American Progressives are Bismarck's Grandchildren
By Richard Ebeling - June 16, 2015

American "progressives" portray themselves as "forward-looking," advocates of a higher and better freedom than the traditional American conception of liberty as freedom from government coercion and control. In fact, they are the intellectual great-grandchildren of the "reactionary" nineteenth century Imperial German "Iron Chancellor," Otto von Bismarck.

A recent example of the progressive's retrogressive notion of the meaning of freedom was given by Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation magazine, in her weekly Washington Post column (June 9, 2015).

She says that modern proponents of the American founding principles argue that, "freedom is centered in markets, free from government interference. The entrepreneur, not the citizen, is the central actor. Government is the threat; the best thing it can do is to get out of the way."

The "Higher" Freedom of Paternalistic Government

Ms. vanden Heuvel argues that this conception of freedom is inadequate and out-of-date. In its place, she harks back to Franklin Roosevelt's call during the Second World War for an "economic bill of rights" that would "move forward" to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

The earlier fight for freedom in America, FDR said in his 1944 State of the Union Address, was focused on "rights to life and liberty." But, he went on, "We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence." There needed to be "a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed."

This economic bill of rights would include, FDR asserted, the right of every American to "a useful and remunerative job." a "right to earn enough to provide adequate food, clothing and recreation," the right of every family to a "decent home," a "right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health," a "right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment" and a "right to a good education."

This is the vision that Ms. vanden Heuvel sees as America's "progressive" future. Of course, to bring this better world into existence, she says, there will have to be higher taxes on "the rich" and business corporations to fund expanded public works projects, more regulation and control over markets and private enterprise and increased redistribution to pay for expanded social security and "to put people to work."

In fact, Ms. vanden Heuvel's vision of the future is a throwback to an earlier rejection of the American conception of individual liberty, natural rights, private property and permanent constitutional limits on the size and scope of government.

Its origin was in the attempt by the Chancellor of Imperial Germany, Otto von Bismarck, in the 1880s and 1890s, to preempt the appeal of the far more radical Marxian and German Democratic Socialist Party proposals for a comprehensive socialist overthrow of the existing order of things.

Bismarck's Germany the Mother of the Welfare State

In the 1870s, the Socialist Democrats were gaining increased representation in the German Parliament, with the danger that if the trend continued they might gain an electoral majority. Bismarck persuaded Kaiser Wilhelm to initiate a series of government programs and controls to gain political support of the "working class" population that became the basis and inspiration for the modern Welfare State around the world.

As Bismarck explained it to American admirer and sympathizer, William D. Dawson, in the 1890s:

My idea was to bribe the working class, or shall I say, to win them over, to regard the state as a social institution existing for their sake and interested in their welfare. It is not moral to make profits out of human misfortunes and suffering. Life insurance, accident insurance, sickness insurance, should not be subjects of private speculation. They should carried out by the state or at least insurance should be on the mutual principle and no dividends or profits should be derived by private persons.

Another American admirer of Bismarck, Frederic Howe, summarized in a 1915 book on Socialized Germany, the ideas that had captured not only the imagination of the "Iron Chancellor" but many German academics and intellectuals throughout Germany in the years before the First World War:

The German state has its finger on the pulse of the worker from the cradle to the grave. His education, his health, and his working efficiency are matters of constant concern. He is carefully protected from accident by laws and regulations governing factories. He is trained in his hand and his brain to be a good workman, and is insured against accident, sickness and old age. While idle through no fault of his own, work is frequently found for him. When homeless, a lodging is offered so that he will not easily pass to the vagrant class.

Frederic Howe admitted that under this German welfare-state system, with its pervasive controls and regulations, "The individual exists for the state, not the state for the individual." But he insisted that in this German welfare state paradise, people did not lose freedom; they, rather, gained a different kind of freedom.

This paternalism does not necessarily mean less freedom to the individual that that which prevails in America or England. It is rather a different kind of freedom . . . This freedom is of an economic sort . . . Social legislation directed against the exploitation of the worker and consumer insures freedom in many other ways. It protects the defenseless classes from exploitation and abuse.

