The Refounding of America
From the Nov. 14, 2011, issue of NR


In the founders’ view, by contrast, the natural rights of the individual correspond to a series of natural duties, the scope of which vary with the social relationship in question. Thus, while parents are obliged to promote the comprehensive good or welfare of their children, and to sacrifice their personal concerns accordingly, the obligations they owe unrelated adults are far more minimal — e.g., to refrain from interfering with their freedom, to honor contracts with them, and, at the outside, to promote their (mere) preservation. Beyond these duties, individuals are entitled to pursue their own concerns, a right that government, in turn, is obliged to respect. While individuals are free to assume a more robust obligation to unrelated others, as through a church, government itself is not the agent for advancing it. 

From Dewey’s (and the progressives’) standpoint, so minimal an understanding of obligation allows men to pursue a degree of selfishness that is developmentally primitive and hence morally disgusting. The progressives’ view on this matter is particularly obvious in the scorn they heap upon the free market, an economic system animated by the selfish, and hence base, profit motive, but they viewed virtually every aspect of life in America — e.g., the prevailing interpretation of Christian Scripture and worship of God, the aim and methods of education, the physical layout and architecture of our cities and towns, the pattern of rural settlement and the character of life within it, the use of our natural resources, etc. — in the same light. The way of living inherited from the American founding was, in short, a cesspool of selfishness. 

When freedom is redefined in terms of spiritual fulfillment, the “problem of achieving freedom” radically changes. Freedom is no longer secured by constraining government interference with “the liberty of individuals in matters of conscience and economic action,” as Dewey notes, but rather by “establishing an entire social order, possessed of a spiritual authority that would nurture and direct the inner as well as the outer life of individuals.” The problem with limited government — with a government dedicated to securing the natural rights of man — is that it does not perform the more positive role of “nurtur[ing] and direct[ing]” the spiritual lives of the governed. Rather, it secures mere “negative freedom.” “Negative freedom,” Dewey clarifies, is “freedom from subjection to the will and control of others . . . capacity to act without being exposed to direct obstructions or interferences from others.” In practice, freedom understood as natural rights is “negative” because government puts individuals in the enjoyment of their rights (e.g., the right to acquire and use one’s property, to speak, to worship God according to the dictates of one’s conscience, etc.) primarily by restraining others — and, importantly, itself — from interfering with the individual’s right to make such decisions. While interference with individual decision-making is certainly not altogether illegitimate in a limited government, freedom is the normal case and restraint the exception. 

At best, Dewey argues, such a government secures to every individual the mere legal right to realize his spiritual potential, a right that for many is essentially worthless. “The freedom of an agent who is merely released from direct external obstructions is formal and empty,” for unless he possesses every resource needed to take advantage of this broad legal opening, he will remain unable to exercise his freedom and thereby actualize his spiritual potential. While the law would “exempt [him] from interference in travel, in reading, in hearing music, in pursuing scientific research[,] . . . if he has neither material means nor mental cultivation to enjoy these legal possibilities, mere exemption means little or nothing.” In view of this situation, the perpetuation of limited government would consign many, perhaps most, Americans to a condition of spiritual retardation. 

If mere negative freedom is to be transformed into what Dewey calls “effective” freedom, accordingly, negative government must give way to positive government. That is, the legislative power of government must expand in whatever ways are needed — and hence however far proves necessary — to effect a wider and deeper distribution of the resources essential to the actualization of every American’s spiritual potential. As Dewey presents it, and as subsequent political practice confirmed, this process is basically synonymous with the implementation of the positive conception of individual rights. In this new order, individuals are entitled to whatever resources they need to attain spiritual fulfillment. Because Dewey, like the progressives generally, regarded poverty as among the greatest constraints on spiritual development, a host of the new rights purported to enhance the material security of poorer Americans — e.g., the right to a job, a minimum wage, a maximum work day and week, a decent home (public housing), and insurance against accident (workers’ compensation), illness (public health care), and old age (Social Security). Most of these rights were enshrined in federal law during the New Deal. Because access to education at all levels and to fine art are no less essential to spiritual fulfillment, Dewey also advocated generous public provision of these resources — and indeed the provision of both was a hallmark of LBJ’s Great Society. Because all such resources are secured for those who lack them through the creation of new redistributive programs (which increase the burden on those who pay taxes) and the imposition of new regulations such as the minimum wage (which foreclose choices previously reserved to the individual), a politics of rights-as-resources inevitably erodes freedom in the founders’ sense. 

In sum, the core of Dewey’s progressivism, socialism, or what subsequently became known (thanks in no small part to his efforts) as liberalism is freedom understood as spiritual fulfillment. Because the embrace of this ideal necessitated a thoroughgoing reconstruction of the American way of living, primarily by means of the positive state, it revolutionized not only the founders’ theory of limited government, but also their constitutionalism: for, as Dewey and Tufts candidly note, progressive judges have “smuggled in” many valuable reforms by devising “‘legal fictions’ and by interpretations which have stretched the original text to uses undreamed of.” Dewey was hardly alone in encouraging this transformation, but few would deny the preeminent role he played in it.

― Tiffany Jones Miller is an associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas.


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