding end his NRO piece: “The American people are poised to make the right decision. The strength and clarity of the Founders’ argument, if given contemporary expression and brought to a decision, might well establish a governing conservative consensus and undermine the very foundation of the unlimited administrative state. It would be a monumental step on the long path back to republican self-government..” These are the two fates we face, and it is the job of conservatives, libertarians and regular Americans to determine which way we go.
On Mark Hendrickson’s piece, there is much fodder for any fan of The Law by Frederic Bastiat. Hendrickson argues that there has grown a dichotomy in the notion of democracies since our founding:
The gulf between the founders and contemporary Americans stems from very different usages of the word “democracy.” Benign “democracy” connotes the empowerment of individuals and a corresponding freedom from tyranny and oppression.
Further according to Walt Whitman, government was to “make no more laws than those useful for preventing a man or body of men from infringing on the rights of other men.”
My interpretation of democracy is simply a system in which 50% + 1 of people can vote away the rights of the other 49% of individuals. While this may be semantics, I would argue that Whitman believes in individual liberty, as opposed to democracy, secured by a severely limited and divided government. Clearly, Hendrickson concurs, and argues that Whitman’s so-called democratic ideal is best served by a:
constitutional republic…premised on the primacy of individual rights. It sought to restrain governmental power in order to protect those rights…Democracy, by contrast, is a theory of power: What the majority wants, the majority gets. The founders — great students of history and human nature — understood that individual rights could be trampled by democratic majorities as readily as by individual tyrants…The founders knew that if America’s constitutional republic ever degenerated into a formal democracy, then Americans’ rights and Whitman’s democratic ideal would be lost.
This is essential. Tyranny by the masses is no less evil than tyranny by a king. Hendrickson rightly notes as I have argued that the socialists encouraged democracy as a means to their end. He argues:
In The Communist Manifesto, Marx wrote that the way to attain socialism was to “win the battle of democracy.” The cold-blooded Lenin taught, “A democracy is a state which recognizes the subjection of the minority to the majority.” The democracy that the founders loathed and that the communists coveted is a political system in which government ceases to protect individual rights and instead annihilates them.
True enough. Further,
In the words of British archeologist and historian Sir Flinders Petrie, “When democracy has attained full power, the majority without capital necessarily eat up the capital of the minority and civilization steadily decays.”
The end result of the push towards democracy has been decivilization, where various interests plunder various other interests overtly. In our current system, the wealthiest financial interests (with all the capital) have stealthily (and sometimes not so stealthily) expropriated the wealth of the middle class in their bailouts and Fed-induced inflation and cartelization, whilst the lower classes have made use of the legislative branch and the courts through the unions and community organizing groups to further bilk the middle class. Those with the most capital and those with the least have feasted on those in the middle. Generally, as I have argued time and time again, the masses have been practicing legal plunder for well over a century. The end result of this system however is that you run out of productive people to rob at the point of the legitimized gun of government.
Ultimately, Hendrickson laments that
politicians and jurists have ignored Washington’s wise counsel and undermined liberty by ignoring or defying (thus, usurping) the clear language of the constitution in pursuit of their ambitions. The rule of law lies in tatters. Our political degeneration has progressed to the point where Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid write major legislation behind closed doors and order their partisan minions to approve their proposals before they even read them. In the name of democracy, the national government has become blatantly undemocratic.The founders’ misgivings about democracy were spot-on. The republic they gave us has been corrupted and possibly lost forever.
Matthew Spaulding recounts the systematic destruction of our rights over time which has left us in this predicament. There is much worthy of analysis here. Spaulding notes the incestuous relationship between government and society:
Americans are wrapped in an intricate web of government policies and procedures. States, localities, and private institutions are submerged by national programs. The states, which increasingly administer policies emanating from Washington, act like supplicants seeking relief from the federal government. Growing streams of money flow from Washington to every congressional district and municipality, as well as to businesses, organizations, and individuals that are subject to escalating federal regulations.
It makes you question, given the fact that our lives are so heavily regulated; that business seems to serve at the leisure of government – how there is any innovation and advancement…how the human spirit remains free when all around it the walls close in upon it.
Spaulding argues that this system has as its origin,
the theories of Thomas Hobbes, who wanted to replace the old order with an all-powerful “Leviathan” that would impose a new order, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, to achieve absolute equality, favored an absolute state that would rule over the people through a vaguely defined concept called the “general will.”
While true, I might add that given Plato’s view of an ideal society growing not through organic spontaneous order, but under the direction of an elite class, we can trace the roots of the tyranny of elite control back much further. This split is also embodied amongst the founders in the difference between Jefferson and Hamilton.
Progressives were the ones to implement a system completely anathema to that created by the founders. As Spaulding puts well:
American “progressives,” under the spell of German thinkers, decided that advances in science and history had opened the possibility of a new, more efficient form of democratic government, which they called the “administrative state.” Thus began the most revolutionary change of the last hundred years: the massive shift of power from institutions of constitutional government to a labyrinthine network of unelected, unaccountable experts who would rule in the name of the people.
