(Boston) If a traveler would discern in a single place in a single day the origin and meaning of these United States of America, no better setting could be found than this city’s justly famed Freedom Trail. Along the winding cobblestone streets and adjacent harbor that George III decried as a ”hotbed of sedition and treason” one can trace the footsteps of Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Paine, Samuel Adams, and many others who prepared the way for Revolution and Independence.
A harsh climate, and the isolation imposed by a broad ocean made self-rule a necessity and eventually these early Americans came to greatly prefer this freedom to the decrees and exactions of a distant and arbitrary central government.
Thus was born the concept of “We the People” and the radical proposition that ordinary men were actually fit to govern themselves.
To paraphrase Lincoln we are now engaged in a historic Presidential election to test whether that proposition- government for the people, by the people, and of the people- and the nation to which it gave birth can long endure.
Pitted against the vision of the Founding Fathers- reinforced by the words and deeds of Lincoln- is a radically different conception of man’s capacity for self-governance. This Doctrine- called Progressivism- rejects the Natural Law- Rights derived from the Creator- enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s belief in the capacity of ordinary men to rise through their own efforts.
The roots of Progressivism can be traced to the doctrines of 19th century European Socialism which saw History as a long leftward march characterized by unending class struggle leading toward “Social Justice” defined as the equal distribution of wealth.
From the beginning Progressivism had a deep distrust of democracy and individual freedom. Writing in 1914 the Progressive philosopher Herbert Croly (The Promise of American Life) rejected “the traditional American confidence in individual freedom” because it “resulted in a morally and socially undesirable distribution of wealth”.
Because the modern world had become too complex to allow self-rule by ordinary men, Progressives believed- though hesitated to preach openly- that power must be entrusted to elites- experts, technocrats- who would rule on behalf of their fellow citizens (e.g. Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board).
If one would see the full flowering of this approach to governance, one need look no further than today’s European Union where democratic usages are being steadily drained from member states and replaced by faceless, unelected, and unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels. There elections are lamented as “political interference”, annoying distractions that impede the spinning of ever expanding webs of regulation to shape and control the daily lives of citizens too unenlightened to know what is good for them. This ultimately becomes the world that Orwell foresaw in his allegory Animal Farm.
In his inaugural address of 1801 Thomas Jefferson posed this question :
“Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? …. Let history answer this question.”
Nearly two centuries later Ronald Reagan who had seen history’s answer in the horrors of Hitler’s National Socialism and Stalin’s Union of Soviet Socialist Republics renewed Jefferson’s timeless question:
“From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?”
Today there is an immediacy to this question, and the existential threat posed by Progressivism has been best articulated by Paul Ryan who said the following in a recent interview: “What I’ve been trying to do is indict the entire vision of Progressivism… the intellectual source of the big government problems that are plaguing us today ….a cancer because it basically takes the notion that our rights come from God and nature and turns it on its head and says …No, they come from government… It’s a complete affront to the whole idea of this country”
Not since Pearl Harbor has our country faced such peril. The growing culture of Dependence fostered by Progressivism that continually erodes the foundation of our Democracy was well described by Hayek in his 1944 classic The Road to Serfdom.
The pundits describing this fateful election speak often of an impending “fiscal cliff”, but Americans should be in no doubt that there is much, much more at stake than mere money.
William Moloney is a Centennial Institute Fellow and former Colorado Commissioner of Education. His columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, U.S.A. Today., Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun. Denver Post, and Human Events.