Salon Writer Michael Lind, Progressives Abuse Founding Philosophy

Salon Writer Michael Lind, Progressives Abuse Founding Philosophy

In a recent Salon article called “The right is wrong about rights,” author Michael Lind claimed, “The conservative theory of freedom is short-sighted and confused.” In reality, it is the progressive view of freedom that is short-sighted, trading erosion of natural liberties for entitlements and benefits.

Lind claimed that modern progressive “positive rights,” such as a right to healthcare, a job, and a home, are simply a product of the “pragmatism and flexibility” of the natural rights doctrine of John Locke, Algernon Sidney, and the Founding Fathers, articulated by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. He claims that the right is wrong to contain natural rights to a limited number of unalterable truths as understood at the founding.

In addition to these few, broad natural rights, there are potentially an infinite number of subsidiary rights that can be created by laws or constitutions. While natural rights are universal, the subsidiary or instrumental rights needed to promote them necessarily vary, in different times and places.

Lind is wrong about the origin of the progressive view on rights and adopts the same sophistry that has been used to clothe what was really a revolutionary philosophy in the terms of the founding principles of the United States. Progressive “positive” rights are not only incompatible with the “negative” rights expressed in the Bill of Rights, but were also founded on the philosophical work of those who more honestly and forthrightly repudiated the individual rights tradition of this country.

For instance, Charles Merriam, one of the most prominent and influential early progressives, wrote about America’s natural rights tradition:

The individualistic ideas of the “natural right” school of political theory, indorsed in the Revolution, are discredited and repudiated… The origin of the state is regarded, not as the result of a deliberate agreement among men, but as the result of historical development, instinctive rather than conscious; and rights are considered to have their source not in nature, but in law.

In fact, John Dewey, perhaps the single most important progressive who shaped the modern liberal tradition, unequivocally stated that “natural rights and natural liberties exist only in the kingdom of mythical zoology.”

“Positive rights” can only come at the expense of the original rights the Founders were trying to protect. Lind bills them as “additional” rights, or as an extension of Lockean principles, but in reality the Founders’ individual rights – life, liberty and property – cannot be sustained if positive rights are enacted. The money for the “right” to healthcare must come from somewhere and must be taken out of other people’s property, a right initially protected by the Lockean system. Similarly, a house must be purchased and maintained with money taken at the expense of someone else’s property rights. 

James Madison said in a 1792 newspaper essay on property:

Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.”

Lind’s examples of positive rights protected by our founding documents, such as the right to trial by jury, differ fundamentally from his later extensions. Lind confuses positive entitlements with structural institutions built in order to preserve natural rights. In the case of trial by jury, the structure of our justice system is meant to preserve citizens’ natural liberty by ensuring the impartial administration of the law in accordance with Madison’s ends for a just government. 

Contrastingly, the “rights” to healthcare, a job, and housing confer particular benefits and are not aimed at preserving any of the original Lockean liberties, nor any of the core functions of government as outlined in the Constitution.

Entitlements–the proper word for positive “rights”–are often incompatible with true Lockean rights.

Progressive ideas about rights and government do not flow from the Founders but from nineteenth-century doctrines that came out of central Europe, German idealism in particular, which were shared by a number of American intellectuals at the time. And as contradictory as it may seem to those taught in our current U.S. history classes, similar doctrines fueled the most militant brand of pro-slavery thought in the antebellum South.

Early twentieth-century progressives relied heavily on ideas from the pro-slavery intellectual revolution, recognizing that although they had repudiated the policy of slavery, the school was the earliest example in American history of openly rejecting the natural rights philosophy undergirding the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. To gain success in electoral politics, later progressives, most prominently FDR, adopted the rhetoric of the founding and traditional American thinkers, recognizing that Americans were more easily convinced when the progressive revolution was presented as merely an extension of the Founding, a tradition that Lind carries on in Salon today.

The first major American thinker to systematically attack the natural rights social contract theory of the founders was John C. Calhoun, an early nineteenth-century South Carolina statesman best known for his theories of nullification and his “positive good” speech expounding on the virtues of slavery as a social system.

Calhoun denied the social contract theory and the natural rights doctrines of the founding in general. He made a broadside attack on the Lockean conception of the state of nature and government’s role, which posits that all men are born into the state of nature with certain natural rights, and that the state exists to ensure those previously-existing rights, rather than to manufacture new “rights” like those encouraged by Lind.

Rejecting the Madisonian system of federalism, Calhoun envisioned a future of class-based politics in which interest groups would continually plunder interest groups and accepted this as the natural way of things. The “rights” secured in this system did not derive from nature and nature’s God, but through the power of government and legislative action.

