Progressivism & Liberty

The narrative of the American experience throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century is marked by a steady increase of the scope, cost, and weight of government. The trend — marked by the birth of the welfare state, of extensive economic regulation, and supremacy of the concept of social justice — is defended by subscribers of a particular umbrella ideology called Progressivism. Such an ideology depends for its coherency certain political, moral, and philosophical assumptions which, as will be argued in this paper, are antithetical to the philosophy of America’s founding; that of Jeffersonian liberty.

Thomas Jefferson, in drafting the Declaration of Independence, enshrined a particular political philosophy congruent with man’s nature; that individuals were, by right of their nature as rational animals, endowed with inalienable rights to the destiny of their own lives. From that axiom grew corollaries like the right to be free of compulsion (liberty), to engage life as one sees fit (happiness), and to keep that which was rightfully earned (property). Thus, “government was instituted among men” for no other reason than to defend man’s natural right to his own life from any corner that may wish to infringe upon it. It was with this philosophical understanding that government was inconsequential to all rights-respecting individuals who kept to themselves or made voluntary agreements with their neighbors. Government’s role was negative in nature; to stop injustice, so justice itself could remain.

This philosophical foundation was reassessed however by the Progressive movement beginning in the late nineteenth century. The Progressive “consensus” was born by discontent with the first “big business,” the transcontinental railroad. Soaked in government subsidies by the passage of the Pacific Railways Act of 1862 [1], the railroad industry was encouraged to over-produce railways so much so to the point where supply far exceeded demand. Yet, instead of prices reflecting this new equilibrium, the monopolistic status granted to railroad corporations by the government assistance, allowed them to arbitrarily set prices.

From this experiment (of meddling in a free market), grew general discontent with the railroad industry in particular and laissez faire capitalism in general. It seemed at the time to many that the rich were getting richer at the expense of the poor; that unregulated capitalism had led to monopolistic conglomerates in the industries of rail and oil and now consumers were paying the (higher) price.

A call for reform echoed across the American landscape in favor of regulation at the Federal level, instituting welfare programs for the poor, and price controls in the forms of laws and tariffs. Herbert Croly, a Progressive intellectual and editor of the magazine The New Republic wrote in his seminal treatise The Promise of American Life:

…the traditional American confidence in individual freedom has resulted in a morally and socially undesirable distribution of wealth. [2]

How, one might ask, could a country in the span of a century go from such staunch individualism as exemplified by the writings of Thomas Jefferson, to varying flavors of Progressivism exemplified by author Herbert Croly?

This fundamental change came from the redefining of liberty as a concept. With the backdrop of the late 1800s, capitalism had seemingly left a majority of the people behind. Liberty as defined as the freedom from force seemed to lose favor. After all, went the narrative, it was the hands-off approach which led to monopolies and wealth inequality. Liberty then seemed not so passive; it required adjustment, adaptation, and progression to deal with changing realities of time. “Life is complex;” Woodrow Wilson would put it in 1912.

[T]he individual is caught in a great confused nexus of all sorts of complicated circumstances, and that to let him alone is to leave him helpless as against the obstacles with which he has to contend; and that, therefore, law in our day must come to the assistance of the individual. [3]

Liberty became a state of being, a standard of living. It became not just the ability to be left alone, but the ability to employ one’s own energies successfully. Wilson likened liberty to a perfectly operating machine, contending that liberty was achieved only when all parts were “associated most skillfully with the other parts of the great structure.” Thomas Jefferson’s “chaotic individualism,” as Croly put it, was far too focused on the wrong side of liberty’s equation. Paradoxically, according to the Progressives, the results of liberty, as opposed to the mechanics and architecture of liberty, defined liberty itself.

From this fundamental assumption (that individuals were entitled to equal results) came a series of policy prescriptions which included the promotion of the poor through welfare programs and the subjugation of the rich through regulation and high taxation; in other words, wealth redistribution. This was completely justified under the holistic reasoning; in order to save the many, a few needed to be sacrificed. To the Progressives, wealth was not tied to productive effort, but was a zero-sum game. The rich could only be so at the expense of the poor, and so these policies were justified in the new definition of liberty.

The year 1913 saw a wave of Progressive reforms on the national level take place; the establishment of the national income tax, direct election of U.S. Senators, and the establishment of the Federal Reserve system just to name a few. During World War I, the Progressives nationalized industries such as railroads and banned alcoholic beverages, two initiatives that would be overturned later by popular discontent — all in the name of fine-tuning the “great structure.”

