Posted by: Deborah D | July 29, 2010

Madison or Wilson?

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Madison or Wilson?

This is a truly excellent column by George Will. He is remarking on a book by William Voegeli called “Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State.” This column sets in stark terms the tipping point our country finds itself in today. Will we go the way of the failed welfare states of Europe, or will we leave our children a vibrant republic? Will we continue to follow the Constitution as the Founders envisioned it, or will we allow today’s Wilsonian progressives to run the show via czars and bureaucrats, amassing power and control over every American’s life? This is from the Washington Post.

Today, as it has been for a century, American politics is an argument between two Princetonians — James Madison, Class of 1771, and Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879. Madison was the most profound thinker among the Founders. Wilson, avatar of “progressivism,” was the first president critical of the nation’s founding. Barack Obama’s Wilsonian agenda reflects its namesake’s rejection of limited government.

Lack of “a limiting principle” is the essence of progressivism, according to William Voegeli, contributing editor of the Claremont Review of Books, in his new book “Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State.” The Founders, he writes, believed that free government’s purpose, and the threats to it, are found in nature. The threats are desires for untrammeled power, desires which, Madison said, are “sown in the nature of man.” Government’s limited purpose is to protect the exercise of natural rights that pre-exist government, rights that human reason can ascertain in unchanging principles of conduct and that are essential to the pursuit of happiness. Snip –

“Progressives” believe in history as an evolutionary process, and therefore government should also evolve. Obama and his fellow progressives believe that government exists to guarantee new rights, rights as the government defines them.

The name “progressivism” implies criticism of the Founding, which we leave behind as we make progress…

…Progressivism’s promise is a program for every problem, and progressivism’s premise is that every unfulfilled desire is a problem.

Franklin Roosevelt, an alumnus of Wilson’s administration, resolved to “resume” Wilson’s “march along the path of real progress”… He repudiated the Founders’ idea that government is instituted to protect pre-existing and timeless natural rights, promising “the re-definition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order.”

He promised “a right to make a comfortable living.” Presumably, the judiciary would define and enforce the delivery of comfort. Specifically, there could be no right to “do anything which deprives others” of whatever “elemental rights” the government decides to dispense.

Today, government finds the limitless power of dispensing not in Madison’s Constitution of limited government but in Wilson’s theory that the Constitution actually frees government from limitations. The liberating — for government — idea is that the Constitution is a “living,” evolving document. Wilson’s Constitution is an emancipation proclamation for government, empowering it to regulate all human activities in order to treat all human desires as needs and hence as rights. Unlimited power is entailed by what Voegeli calls government’s “right to discover new rights.”  Snip –

Although progressivism’s ever-lengthening list of rights is as limitless as human needs/desires, one right that never makes the list is the right to keep some inviolable portion of one’s private wealth or income, “regardless,” Voegeli says, “of the lofty purposes social reformers wish to make of it.”

Lacking a limiting principle, progressivism cannot say how big the welfare state should be but must always say that it should be bigger than it currently is. Furthermore, by making a welfare state a fountain of rights requisite for democracy, progressives in effect declare that democratic deliberation about the legitimacy of the welfare state is illegitimate.

So, for those of you reading this, Will says our choice is between government limiting itself or a limitless government. Madison said government must control itself. Wilson says it should have “unstilted power.” That’s what is playing out today. That’s why this coming election is so important. What kind of a nation do we want to leave to our children: A failed state such as Greece, where chaos and anarchy reign or the United States that we all grew up in? This decision must be made by us quickly or it will be made for us by default, brought on by massive spending and bankruptcy. Read it all here:

Related: An old argument revisited.

This is from a post by Scott Johnson at

The economic “rights” asserted by (Franklin) Roosevelt in his second Bill of Rights differ and conflict with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They are claims on the liberty of others. If I have a right to medical care, you must have a corresponding duty to supply it. If I have a right to a decent home, you must have a duty to provide it.

The argument for the welfare state belongs in the same family as “the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of king-craft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden.” (That was a quote from Abraham Lincoln.)

This all brings to mind something Frederick Bastiat wrote in 1850:

“Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.”— Frédéric Bastiat (The Law) (Thanks to Greg for finding that quote.) Read all of Scott Johnson here:


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