Furthermore, Howe explained that the principle guiding the policies of the welfare state was expediency:

In the mind of the Germans, the functions of the state are not susceptible to abstract, a priori deductions. Each proposal must be decided by the time and the conditions. If it seems advisable for the state to own an industry it should proceed to own it; if it is wise to curb any class or interest, it should be curbed. Expediency or opportunism is the rule of statesmanship, not abstraction as to the philosophical nature of the state.

So who would do this planning, directing and designing of society on "opportunistic" lines with no regard for any "abstract" notions concerning the rights of individuals or the role of government in society?

American Progressives as an "Elite" on a Mission from God

The American progressives, many of whom as graduate students in philosophy, political science, economics and history had studied at German universities in the closing decades of the nineteenth and the open decade of the twentieth century, came back from their foreign education with confidence that an elite of "experts" trained like themselves should be and would be the social engineers of the future.

For instance, one of the leading Americans influenced by his German welfare-statist professors was Richard Ely, a founder of the American Economic Association and a leading proponent of this new "cradle to grave" political paternalism.

Ely argued in a book on socialism written near the beginning of the twentieth century:

Looking into the future we can contemplate a society . . . in which men shall work together for a common purpose, and in which the wholesale cooperation shall take place largely through government, a government which has become less repressive and has developed its positive side.

We have reason to believe that we shall yet see great national undertakings with the property of the nation, and managed by the nation, through agents who appreciate the glory of true public service, and feel that it is God's work which they are doing, because church and state are as one . . .

We may anticipate an approximation of state and society as men improve and we may hope that men outside of government will freely and voluntarily act with trained officers and experts in the service of the government for the advancement of common interests.

Notice the presumptions and the hubris in these "progressive" visions for a new America that would cast aside its individualist and limited government traditions. Political power would be arbitrary – opportunism and expediency – based upon what those in government decided was good, right and just for all in society. What was private property today may be transformed into state property tomorrow simply because those in government decided that it was "right" to do so.

Progressivism's Freedom Means Political Paternalism

Every facet of life was to be under the supervision and management of an omnipresent government, watching over and providing everything from the "cradle to the grave." Life opportunities, choices and decisions concerning what the individual might consider better for himself were to be subordinate to the dictates of the State in all such matters.

And this, it was assured, is not a loss of freedom, but a new, or different, or better kind of "freedom," called security from the everyday affairs of normal life. If the State determines your health care, plans your old age retirement, decides on where and in what type of housing you will live, selects the type of skill training and employment you will be provided with, then what is left of the "older" notion of freedom as absence of restraint from government coercion and command?

The answer: Nothing or very little. What, then, is this "free freedom"? For the proponents of the traditional American idea of liberty it is, in fact, a new form of slavery, that is, social confinement within the political prison of governmental command and control.

The hubris in this is seen in Richard Ely's declaration that great tasks would be undertaken with "the property of the nation." It is not your private property, or my private property, or anyone else's private property. No, it belongs to the nation as a whole to be used and disposed of by the enlightened cadre of government bureaucratic "experts" who confidently and self-righteousnessly view themselves as about "God's work" in a political setting in which society, church and state are all one – under their leadership and direction. Plus, Richard Ely wanted the rest of us to accept and follow this paternalistic planning and control "voluntarily" for our own good.

The American Ideal of Individualism and Limited Government

The American founding was based on the idea that rights precede government, and come from an invariant and universal conception of the nature of man and the requirements for his happiness, survival and prosperity.

The individual human being was certainly an imperfect creature subject to logical and factual error, open to thoughtless emotional misjudgments and decisions and not always right, in retrospect, about what he comes to think to be his own best interest.

But the presumption of the American Founding Fathers, derived from reflection and experience about the human condition and man's history, is that each man, however imperfectly, is a far better judge of his own self-interest than to entrust such power and decision-making to those who arrogantly assert their knowledge, wisdom and ability to direct and plan the affairs of others in a manner better than those others, themselves.