The Federal Reserve would go on to artificially inflate the money supply which led to speculative bubbles throughout the rest of the century. The direct election of Senators largely removed the states’ ability to check the federal government. The national income tax, despite being reduced after the end of World War I, remained higher than before the war and remained the federal government’s primary source of income. [4]

Some of the consequences of this new chapter of government activity were obvious, like higher taxation and the meddling of natural economic forces. Some of the lesser known consequences however were the introduction of the apparatus for the state to choose winners and losers. By adopting the premise that the government could morally redistribute wealth, competition emerged to secure government favors, benefits, and privileges. J. Brian Phillips writing for The Freeman magazine put it perfectly.

In a capitalist society, in which the government has no control over the economy, there is no benefit to be derived from pressure group politics; in a collectivist society, in which the State controls the economy, pressure groups are a matter of economic survival. [5]

To illustrate this, consider the influx of lobbying in Washington between 1900 and 1920. During this decade known as the Progressive era, the U.S. saw the most interest group organizations form, including the US Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, and the American Medical Association. [6] Moreover, and in particular, the growth rate of non-profit interest groups was greatest during this period. [7]

Progressives, by expanding the state into the business of handing out taxpayer money, would cement the domination of capital to reign over and iniquitously influence politics (which they would later come to despise) giving legitimacy to bribery, blackmail, and cronyism.

These consequences have come to define the recent political discontent with Wall Street and Washington. Despite diverging policy prescriptions, the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement have a general agreement that over the years, the government has picked winners and losers, whether they be the petroleum or the “green” industry, and that such behavior is no longer desirable. But I digress.

The Progressive era reforms that came about during this period marked a tragic scene for liberty’s cause. Now subject to the premise that we were all our brothers’ keepers, that the individual lacked the rational faculties to navigate the complexities of life, and that capitalism was a force to be contained through regulation, liberty’s torch was drenched in a sea of taxation, wealth redistribution, and regulation. The American family would find its hard-earned wealth taxed away, now less free to invest in their future. The poor were rewarded with federal-assistance programs funded by taxes meant to pay for the legitimate roles of government, like a military and the police. Businessmen were now expected to burn the candle on both ends — to increase wages and benefits while simultaneously increasing employment, regardless of economic realities. They were now less free to operate their business as they saw fit.

Egalitarianism inherently circumvents liberty. By ignoring the natural heterogeneity of the human race, Progressives sought to impose equality where it naturally could not fit. Humans are unique in talent, skill, and culture. This uniqueness has allowed a division of labor into specialized groups that has brought untold wealth and prosperity to the entire race. It is this uniqueness, along with our rational faculties, that makes our race what it is. Circumventing that uniqueness has a substantial cost: the liberty of others.

Jeffersonian liberty, the bedrock of America’s founding, rests on the idea that individuals are means to their own ends, never the ends of others; that individuals should be free to engage in voluntary acts of mutual agreement with each other; and that they deserve that which they produce. Progressivism represents the antithesis of these simple concepts. Its dawning on the American polity during the turn of the nineteenth century brought about structural changes that gave rise to iniquitous lobbying that dominates politics even to this day; to the administrative state that continues to circumvent natural economic forces; and to a fundamentally new and perverted definition of liberty and America’s founding philosophy.


[1] Library of Congress. Primary Documents in American History. June 30, 2010. (accessed November 2011).
[2] Croly, Herbert. The Promise of American Life, 21. Northeastern, 1989.
[3] Wilson, Woodrow. The New Freedom. 1912.
[4] National Taxpayers Union. History of Federal Individual Income Bottom and Top Bracket Rates. 2009. (accessed November 2011).
[5] Phillips, J. Brian. “Capitalism at a Crossroads: 1875-1900.” The Freeman 37, no. 9 (September 1987): 348-351. (accessed November 2011).
[6] Hrebenar, Ronald J., and Bryson B. Morgan. In Lobbying in America: A Reference Handbook, 15. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.
[7] Walker Jr., Jack L. In Mobilizing Interest Groups in America: Patrons, Professions, and Social Movements, 63. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1991.

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7 thoughts on “Progressivism & Liberty

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful piece. I am in 99% agreement with you – my exception being your point about the natural heterogenity of people.

    My observations point to a much more homogeneous population – comprised of people who either are unable or unwilling to think. We then vote in government officials who, elected by the unthinking and representative of their electorate, formulate laws whose implications are unclear and whose outcomes are usually more dire than the issues they were intended to ameliorate.

    I am sure of one thing. Ayn Rand would be proud of you.

  2. Erosophia says:

    […] Gregg presents Progressivism & Liberty posted at Persona Non Grata, saying, “Progressivism depends for its coherency certain political, […]

  3. I do appreciate your representation of Jeffersonian liberalism, but there is a stridency in your piece that I find either perplexing or naive. Progressivism and “Jeffersonian Liberty” are not mutually exclusive sides of a coin. One is an evolutionary subset of the other.

