The Progressives’ Legacy of Bankruptcy
The roots of our current crisis.


By rejecting the existence of natural rights, accordingly, the Progressives consciously repealed this limit: “It is not admitted that there are no limits to the action of the state,” Merriam observed, “but on the other hand it is fully conceded that there are no ‘natural rights’ which bar the way. The question is now one of expediency rather than of principle. . . . Each specific question must be decided on its own merits, and each action of the state justified, if at all, by the relative advantages of the proposed line of conduct.” In devising the content of the law, legislators need not worry about respecting the individual’s natural right to rule himself, because “there are no ‘natural rights’ which bar the way.”

In principle, accordingly, all of the rights previously believed to inhere in the individual — e.g., the rights to life, to physical liberty, to decide whom to marry, to enjoy the fruits of his labor, to speak freely, etc. — were now subject to public disposal. Whether and to what extent government allows individuals to control any aspect of their personal concerns was now purely a matter of how it viewed the consequences of doing so. To illustrate just how far the Progressives were willing to take this, Merriam, in drawing the foreign-policy implications of this change, declared: “Barbaric races, if incapable, may be swept away; and such action ‘violates no rights of these populations which are not petty and trifling in comparison with its [the Teutonic race’s] transcendent right and duty to establish legal order everywhere.’” As Progressive economist and New Republic editor Walter Weyl summed up this shift in 1912, America was now “emphasizing the overlordship of the public over property and rights formerly held to be private.”

If the Progressives’ rejection of the Founders’ understanding of natural rights exposes individuals to virtually limitless public interference (or “overlordship”), the Progressive redefinition of individual freedom as spiritual fulfillment basically guarantees it. The constructive aspect of the Progressive refounding of America, in other words, stems from the fact that the Progressive conception of the State finds both its origin, and its ultimate purpose, in a new conception of individual freedom synonymous with the “perfection” or fulfillment of human nature — with, in other words, the realization of the comprehensive human good. Following Hegel, the Progressives widely believed that Freedom consists in the individual’s ability to actualize the spiritual potential inherent in his being, becoming thereby a “perfect” or complete human being. Freedom is thus “something to be achieved,” as Dewey put it, but not through “growth” or change in any indiscriminate or open-ended sense.

“The definition of freedom,” as Progressive sociologist Charles H. Cooley wrote, “is perhaps this: that it is opportunity for right development, for development in accordance with the progressive ideal of life that we have in conscience.” For the Progressives, as with Hegel, then, Freedom is inextricably tied to an evolutionary, or, more precisely, progressive, conception of History in which each successive stage of civilization, like an acorn maturing into an oak tree, represents a fuller or more complete development of man’s moral or spiritual nature than the previous one. History, then, is ordered toward a specific end — the actualization of man’s spiritual nature — and has an identifiable path or content. As Richard Gamble concludes, “History possessed a distinct and discernable tendency, a teleology. It moved from the physical to the spiritual, from perdition to redemption.”

For the Progressives, human beings progress — or become free — through the increasing actualization of the various capacities constituting their spiritual natures. While these potentialities include abilities peculiar to individuals, they also, and more essentially, consist in capacities common to all human beings: “‘The cultivation of the spiritual nature,’” as Merriam, following Progressive legal scholar Theodore Woolsey, clarified, involves “‘educating the religious nature, the moral sense, the taste, the intellect.’” Of these, the intellectual and “moral” (or social) “potentialities” are primary. “The history of morals,” as Dewey and James H. Tufts explained, is characterized by two main, interdependent trends: a “rationalizing or idealizing” process and a “socializing” process. The former trend involves the development of reason in all of its different dimensions, initially as a merely unconscious tool or “means” in the service of man’s spontaneous physical appetites or instincts, but ultimately as an “end” in itself.