Progressives Manipulating Us Like Pawns on a Chessboard

Long ago, the famous eighteenth century Scottish moral philosopher and economist, Adam Smith, warned of the social engineer who "seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of the great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chessboard . . . but [he disregards] that, in that great chessboard of human society every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it."

Adam Smith also warned that:

The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.

For at least a century, now, the "progressives" have been increasingly setting the terms of the political debate, influencing the direction and implementation of government policies and managing the affairs of the citizenry. The "present" is the "future" they wanted one hundred years ago.

All around us are the fruits of their "new freedom." Progressive education has undermined and in many cases prevented a functioning literacy level for many of the young. They have planned our cities and zoned our land, and through it created the "urban blight" and difficult city living conditions they complain about and try to blame the market for.

They have instituted a spider's web of welfare statist dependency programs that have produced a permanent underclass of unemployed and uneducated, in a culturally isolated sub-society lacking too many of the "bourgeois virtues" of hard work, intact families, self-reliance and individual pride of self-made betterment.

And they have brainwashed tens of millions to actually believe that there can be no life without the paternalistic hand of government micromanaging all that goes on in human affairs.

The progressive's future has brought us to a dead end. And now what do they want? Of course, more of the same. Just trust us, the "experts," they say, who know better what is best for you than you know yourself. Give us more of the authority and power to be the social engineers who move each and every one of you about on that great chessboard of society, as if you were a mere pawn with no goals and purposes other than those impressed on you by the paternalist's hand assigning you your place in the world.

Classical Liberal, Edwin Godkin, the Original Voice of The Nation

This was warned about at the beginning of the twentieth century by Edwin Godkin (1831-1902), who was the founding publisher and editor of The Nation magazine, the publication that Katrina vanden Heuvel now uses as a regular platform for her "progressive" agenda.

Edwin Godkin was a classical liberal who defended the rights of the individual in favor of free trade, private property, open competition, and limited government for over three decades in the pages of The Nation.

Looking ahead to the new century about to begin, Godkin penned an article on "The Decline of Liberalism" in The Nation on August 9, 1900. He pointed out the guiding principle of liberalism in its long fight against absolute government and what was now happening in the country:

Humanity was exalted above human institutions, man was held superior to the State, and universal brotherhood supplanted the ideals of national power and glory. These eighteenth-century ideas were the soil in which modern Liberalism flourished. Under their influence the demand for Constitutional Government arose. Rulers were to be the servants of the people, and were to be restrained and held in check by bills of rights and fundamental laws that defined the liberties proved by experience to be the most important and vulnerable.

To the principles and precepts of Liberalism the prodigious material progress of the age was largely due. Freed from the vexatious meddling of governments, men devoted themselves to their natural task, the bettering of their condition, with the wonderful results that surround us. But it now seems that its material comfort has blinded the eyes of the present generation to the cause that made it possible . . .

In our country recent events show how much ground has been lost. The Declaration of Independence no longer arouses enthusiasm; it is an embarrassing instrument that requires to be explained away. The Constitution is said to be 'outgrown.'

There is a case to be made for a true and better "freedom." But it is not the one espoused by Katrina vanden Heuvel under the heading of "progressivism," which is really a regressivism to a defunct Germanic paternalism that enslaves all as dependents of arrogant political elites who think they are on a mission from God to make the world over in their own preferred image.

True freedom is the type defended by someone like Edwin Godkin under the heading of (classical) liberalism, with its moral belief in the rights of each and every individual to their life, liberty and honestly acquired property, which sees the essence of freedom to be the autonomy of the individual person to shape and guide his own life through the peaceful and voluntary associations of market relationships. And under which government is a servant limited to protecting each individual's rights, and not the political manipulator and plunderer for the purposes of an "enlightened" politically powerful and influential few who want to play social engineering Gods in the name of a presumed "common good."

Dr. Richard Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He was professor of economics at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan (2009-2014). He served as president of the Foundation for Economic Education (2003-2008) and held the Ludwig von Mises Chair in Economics at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan (1988-2003).