Sunday, December 11, 2011

Progressivism is not progress

A shortened version was published in The Tennessean, Sunday, December 11, 2011

by Richard J. Grant

“What does not kill him makes him stronger,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche. This oft-quoted phrase, usually out of context, is misunderstood almost as often – for it is not necessarily true. That which does not kill him leaves him stronger than he would be if he were dead.

Thus history is presented to us as a string of non sequiturs dressed up as a necessary unfolding of events. We look back fondly at our leaders of the past assuming that, if we survived the crisis of that time, whatever our leaders did must have been wise.

We know better, but are sometimes susceptible to rhetoric that reaches into the haze of history to retrieve moral authority from precedent. So it was that President Barack Obama arrived in Kansas last week in search of reflected glory, invoking the memory of a speech by Theodore Roosevelt a century ago.

That President Roosevelt served as a Republican is useful as a rhetorical wedge to drive into the philosophical cracks of present-day Republicanism. Roosevelt did not invent the regulatory state, nor was he the first with a predilection to impose his conception of the good on other people at home and abroad. But Roosevelt was the first president to launch a conscious attack against private property and free markets.

Historian Daniel Boorstin saw Americans’ lack of interest in political philosophy as giving us an advantage over Europe. We were less likely to be led astray by rousing ideologies. But the progressive movement that captured the mind of Theodore Roosevelt was often recognized, indeed praised, as an import of German socialism. German influence on the American college system in the late 1800s is well-known. Philosophical imports were part of the package.

In his 1910 speech, Roosevelt showed a greater philosophical confidence than he had during his two presidential terms. Laying out what he called a “New Nationalism,” he claimed that “We are face-to-face with new conceptions of the relations of property to human welfare.”

Anticipating Obama, he invoked the false opposition of “the rights of property as against the rights of men,” and then claimed that supporters of property rights had pushed their claims “too far.” He showed Obama how to create a strawman, the man “who holds that every human right is secondary to his profit,” and then oppose it with a similarly deceptive construct, “the advocate of human welfare,” who maintains that every man holds his property “subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.”

But who is to decide what constitutes the “public welfare”? That is always the question left open by the authoritarian mind. Roosevelt continued, again anticipating Obama, “Let us admit also the right to regulate the terms and conditions of labor,” in essence claiming to government the right to control all human relations.

Roosevelt's Progressive Party failed, but the philosophical damage was widespread. By the time that government policies had precipitated the economic crisis of 1929, American voters were unequipped to choose wisely. The era of big government had begun: two steps forward, one step back. Now we have a president who is trying to leap forward.

Roosevelt's progressivism did not kill us, nor did it make us stronger. The Obama presidency could make us stronger; but only if we have now learned our lesson.

Richard J. Grant is a Professor of Finance and Economics at Lipscomb University and a Senior Fellow at the Beacon Center of Tennessee. His column appears on Sundays.


Twitter: @RichardJGrant1

Copyright © Richard J Grant 2011