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What is Progressivism?

Progressivism is often described as a political movement that sought to cure the social ills that arose in the late nineteenth century due to “unrestrained” free market or “laissez-faire” capitalism. On the contrary, progressivism is a movement that undermines the rule of law as expressed in a full view of the spirit and intent of the United States Constitution.

Progressivism is an uneasy and shifting blend of ideas and can perhaps best be seen as a syncretism of socialism, pragmatism, and religion. We shall tackle these elements briefly one at a time in order to better flesh them out.

Shot through one spectrum, progressivism is seen as a popular revolt against the abuses of “trusts” and “monopolies” by those who feel that social movements and powerful unions correct inherent flaws in capitalism that lead to a wide class disparity between haves and “have-nots.” It should be noted that nearly every time a trust has arisen in American history, if one examines the real record of Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, and the railroads of Cornelius Vanderbilt, for example, you see violation of the rule of law and government-business collusion to drive out competitors in the “national interest.” But the prime mover in this relationship is corrupt, power-hungry government and greedy politicians.

Progressive social reformers also cite poor working conditions in the developing American economy as a call for government intervention. But poor working conditions that are not an aspect of a voluntary contract and that lead to personal harm are a violation of contract and can be remedied in the courts without recourse to a state-dominated economic system. Statist economies inevitably lead to greater repression than is ever countenanced by the fools who see the state as an ally in a war against corporations. The government is the most unavoidable and repressive monopoly of all;  to paraphrase Max Weber, the state is defined as a “monopoly of coercion.”

With this in mind, the role of the “muckraking” press in the progressive era should not have been to tear down capitalism in a petulant fit of rage, but to expose violations of the rule of law, specifically the collusion of government and business.

It should be mentioned that statist intervention into the economy was virtually a fait accompli following from the United States Constitution due to the “General Welfare” clause, the necessary and proper clause, and the following extremely odd passage of the Fifth Amendment:

“[No person shall be} deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

An explicit right to private property, as can be found in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, would have remedied this unfortunate opening for “public” confiscation of property. There is no “public” as far as rights are concerned, only individuals whose rights pre-exist government. To claim that the government exists to violate the rights of those who incorporate it is an absurdity, as Frederic Bastiat points out in The Law. And to address the “General Welfare” clause, we can add two relevant quotes from key drafter of the Constitution James Madison that demonstrates the error of misconstruing the clause to mean government license:

“With respect to the two words ‘general welfare,’ I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”


“If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions. It is to be remarked that the phrase out of which this doctrine is elaborated is copied from the old Articles of Confederation, where it was always understood as nothing more than a general caption to the specified powers.”

The social reform aspect of “progressivism” can be seen as inherently, and sometimes explictly, anti-constitutional in nature. As such, the statists in government co-opted the “social(ist) reform” movement to transform the nation away from its limited government founding in the “evolutionary fashion” of Social Darwinism, whose roots the progressive movement deny (for more on this, see Jonah Goldberg’s discussion of “eugenics” in the first chapter of Liberal Fascism; see also Fabian socialism).

The progressives come in the left and right statist flavors; on the left we have Woodrow Wilson, an appallingly overt blue-blooded statist, and on the right we have Theodore Roosevelt, a “trust-buster” who arbitrarily decided which trusts promoted the national interest and which ones were adverse to it. Wilson himself personifies in American political history the transition point from the radical left to the statist left; Roosevelt can be seen as a nationalist-collectivist and a forerunner of neo-conservativism.

Indispensable to the progressive “counter-revolution,” which sought to undermine Enlightenment principles and values in an extremely mischievous manner, was the pseudo-philosophy of pragmatism. Pragmatism is not “practicality” – it is the approach to problem-solving, including government problem-solving, that emphasizes ad hoc application of cost-benefit analysis to the transitory manifestation of problems. John Dewey, William James, and Charles Saunders Peirce were ideological leaders of pragmatism who lubricated the machinery of the state as it ground up the Constitution. Fordism and Taylorism, neologisms of the day that express the business ideal of “efficiency” without regard to the rights of the individual, are the corporatist expressions of government when applied to the nation as a whole.

Lastly, there is a religious aspect to progressivism that cloaks the entire enterprise. Numerous social activists of the Progressive Era took a Christianic approach to using the state to “remedy” the poverty and misery they saw all around them. William Jennings Bryan, in his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, encapsulated much of this synthesis of Christianity and social reform. But progressivism was eventually undermined by the Social Darwinist and pragmatist aspects of the ideology, leading to the retention of Christian gospel in secularized form. Those who were most enthralled by the utopian vision of a society without division or inequity turned to Marxism. This is what is meant by the argument that Marxists are “progressives in a hurry.” Progressives who were most persuaded of the pragmatic approach to transform society, including the modern messiah of progressivism Saul Alinsky, became “radical pragmatists.”

A consequence of the uneasy synthesis of ideas in progressive thought led to an internal cannibalization of ideologies. Pragmatism eventually hijacked the religious aspect of progressivism, as can be seen with the cynical way modern progressives cherry pick the Bible (much in the same way they cherry pick the Constitution) to underwrite their program of transfiguration and their message of “redemption.” Barack Obama is perhaps the perfect example of the ideological triumph of pragmatism in modern progressivism, though he is thoroughly utopian in rhetoric. Obama on one hand affirms that he is “his brother’s keeper,” though he refuses to act on this admonition in regards to his own family, and has even stated on one occasion to his progressive cohorts that “they [Christians] get bitter, they cling to [their] guns or religion.” Duplicity is an inherent and necessary aspect of progressivism.

Progressivism in the final word is best understood when it is not seen as a specific ideology, but rather as a state of mind. It undermines the Enlightenment through deliberately misconstruing the nature and foundations of freedom. While the Enlightenment emphasizes rational self-interest and respect for the individual, progressivism is a collectivist religion that neither acknowledges the individual, nor rationality. It unreflectively devours the freedoms established by the Constitution that “democracy,” as the left misreads it to mean, depends on. It disavows checks on democracy as “barriers” to be broken through. It rejects the private property that is necessary for people to live in personal security. It attacks the free market with the erection of a welfare state, destroying the engine of prosperity that allows for the wealth of the nation. It crushes the innovation associated with progress, by claiming that the labor of the skilled and unskilled are equal in value, thereby disincentivizing the desire to excel that truly drives social, economic, and technological progress. It turns the Enlightenment argument for universal education on its head by promoting a state monopoly system of education, which promptly fills people’s heads with unbalanced lies and propaganda. It mocks the purpose of a free press by glorifying and even collaborating with the state, the very entity that the free press was intended to check. It corrupts academia by restating the mission of education from that of honest, unbridled intellectual inquiry, to “critical” thinking as an attack on all things that inhibit the power of the state and the mob. In essence, progressivism is the denial of all barriers to power, a rejection of the rights of the individual, and an erosion of the liberty that animates a free people.

Cross-posted at OwntheNarrative.

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About Kyle Becker