The Basic Choice: Classic Liberal vs. Progressive

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--Incomplete Draft--

With over 300 million people in America, we have the entire spectrum of political view. CW attempts to make the discussion more compact by viewing our choice as between "classic liberal" and "progressive". We prefer not to use "conservative" and "liberal" because the meanings of those terms have been distorted over the last 80 or 90 years and have become rather vague. We must qualify the liberalism of which we write as 'classic' since the term 'liberal' was coopted by progressives 80 years ago. Our meaning adheres to its usage throughout American history until about 1930. It is interesting to note that F. A. Hayek, Nobel Laureate and well known liberal in the classic sense put an essay at the end of his influential work The Consitution of Liberty[1] titled Why I Am Not a Conservative. It is a good illustration of how today's political labels have been misused and drifted away from their traditional meanings. (However, the CW article explaining what it means to be a modern liberal or progressive will use their own words--or rather the words of one of their most articulate advocates--Walter Lippmann[2].) In fact, many--maybe most--modern conservatives are classic liberals in that they identify with the intent of the constitution as it was written. (Of course, that begs the question "what was the intent of the constitution as it was written"? and we will get to that in other articles. When we do, we won't improve on Richard Epstein's book The Classical Liberal Constitution[3] though we will be considerably more brief.)

Modern 'liberals' don't care for modern 'conservatives' and vice versa even though they may not know what those terms mean with precision. There are more points on the spectrum to the left, right, and in the middle. There are the more ideologically pure libertarians and socialists at opposite ends; and the less seemingly less ideological centrists that seem to pick and choose their positions based on what feels right. Libertarians and modern conservatives will identify more closely with classic liberalism, and modern liberals and socialists with progressivism though there are important differences--a progressive (Lippman The Good Society Chapter XI[2]), for example, is not a socialist in that he believes in a market driven economy. We wont sort all that out in this article. CW wishes to present clear choices that can be described with some precision; and the large majority of Americans fit either 'classic liberal' or 'progressive' well enough for our purposes.

The Classic Liberal

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We use the term 'classic liberal' to refer to what it meant to hold the prevalent political perspective that existed at the time our Constitution was ratified up to the advent of the progressives in the early part of the 20th century. When America achieved independence we suddenly had to look within ourselves for governance and for constitutional appeal. The transition was made somewhat easy in that we had over 100 years of colonial governance under our belt and we continued to rely on English Common Law as our fundamental law. And we kept our English liberal political theory, a belief that "in a state of nature" that individuals are completely free and enjoy a set of inalienable natural rights--the most fundamental of which are liberty and property; but also that life within a society requires something more in order that those rights might be protected from internal and external threat--a social contract is necessary. Therefore, government is necessary to protect those natural rights. In this view government is a necessary evil. That only as much government as is required to provide those protections should be tolerated.

The State of Nature and the Social Contract

Edward Channing writes[4] (Chapter XIV) about the political views of the people in the 13 colonies prior to forming The United States. Each colony considered itself a separate entity. A Virginian was first Virginian and then English. When they gained independence they viewed themselves as completely free and sovereign with no outside control. They viewed themselves as in "in a state of nature." but also as in a "society" that must somehow coordinate to protect their natural rights.

In that classic liberal theory 'natural' man is born with a fundamental set of inalienable rights. But in a state of nature, those rights are always at risk from antisocial forces; and, if society has not coordinated a solution, "natural man" must look to his own personal defense. They needed something better than that--a social contract enforced by a government.

The Declaration of Independence, after establishing that we are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights", makes a strong statement about the consent of the governed: "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed". However, the founders did not envision that each person among us gets to opt in or out of the government--deciding whether or not to pay taxes or respect the property rights of others for example. Is it possible that we could have a stable society in which consent must be obtained from every person? The classic liberal answer is that, in a state of nature, liberty and property rights are always at risk of internal and external threats. The need to defend against dangerous human tendencies remain even after civil society is formed. There are always power hungry or antisocial people who won't be nice. A reliance on purely voluntary cooperation may work in Galt's Gulch where there are a small number of self reliant and like minded people. In a larger society, such an absence of government would create a power vacuum that will be filled by an undesirable despotism. To protect our natural rights and preempt being ruled by an adversarial force, each of the 13 American colonies entered into a social contract by forming a state government.