Radical pro-slavery advocates of a later generation went even farther than Calhoun. Dubbed the “Southern Comteans” after the “Father of Sociology,” Auguste Comte, this band of intellectuals made the case for the modern administrative welfare state.

Henry Hughes was one of the most prominent members of this school of thought. Historian Steve Lyman described Hughes and his school as a “foreshadowing of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies.”

Douglas Ambrose wrote in Slavery, Secession, and Southern History, “Hughes strenuously maintained that that all societies had ‘one primary, capital, necessary, overriding and supreme’ goal: ‘the subsistence of all.’ All societies therefore had to develop the necessary means to ensure that every individual received ‘a comfortable sufficiency of necessaries for health and strength.'”

Hughes believed that the Southern plantation system, with a few reforms, would be a model for the future. He described this system not as slavery but as “Waranteeism.”

“Whereas slavery represented a private relation between a master who owned a slave, waranteeism was a system in which the state sanctioned and regulated a public relation between a ‘warrantor’ and a ‘warrantee,'” Ambrose wrote. “Unlike the slave, whose obligation was to the master, the warantee’s obligation was owned by the state.”

The primary goal of the warrantee system was to “guarantee” the slave a basic subsistence in exchange for the destruction of his Lockean natural rights and his allegiance to the state. Unlike Lind, his intellectual progenitors openly repudiated the Founders’ system and understood that the two types of rights were incompatible.

Hughes described the “warrants” guaranteed to the slave in his A Treatise on Sociology, the Theoretical and Practical in 1854. A slave–and hopefully the northern factory worker in the future–was to be warranted his wage, never to fall “below the standard of comfortable sufficiency of necessities.” 

George Fitzhugh, another Southern Comtean and a friend of Hughes, compared the obligation to care for old and sick slaves to the heartless capitalistic system that provided free laborers wages for only as long as they could work. A slave’s warrantees guaranteed him more “rights,” the way Lind sees them, than his free counterparts. Under Hughes’ warrantee slave system, “The subsistence of all [was] warranted to all,” at the expense of their natural liberties.

FDR’s Second Bill of Rights, which Lind champions, sounds an awful lot like Hughes’ warrantee system, guaranteeing the right to a “useful and remunerative job” and to “adequate food and clothing and recreation.” Just as with Hughes’ system, these positive “rights” must come at the expense of the original natural rights valued by the Founders.

The ideas of the Southern Comteans and followers of Calhoun were discredited in the aftermath of the Civil War, but later progressives adopted some of their principles and certainly their critiques of the American creed.

Progressive ideas rose to ascendance in the early twentieth century, and many of its leading thinkers channeled the beliefs of men like Calhoun, Hughes, and Comte.

Herbert Croly, a founder of the progressive publication New Republic, was raised with Comte’s ideas about the necessity of transcending the limits of the old natural rights view.

Croly’s father David, a prominent journalist in the 1870’s, openly challenged America’s founding values, saying that he did not want to go back to “obsolete political institutions” and that “progress” was his motto.

When asked why he opposed America’s founding principles, the elder Croly said “conditions have widely changed” since the founding of the republic–the country had been largely urbanized, and there were large numbers of people without property or local ties. According to Gillis J. Harp in Positivist Republic, Croly desired “a scientific response to modernity that an ideology founded upon a metaphysical notion of natural rights simply could not provide.”

The younger Croly soaked up many of his father’s ideas, becoming a prominent early leader in the progressive movement. Unlike his father, Herbert Croly understood that progressivism would be more politically palatable if it were packaged as an extension of the country’s founding principles rather than their destruction. 

Croly proposed that open opposition to the limits on government power in the Constitution be replaced with advocating for a “living constitution”. He also helped create the philosophical underpinning of the New Deal, portraying his beliefs as using “Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends.” That is, greatly expanding and unleashing the government to scientifically manage society through a massive administrative state of which neither Hamilton nor Jefferson would have approved.

Progressives have laid waste to the carefully crafted system of checks and balances associated with James Madison’s ideas of federalism and limited government, have overturned Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy of sacred individual rights, and bastardized Alexander Hamilton’s finance capitalism.

Unlike Michael Lind, most early progressives and their Comtean predecessors were intellectually honest in attacking the Lockean principles that undergird America’s founding. Pretending that the “Second Bill of Rights” can be a natural extension of the original without destroying it is academic wheel spinning in order to rationalize a political strategy.


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