    You are right to point out that Progressivism emerged at a the birth of Industrial development. It was a reaction to a entire industries with one or two owners something like monarchical feudalism but encased in a complex legal structure. I part ways with you when you seem to imply that Jefferson’s liberty also lends some kind of morality to monopolies. Monopolies are not a natural state of markets. Certainly it is a right of an individual to rationalize to themselves why a monopoly can be desirable. Bank robbers probably think they have good reasons to do what they do in their own mind as well.

    Also in counterpoint, the J Bryan Phillips quote is debatable at best. To presume a state can control an economy is sophomoric. Perhaps a state may meddle in an economy but control, never.

    Capitalist economies exist in third world nations already. Look how great they have it. It’s true the lobbying was all over years ago in these countries. No more need to get something deregulated, they can do what they want and they do. The lobbying in our govt is happening because we have installed many protections on our environment, markets, rights that protect our current standard of living. Lobby wants to take these away so they can be FREE to run whatever industrial operation they want.

    You want pcbs, aluminum dust, mercurial fly ash in your soup? Corporations are greedy and even more amoral than people can be and they will do what ever they can and cut every corner possible in order to produce. You can’t blame em, that’s their nature. Who is going to make sure your meat is safe? Do you want to end up trusting the ‘inspected by mcdonalds’ sticker sometime soon?

    Corporations as legal fictional entities were fewer and further between in the days of Jefferson. Progressivism emerged because Jeffersonian Liberty was co opted by corporations as a morality for conducting their affairs.

    • Tetracide says:

      Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. A few words in response to yours:

      I part ways with you when you seem to imply that Jefferson’s liberty also lends some kind of morality to monopolies.

      In this, I think you misunderstood my point. Monopolies are government constructs — free trade has never given birth to a monopoly. The railroad monopolies of the late 1800s were established through lavish federal land grants where railroad companies were given 10 square-miles per mile of railroad they produced. The intent of the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 was to encourage railway production across the country and into the west. In short, it worked; railroads expanded far into the west, and as a result, the companies that produced them were granted large swaths of federal land — more than the square mileage than the state of Texas. In turn, the railroad companies sold that land to settlers for a profit.

      However, because of the incentives of land grants given by the government, the railroad companies became monopolies — they could never have been a monopoly without the help of the altruists in Washington D.C.

      The lobbying in our govt is happening because we have installed many protections on our environment, markets, rights that protect our current standard of living. Lobby wants to take these away so they can be FREE to run whatever industrial operation they want.

      I’m not sure what to make of this comment. Let me first restate the point I was trying to make in my post. I sought to show that the birth of lobbying and special interest groups coincide with the birth of the state’s first significant involvement in the economy. When the state became a purveyor of taxpayer money to organizations doing politically favorable activity, dozens of groups formed to get their chance at “free” money. If the government maintained the separation of economy and state, there would be no reason for iniquitous lobbying to begin in the first place.

      Another point, which is impossible to get into at the moment (and perhaps I’ll make a blog post about this as well), is the false choice between free markets/environmental disaster and statist regulation/environmental protection. I for one believe that a full respect for property rights would have been a more efficient and productive mechanism to deal with negative environmental externalities.

  4. Really great atricle. I am curious in how you feel we can rewind things and expose progressive ideology as the antithises of Jeffersonian Libertarianism. I feel like I am ramming my head against a brick wall sometimes in trying to discuss this subject with my friends and family. I posted your article my facebook page. Keep up the good work! Dr. Doug Beischel

    • J.K. Gregg says:

      Dr. Beischel,

      If you’d like my honest opinion on how one should confront Progressivism and its kin, I would have to say that any effort should, and in fact must begin with a fundamental reassessment of our culture’s morality.

      As you may have read elsewhere on this blog, I reject the morality of altruism in favor of rational selfishness. The reasons for this are long and all-encompassing, and much too detailed to get into here, but I truly believe that this is the root of the issue.

      Briefly however, consider the moral underpinnings of most progressive (and even conservative) projects. Social Security rests on the premise that we as a society owe it to our elderly to care for them in their old age. Welfare rests on the premise that we as a society owe it to our disenfranchised to take care of them in their (99-week long) time of need. Medicare rests on the premise that we as a society owe everyone basic access to health care.

      According to these premises, “society” holds certain responsibility to others. This is the definition of altruism; that man has no right to live his life for his own sake, but to spend it sacrificing himself to others. Instead of respecting the sovereignty of the individual, our civilization has been caught up in a moral ethic that has led us to believe that throwing ourselves onto our sword, as opposed to self responsibility, is morally right.

      I would highly recommend becoming more acquainted with Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand. It has, for me, mapped a course for the individual to live well, respect others, and remain true to Jeffersonian liberty.

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