Days before the 50th anniversary of Independence Day, Thomas Jefferson lay home at Mount Vernon. He was ill and infirm, regrettably unable to attend a celebration of the day to be held by a friend in Monticello. In a letter declining the invitation, Jefferson took great pleasure in the apparent awakening of society to the natural rights of man.
He wrote that America’s founding served as a “signal… arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.”
So begins Mark Levin’s latest bestseller, carefully probing the meaning of the Declaration of Independence and its importance to today’s Americans, many of whom would likely neither recognize nor appreciate the document.
The core of America’s founding document was a simple and powerful concept: that of natural law, popularized in that era by the writings of John Locke. Locke noted that morality was rooted in natural, not man-made, law.
Truth and virtue are both immutable, Locke argued. They can’t be dictated or superseded by the whims of a King or a congress. Morality is thereby supreme and permanent. As Levin notes, the concept is elegantly exemplified by The Golden Rule -- “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” -- universally recognized as an canonical moral principle.
Revisiting the core tenets of Americanism, however, represents only the context for the main course.
The enemies of Americanism
The critical elements of the book are Levin’s surgical, ruthless and irrefutable evisceration of the progressive movement from its very inception.Its philosophical forebears, men like Herbert Croly, were intellectual midgets compared to America’s founders. Yet they found influence among key politicians like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
Croly rejected the notions of individual liberty and private property rights, despite recognizing the enormous wealth and success they had created. He penned such utter nonsense as “...the popular enjoyment of practically unrestricted economic opportunities is precisely the condition which makes for individual bondage.”
Put more simply, Croly was stating that freedom is slavery, as mendacious a concept as can exist to describe a society.
But Croly and his ilk weren’t done. Upon this foundation of lies, the progressive movement decried the republican form of government upon which America was founded. Croly rejected thousands of years of human experience and the works of Polybius, Cicero and Montesquieu, who had argued for divided government having seen purely democratic governments inevitably descend into mob rule.
Croly advocated for a pure democracy that would create an “expert administration”, a centralized bureaucracy of elites who would manage governmental affairs. And, to ensure that individuals conformed to this new structure, he foresaw educating the masses to better appreciate this new and “scientific” form of government.
And Croly was clear that his new form of government overlapped with the goals of Marxism and socialism. Capitalism, individualism, and private property were to be rejected in order to achieve this perfected society.
Sadly, Croly’s writings powerfully influenced Roosevelt and Wilson, who felt stymied by the Constitution and its difficult amendment process. The progressives wanted to change things quickly and America’s aged form of government was a barrier.
What could be better, they argued, than a centralized government managed by an elite civil service?
Echoing Croly were other influential writers like John Dewey, who admired the Soviet Union’s remarkable educational system. Dewey foresaw vast educational factories that would churn out eager followers of collectivism and tamp out individualism.
Philosophy of EvilBut what were the philosophical underpinnings of the progressive movement? Levin carefully steps through what I term “The Anti-Enlightenment” movement, led by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Hegel and the malevolent Karl Marx.
Rousseau disdained the individual profit motive and instead envisioned a fair and equitable society in which individuals focused not on their own well-being, but of that of society as a whole.
Virtue, he wrote, was to be achieved through education. Individuals must be forced to align on the goals of the collective and to become subservient to the needs of society. Like Dewey, Rousseau believed that the educational system must be focused on creating this uniformity of thought.
The enormously influential Hegel was similarly inclined. By studying “the science of the state”, individuals could focus on the needs of the whole and not themselves.
Karl Marx leveraged Hegel’s work as a starting point for “Marxism” and, in many ways, the Utopian goals of his philosophy are indistinguishable from those of the modern progressive movement.
Marx believed that modernity and technological advancements had resulted in a bipartite and zero-sum class system. Commerce’s beneficiaries -- the bourgeoisie -- succeeded only when the masses -- the proletariat -- suffered.
To remedy this situation, Marx asserted that the proletariat must seize -- by force, if necessary -- the assets of the bourgeoisie and centralize them in the hands of the state. Only then would a suitable distribution of wealth and services occur, according to Marx.
The disease of administrative tyrannies --- and the cure
Without fail, followers of masterminds and philosopher-kings like Croly and Marx have ended up creating centralized administrative leviathans. These bureaucracies, operating without real constraints, competition or oversight, inevitably become bloated, inattentive, wasteful, and -- in some cases -- violent.The simplest examples are relatively benign agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Post Office, where long waits, poor service, and a general disdain for the rabble are typical.