An important point: perhaps because the consent of every member of society to a government is unattainable, and certainly because we all (including the dissenters) possess the 'unalienable' rights, it is doubly important that the ability of "factions" (a person or group) to violate those rights be put as far out of reach as possible. The protection of rights must be enshrined in law that outranks even a majority.

The state governments that each colony formed were a way to domesticate coercive force for their benefit and protection. (It is interesting that such was the motivation for the feudal system in England 800 years earlier.) Each colony formed a government based on a set of rules that they called constitutions. The colonies associated themselves together to assert their rights during the independence movement and afterward to create a nation with standing among their peers. Their legal obligations, however were first to their state governments. An interesting observation is that there was unity of political thought among the 13 colonies in that they each formed a state government that was republican in its structure and that none adopted the monarchical institutions of England--this even though their political theory was grounded in English tradition and common law.

Richard Epstein points out in the preface of his recent book[3] that what he calls "classical liberal theory" rested on the concepts of private property and limited government. That it did not espouse an idea of total freedom of the individual to do whatever he wished. That it believed that every government action should improve the overall welfare of every member of society. And that meant the protection of liberty and property and little else. "State coercion for one's own good is not some code word for misguided paternalism. Nor is it a contradiction in terms. Rather, it is the minimum condition for the public provision of certain collective goods." (page 20)[3] The classic liberal reason for government is then, to protect our fundamental rights against threats.

The Problem of Factions

"Factions" were one of the major threats recognized during the constitutional debates. Self-interested action is a cornerstone of American success. (And it often has altruistic origins as George Gilder pointed out in Wealth and Poverty.) But self-interested activity can become self-serving in a way that undermines the public welfare by manipulating the rules of politics--rules that can never be perfected--to create political favor that is far beyond protection of classic liberal rights. This happens when factions lobby and politic for a larger piece of the pie through special treatment (always at the expense of the non-protected group), which leaves less for everyone else, which eventually makes the whole pie smaller. And it feeds on itself. More factions are formed, either to protect themselves or to mimic other faction success. They learn how political manipulation works. James Madison's writing in The Federalist Paper No. 10 expresses the concern:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority or the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community. (italics added)

A thing to note is that they saw faction as a threat even if it enjoys a majority. That is the reason that they gave the social contract a preeminent position by writing it down in the constitution. They were staking a large part of the protection of rights on rule of law vs. what they saw as the potential for 'tyranny of the majority'.

The constitutional debate between the federalists and the anti-federalists was about whether it was more effective to deal with the threats to liberty and property at the state or the federal level. It was a family quarrel with both sides having the same goal. The federalists believed that the larger the governed population, the harder it would be to form effective factions--that there would be more people opposed to them (Federalist No. 51). The anti-federalists believed that factions could be better resisted at a more local level. As it turns out they were both wrong. Factions come in all shapes and sizes and adapt themselves to every opportunity and around every fault line(race, sex, religion, political niche, social cause, industry, or region), and almost any issue. And noncompeting factions strengthen and embolden each other by agreeing to vote for each other's cause. So the constraints must be robust and durable in both state and federal constitutions. The structure put into the Constitution of the U.S. was the best attempt at the time, but has been loosing its effectiveness over time. But we can at least understand its intent as best we can.

The federalists carried the debate limiting federal government power and by providing a set of checks and balances and a separation of powers that were written into the constitution.

The Progressive

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Progressives view government as a positive force for good rather than a necessary evil. They see rights as created by government and as going far beyond the few "inalienable rights". They view an expanded and more authoritarian government as the tool needed to correct a number of social ills that the minimalist approach of classic liberalism ignores.

Classic liberalism was the political foundation in U.S. politics for 150 years. The progressive challenge started in the 1930s. It was based on two premises:

  1. democracy and the administrative state should take precedence over constitutional protections of property and contract.
  2. markets and the economy should be regulated by the state.

F. A. Hayek[5]

  1. Hayek, F A; The Constitution of Liberty; Chicago; The University of Chicago Press; (1960)
  2. 2.0 2.1 Lippman, Walter; The Good Society; Boston; Little Brown and Company (1937)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Epstein, Richard A; The Classical Liberal Constitution; Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press (2014)
  4. Channing, Edward; A History of The United States, Volume III, The American Revolution; New York; The MacMillan Company (1920)
    (The monumental 6 volume set won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for history)
  5. Hayek, F A; The Road to Serfdom; Chicago; The University of Chicago Press (2007)(by the Estate of F. A. Hayek. Original 1944)