The great challenge of democracy, as the Founders understood it, was to restrict and structure the government to secure the rights articulated in the Declaration of Independence — preventing tyranny while preserving liberty. The solution was to create a strong, energetic government of limited authority. Its powers were enumerated in a written constitution, separated into functions and responsibilities and further divided between national and state governments in a system of federalism. The result was a framework of limited government and a vast sphere of freedom, leaving ample room for republican self-government.
Progressives viewed the Constitution as a dusty 18th-century plan unsuited for the modern day. Its basic mechanisms were obsolete and inefficient; it was a reactionary document, designed to stifle change. They believed that just as science and reason had brought technological changes and new methods of study to the physical world, they would also bring great improvements to politics and society. For this to be possible, however, government could not be restricted to securing a few natural rights or exercising certain limited powers. Instead, government must become dynamic, constantly changing and growing to pursue the ceaseless objective of progress.
This belief in an administrative state in my view is really just a nice way of saying a centrally planned or authoritarian state. As we have seen, the results of states based upon these principles have always failed because central planning fails. This process leads to chaos, bloodshed and decivilization. There is also a major fallacy that somehow because there are rigid principles that confine the spheres that government can influence, and the extent to which it can influence them, that this stifles “change.” In fact, only a system that constrains government and thus maximizes individual liberty, built on bedrock principles can create a fertile ground for dynamic development, technological progress, widespread prosperity and peace. Government’s effort to create these outcomes ensures they can never be reached. The progressives have halted progress, and will push us backwards as a people through moral debauchery and economic servitude due to their subversion of the Constitution through the legislative, judicial and executive branches of our Leviathan central government, with the help of the media and academia in brainwashing the American people into either blind ignorance or delusional belief in the fatherly state. The great advances of man have always been attributable to the individual, never the collective.
Spaulding notes that in the permanent administrative class created by the Progressives,
bureaucrats would address the particulars of accomplishing the broad objectives of reform, making decisions, most of them unseen and beyond public scrutiny, on the basis of scientific facts and statistical data rather than political opinions. The ruling class would reside in the recesses of a host of alphabet agencies such as the FTC (the Federal Trade Commission, created in 1914) and the SEC (the Securities and Exchange Commission, created in 1934). As “objective” and “neutral” experts, the theory went, these administrators would act above petty partisanship and faction.
The progressives emphasized not a separation of powers, which divided and checked the government, but rather a combination of powers, which would concentrate its authority and direct its actions. While seeming to advocate more democracy, the progressives of a century ago, like their descendants today, actually wanted the opposite: more centralized government control.
So it is that today, many policy decisions that were previously the constitutional responsibility of elected legislators are delegated to faceless bureaucrats whose “rules” have the full force and effect of laws passed by Congress. In writing legislation, Congress uses broad language that essentially hands legislative power over to agencies, along with the authority to execute rules and adjudicate violations.
The objective of progressive thinking, which remains a major force in modern-day liberalism, was to transform America from a decentralized, self-governing society into a centralized, progressive society focused on national ideals and the achievement of “social justice.” Sociological conditions would be changed through government regulation of society and the economy; socioeconomic problems would be solved by redistributing wealth and benefits.
On this so-called ruling class of bureaucrats, there are a few things worthy of note. First is the principle that there is a certain elite that should decide things for everyone else; that there are some who by the grace of G-d are preordained to rule, while the masses must follow. This is an immoral and non-progressive principle. Aren’t the progressives supposed to be all about freeing the oppressed from tyranny? Further, the argument that the end goal was more centralized government control in my view merely touches on a means to an end which is power for the elite class. Regardless of what they feel is the proper role of government vis-a-vis the masses, deep down control is about power and stoking one’s ego; the elites lust for power over their perceived intellectual subordinates. Ayn Rand sums this relationship correctly: “where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting the sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there is someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be the master.” It is no surprise then that Barack Obama so stresses service and sacrifice, and even seeks to make it a permanent requirement for all citizens.
Additionally, on the belief that “Liberty no longer would be a condition based on human nature and the exercise of God-given natural rights, but a changing concept whose evolution was guided by government,” this again reminds me of Yuri Bezmenov’s video on ideological subversion. He describes a condition in which the people are so numbed to morality, and the sanctity of their natural rights that they support causes completely averse to their livelihood. In addition, as Hans Herman-Hoppe argues in his Democracy: The God that Failed, in a system in which definitions of essential principles constantly sway at the whim of public opinion, it becomes highly difficult for positive human action to occur. Uncertainty and constantly changing rules and regulations again undermines progress. As Spaulding notes, FDR adviser Charles Merrian argued that “The question is now one of expediency rather than of principle.” Expediency over principle is a surefire way to destroy the rights of the people.
