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


The latter trend is the “socializing process.” This building up of a “social self,” as Dewey and Tufts call it, is the process through which individuals become decreasingly concerned with their own narrow or special interests, and increasingly concerned with the “interests of others,” which “interests” expand both in relation to the number of others one cares about, as well as the kind of concern one has for these others. In effect, the Progressives believed that men were developing an increasingly wide conception of duty to an ever-enlarging circle of men — e.g., city, state, nation, and ultimately all of humanity — which process would culminate in a felt obligation to promote the fullest spiritual development of all mankind. “Do we,” as the German-trained Progressive economist Richard T. Ely asked rhetorically, “regard all human beings as brothers, and have we a sincere longing for the welfare of all? Do we think that only some of us, and not all of us, have talents which we ought to improve; that is, to develop in the most complete manner possible all faculties, physical, mental, moral, spiritual?” For Ely and the Progressives generally, then, “‘true morality consists in the complete surrender of one’s own self, and in self-sacrifice for others.’” If men generally were not yet “angels,” they soon would be, as self-interest — in any sense other than one’s own spiritual perfection — would be a basically evanescent feature of human psychology.

Self-sacrifice to promote the fullest welfare of all humanity thus lies at the core of the Progressive conception of Freedom. While the Founders did not believe that individuals owe unrelated human beings anything like the comprehensive obligation parents owe children, the Progressives did. In their view, accordingly, to allow individuals to pursue their own personal concerns so long as they did not overtly interfere with the right of others to rule themselves was merely to allow them to disregard the spiritual welfare of others. The Progressives thus endlessly denounced the “individualism” of the Founding. The new model American citizen was to be the soldier in wartime, willing, as President Lincoln once put it, to surrender “the last full measure of devotion.” “In the days of ’61 to ‘65,” as Charles Van Hise, a leading Progressive conservationist, economist, and president of the University of Wisconsin, wrote, “a million men laid aside their personal desires, and surrendered their individualism for the good of the nation. Now it is demanded that every citizen shall surrender his individualism not for four years, but for life, — that he shall think not only of himself and his family, but of his neighbors, and especially of the unnumbered generations that are to follow.” The extraordinary degree of self-sacrifice for others — for the public — once characteristic of Americans only in exceptional, short-lived periods of wartime, should and would become the norm in every area of life.

Like the equality principle, then, the Progressive conception of freedom as spiritual fulfillment gives rise to corresponding rights and duties: Just as the Progressives believed that individuals had an obligation, as moral men, to promote the most complete development of other men, so they believed other human beings had a fundamental or “natural” right to develop spiritually — provided, of course, the more “advanced” races believed the others in question were in fact able to develop. (Hence Merriam’s declaration about “barbaric races,” quoted earlier.) The end of the State, in turn, lies in man’s ultimate moral obligation to promote the Freedom, understood as the fullest spiritual development, of all. Convinced they were in the vanguard of History, and hence possessing superior insight into the nature of Freedom, the Progressives were eager to prod their less progressive fellow citizens (and the “inferior” races of the world generally) up to the same high spiritual plane.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review