Thursday, March 21, 2013

Progressivism: In general, there is no limit to the right of the State

In "An introduction to political economy", Richard T. Ely writes the following: (page 92)
Public and Private Responsibilities.- It is seen in general that there is no limit to the right of the State, the sovereign power, save its ability to do good. Duty, function, is co-extensive with power. The State is a moral person. It may be further said in general that the fundamental principle, the basis of the economic life of modern nations, is individual responsibility. It is designed that each grown person should feel that the welfare of himself and of his family, if he has one, rests upon himself. The State enters where his powers are insufficient, or we may express it better in this way : for the attainment of certain ends he finds it advantageous to co-operate with his fellows through town, city. State, federal government, and the performance of public duties as well as private duties is helpful in the development of the individual and of the race.

"Introduction" was written in 1889, at a time when the progressive movement had not become what it became by the early 1900's. So some of this is not necessarily all that threatening. It requires more reading of Ely to fully understand the mindset. In "Evolution of industrial society", Ely writes the following: (page 402)

Another stage in the development of thought is clearly reached in the writings of the English philosopher, Thomas Hill Green, who breaks away altogether from the conception of liberty as something to be achieved by negative, political action, holding that true liberty means the expression of positive powers of the individual, and that it can be reached only as a result of a long and arduous constructive process. Green tells us in these words what he means by liberty or freedom:

Richard Ely's influence upon early progressive thought probably cannot be under estimated, and it is likely that this is how and where progressives got the ideas that we have heard coming from Obama, the concepts of negative and positive liberty. It was imported from Britain. Keeping in mind that as Obama states it, you're hearing a philosophy that's had a whole century to "mature" and find its way, whereas Ely's writing is early and has not had the time to come to full fruition. Here is what he quotes from Green:

We do not mean merely freedom from restraint or compulsion. We do not mean merely freedom to do as we like irrespectively of what it is that we like. We do not mean a freedom that can be enjoyed by one man, or one set of men, at the cost of a loss of freedom to others. When we speak of freedom as something to be highly prized, we mean a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying, and that, too, something that we do or enjoy in common with others. We mean by it a power which each man exercises through the help or security given him by his fellow men, and which he in turn helps to secure for them. When we measure the progress of a society by the growth in freedom, we measure it by the increasing development and exercise on the whole of those powers of contributing to social good with which we believe the members of the society to be endowed; in short, by the greater power on the part of the citizens as a body to make the most and best of themselves."

To sum: Green is talking about the collective. Not the individual.

In the short bit that I have quoted, and in the even larger context of the few pages around it, it is unclear if Ely is quoting Green in agreement. If he is, I might have missed it. But elsewhere, we know that Ely was profoundly impacted by the things he read in European writings and was in agreement with them. Elsewhere in the very same book, "Studies in the Evolution of Industrial Society", Ely writes this: (page 62)

For a long time in this country, under the influence of eighteenth century philosophy, we were inclined to regard men as substantially equal, and to suppose that all could live under the same economic and political institutions. It now becomes plain that this is a theory which works disaster, and is, indeed, cruel to those who are in the lower stages, resulting in their exploitation and degradation.

Of all the instances of rejection of the so called "eighteenth century ideas", this might be the most pointed. Above this quote and on page 61, he's talking about individualism and private property. Even before his quoting of Thomas Hill Green in 1889, Ely wrote this, in 86: (after quoting from Adam Smith)

This view, however, does not imply a conflict between the development of the individual and the development of society. Self-development for the sake of others is the aim of social ethics. Self and others, the individual and society, are thus united in one purpose.

This again, could be read ambiguously. Two paragraphs down, we see this:

The older ethical systems may, I think, be called individual. The perfection of the individual, or the worthiness of the individual, to use another expression, was the end proposed. Moral excellence of a single person was considered as something which might exist by itself, and need not bear any relation to one's fellows. Men were treated as units, and not as members of a body. The new tendency of which I speak, however, proceeds from the assumption that society is an organism, and that the individual is a part of a larger whole. Rudolph von Ihering develops this idea in the second volume of his "Zweck im recht." The source of ethics he finds in society: the end of ethics likewise is discovered in society and from society according to this theory is derived the ethical motive power which resides in the human will. Social ethics thus replaces individual ethics.

A few observations about this: Unlike his quoting of Green above, he is quoting in agreement here. He says "The older ethical systems may, I think, be called individual". There again, we see a nod to disagreement with the eighteenth century ideas and a push back against the Founding. "The perfection of the individual" is still something we hear about coming from progressives of today. "Men were treated as units" - This offends me to no end. I am not a "unit". The larger observation here is obvious. Old individualism is replaced by collectivism, even his characterization of individuals as "units", that's wording that gets right toward the core belief of the writer. Ely just can't help himself but look at us as parts of a whole, much like a beehive.

So here we have the answer to our query. Why is there no limit to the right of the state? Because that old eighteenth century philosophy "works disaster". The Founders were wrong. We progressives are right. Social replaces individual, and the state is our savior which will correct all of these ills.

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