Spaulding adeptly notes the changing view that the progenitors of the welfare state like FDR began to take on under policies such as those enumerated in the
“Second Bill of Rights” that would “assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” Roosevelt held that the primary task of modern government is to alleviate citizens’ want by guaranteeing their economic security. The implications of this redefinition are incalculable, since the list of economic “rights” is unlimited. It requires more and more government programs and regulation of the economy — hence the welfare state — to achieve higher and higher levels of happiness and well-being.
In other words, FDR, his predecessors and followers believed in legalized plunder to ensure “equality in the pursuit of happiness.” Instead of ensuring a playing field in which all could seek to attain what they subjectively defined as the good life, or the happy one, under the guise of equality, FDR and the others believed that they could socially engineer the American people in order to provide “economic security.” This economic security is nothing more than a system of wealth transfers that create moral hazard and cause the American people to cease to strive to create wealth; rather, it leads people to use politics to grab it. The modern welfare state was an edifice created to make the people parasitic, lazy sheeple dependent upon the facilitator of expropriation of government. If the people understood this they would surely not stand for it.
The genius of the progressives is that once they began to radically expand government, it became almost impossible to stop politically, especially when these expansions often occurred because of crises perpetuated by government that purportedly only government could fix. A politician doesn’t want to alienate one constituency or another by scrapping it of its government-granted privileges. In addition, entitlement programs in particular as laws are difficult to repeal, continuously grow and become politically almost impossible to defeat because the public has gotten so used to them as rightful fixtures of the state. How can you expect the American people to accept at face value that they should no longer expect Social Security or Medicaire, even if you can rationally explain that in the long run a state devoid of these programs will prove better for them. Immediately, opponents will say that you want old people to be broke in retirement, or sick children to die.
Yet again, Spaulding is optimistic. He notes:
There is something about a nation founded on principles, something unique in its politics that often gets shoved to the background but never disappears. Most of the time, American politics is about local issues and the small handful of policy questions that top the national agenda. But once in a while, it is instead about voters’ stepping back and taking a longer view as they evaluate the present in the light of our founding principles. That is why all the great turning-point elections in U.S. history ultimately came down to a debate about the meaning and trajectory of America.
In our era of big government and the administrative state, the conventional wisdom has been that serious political realignment — bringing politics and government back into harmony with the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — is no longer possible. Yet we are seeing early indications that we may be entering a period of just such realignment. Perhaps the progressive transformation is incomplete, and the form of the modern state not yet settled — at least not by the American people.
This creates a historic opening for conservatives.
Growing opposition to runaway spending and debt, and to a looming government takeover of health care, doesn’t necessarily mean that voters want to scrap Social Security or close down the Department of Education. But it may mean that they are ready to reembrace clear, enforceable limits on the state. The opportunity and the challenge for those who seek to conserve America’s liberating principles is to turn the healthy public sentiment of the moment, which stands against a partisan agenda to revive an activist state, into a settled and enduring political opinion about the nature and purpose of constitutional government.
To do that, conservatives must make a compelling argument that shifts the narrative of American politics and defines a new direction for the country. We must present a clear choice: stay the course of progressive liberalism, which moves away from popular consent, the rule of law, and constitutional government, and toward a failed, undemocratic, and illiberal form of statism; or correct course in an effort to restore the conditions of liberty and renew the bedrock principles and constitutional wisdom that are the roots of America’s continuing greatness.
The American people are poised to make the right decision. The strength and clarity of the Founders’ argument, if given contemporary expression and brought to a decision, might well establish a governing conservative consensus and undermine the very foundation of the unlimited administrative state. It would be a monumental step on the long path back to republican self-government.
If nothing else, this is an inspiring and hope-filled message. While there are signs that the masses are awakening, I do not believe that a slowdown in the growth of government will set us straight. The man on the street does not realize how rotten our system is to the core — that we require fundamentally transforming America by scrapping the entire welfare state and returning power to the people.
One of the principle institutions symptomatic of our problems both in terms of the increase in government and the diminution of the individual is the Federal Reserve. It facilitates infinite government growth in part through wars, robs people of their income and savings and allows government to stealthily tax. But try to explain to the average person why they should care about the Fed and most Americans (likely with good reason) will probably either stop listening or be unable to comprehend the magnitude of its evilness. Amongst the “elite,” they will default to either Keynesian arguments or ad hominem attacks. They can’t imagine that the foundation of the economy is a mirage. They can’t imagine that a group of unelected Fed governors has such a great effect on our prosperity, liberty and peace. They can’t believe that much of our government is pure fraud.
In general, people do not want to believe that government efforts to help people almost always end up hurting them, and that institutions that have been for a long time may be inherently corrupt and/or cease to be (just look at the investment banking houses). People pray at the altar of the status quo because it is easier to accept things as they are instead of critically questioning and radically reevaluating the world. It took me until these last few years to do so myself.
It is our job if we are to revive the tattered law, refound the relative paradise of republicanism that Hendrickson mourns and realign the country according to the principles that Spaulding espouses to open the eyes of the public to our view. Ironically, progress requires a radical return to “reactionary” principles. Civilization hangs in the balance.