Even the progressives’ self-proclaimed success stories like Social Security and Medicare are, in fact, abysmal failures. Any honest audit would instantly reveal the fact that they are ticking time-bombs in the form of trillions in unfunded liabilities. Future generations will have to deal with, and suffer through, these malignant tumors on the body politic.
In fact the great blind spots of progressivism are, as Levin highlights, the lack of any introspection or restraint.
The progressive allows no scrutiny of existing programs, no development of business cases, no comparison of alternatives. Instead, the progressive mindset is that of inexorable centralization of control over humankind, from the kind of light-bulbs you are allowed to buy to the kind of health insurance plan you must purchase.
It is obvious to any student of history that this form of increasing authoritarianism is not only anti-American, it is precisely counter to the purpose of the American revolution. The fact that our founders created the greatest form of government ever seen on Earth -- one that has lifted billions out of abject poverty -- is of no concern to the masterminds and philosopher-kings.
History offers no guide to us, according to the progressives, and therefore must be discounted and manipulated in order to achieve their ends.
Unvarnished history as our guideHow, then, does the rational and informed person counter the arguments of the malignant progressive movement?
Citing intellectual giants like John Stuart Mill, Levin observes that all humans are, by their very nature, motivated by their own happiness. The Declaration of Independence echoes that concept with “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The founders also observed that hedonism without virtue was a recipe for disaster.
The pursuit of happiness must be balanced with restraint founded in virtue and morality. If nothing else, the founding of the American republic was an archetype of both.
The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin warned that ignoring the academics and institutions that teach our history would be catastrophic. He noted that a guiding principle of the progressive movement was that individuals who had achieved success had done so by exploitation, not by creating value or employing others.
The branches of government, seen as barriers to progressives, were intended to restrain the inevitable creep of authoritarianism. Furthermore, the framers sought to additionally limit centralized power through federalism, that is, reserving most powers to the states or the individual.
Montesquieu himself presciently warned that so-called reformers would attempt to deconstruct a republican separation of powers.
The progressive movement, from its very infancy, rejected separation of powers. Woodrow Wilson himself used bizarre analogies comparing a government to a human body, where a central controller must quickly adapt to an ever-changing world. Wilson thereby ignored thousands of years of human history, in which almost all societies had eventually collapsed into despotism or monarchical rule.
A structure for good government, by its very nature, must be inflexible and explicitly designed to prevent the descent into tyranny.
But the progressive movement has used every tool at its disposal to warp the meaning of the Constitution. From its abuse of the Commerce Clause to the massive fourth branch of government (the administrative state), progressivism has transformed the very nature of American government.
As Levin has previously written, “The federal government’s now the nation’s largest creditor, debtor, lender, employer, consumer, contractor, grantor, property owner, tenant, insurer, health care provider, and pension guarantor. So much for limited government! It unleashes thousands of regulations and rules every single year. Over the course of a decade, it fills nearly one million pages in the federal register.”
In order to believe in and promote his immoral and deadly philosophy, the progressive must reject the countless global benefits of capitalism, from dramatically extended lifespans to everyday conveniences that would make a medieval monarch envious.
In short, the progressive’s philosophy is not only anti-American, it is inherently malicious and dangerous because it directly promotes tyranny.
Progressivism, intersecting as it does with Marxism and Communism, should have been rejected by all right-thinking people since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the inhumane regimes of North Korea and Cuba, and the recent implosion of Venezuela.
Of course, the last hundred years of American history have also served as repetitive and clear warnings of the failures of progressivism. Whatever government has touched, from student loans to the mortgage industry, it has obliterated.
What would the founders think?
At the beginning of his book, Levin wonders what America’s founders would make of today’s American society and its governmental structure. On that topic, I will not venture to guess.
But I can say with certainty how the founders would view Levin’s latest work: with admiration, appreciation and utter agreement.
Americans of all ages should read Rediscovering Americanism to better comprehend the nature of our precious country and the danger posed by its philosophical enemies. Saving America will not be easy, but thanks to Levin we have a simple, coherent and eminently readable guide to restoring Constitutional government and the principles of Americanism.
We owe future generations nothing less.