The Problem With Progressives is They Sweep Aside the Constitution, Forgetting Why It's There

The founding principles of our republic magnify our liberties by explicitly limiting the powers of federal government. Though the founders understood individuals are capable of governing themselves, they also knew that people are willing to trade liberty for security. Benjamin Franklin expressed his skepticism after being asked what he and others were creating at the Constitutional Convention, saying, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

Unfortunately, we allow progressives in our two-party system to move government beyond its constitutional limits. Change, reform, social justice, fairness, and fundamental transformation are the words politicians use to convince us that the Constitution authorizes government interventions in economic and personal relationships. When catchy phrases and soaring rhetoric are stripped away from their policies, we will discover that progressivism is actually quite reactionary provided one uses a long enough time horizon. The following excerpt from a speech marking the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence expresses this best.

It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. - President Coolidge

Progressing beyond our founding principles will take us back to a time when people were viewed as sheep. Progressives see us as such because we listen far too much to our inner Homer Simpson. They conjure up policies that prod people into making "correct" choices. Hence, it is understandable why they view our founding principles as nonsense. After all, is Homer capable of governing himself? Or, should government derive its powers from the consent of Homer? Thus, the progressives want to re-establish the pre-Constitution status quo, a tyranny of progress if you will.

If you cannot see this, you are not looking.

Although, a woman currently has the right to an abortion because it is her body, she does not have dominion over her body when it comes to other activities. In some states, she has the right to assisted suicide, but cannot purchase a drug that might save her life because it is awaiting government approval. She cannot sell, produce, or purchase raw milk in some states and across state lines. She is barred from using marijuana and other drugs. In most places, she cannot sell sexual services valued by some adults. She cannot gamble in big-stakes poker games with other consenting adults. She is thrown into an Ohio jail for using her father’s address to register her children in a better public school.

Either we have dominion over our bodies or we do not.

Although the Constitution calls for equal treatment under the law, government plays favorites. Bailouts for banks, businesses, and segments of the population create moral hazard and punish the responsible via higher future taxes, inflation, or interest rates. A fetus is not human if its host chooses an abortion, but is if his/her father murders his/her mother. Politically connected businesses, unions, and state and local government workers are granted waivers from health care regulations but the unconnected are not. Bond holders are stripped of their first claim rights to pay back labor unions for political support.

Americans suspected of terrorism are executed by drones.

Limitations on human behavior, playing favorites, and suspending due process contradict our founding principles.

Despite a sustained, continuous effort to erode away the Constitution, it has proven to be pretty resilient. The attacks it continues to sustain are made possible in part because the three-fifths compromise is used to tarnish it. Defenders of the Constitution need to remind Americans that it is a document of freedom, using the words of Frederick Douglass, a former slave. In a speech he gave in 1860 Glasgow, Scotland, he said, “The Constitution encourages freedom by giving an increase of two-fifths of political power to free over slave States. So much for the three-fifths clause; taking it at its worst, it still leans to freedom, not slavery; for, be it remembered that the Constitution nowhere forbids a coloured man to vote.”

As James Madison’s “auxiliary precautions” are discarded, democracy is erected on the Republic’s mount. Although democratic movements begin with the best intent, they ultimately evolve into oppression by the mob. It - 50% of voters plus one - dictates who wins and loses via taxes, subsidies, and regulations. The State of California’s morass of ballot measures demonstrates the dysfunction of democracy.

Although democracy is necessary for tyranny, it is not sufficient because the people must be distracted and poorly educated. Distraction, according to Huxley in Brave New World Revisited, is easily accomplished because of our “almost infinite appetite for distractions.” Although we do not watch feelies, our kids do not play centrifugal bumble-puppy, and we are not visited by the Ford during an orgy porgy, Americans are inundated with distractions. In Orwell’s nightmare, history is continuously re-written but is simply labeled “bunk” in Huxely’s Brave New World. In Harper’s Magazine, Christopher Hitchens wrote that failed history instruction is necessary for “true blissed-out and vacant servitude.”

Progressing past the Constitution is regressing back to a time of totalitarianism. Some foresee an Orwellian nightmare while others envision Huxley’s dystopia. Either way, progressive tyranny will continue its long, slow march because, unlike our founding fathers, we have not learned the lessons history teaches.

Panem et circenses, anyone?

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Hal Snarr

Hal teaches economics and statistics, and conducts research that examines how welfare and other policies affect labor supply, marriage, fertility, migration, dependency, and poverty. He teaches six courses per academic year plus two during the summer term. He regularly teaches macroeconomic principles, business statistics, introductory regression analysis, and labor economics.

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