“The politician is the man who has the power to make his preferences mandatory.”
– Kevin D. Williamson
“Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”
– George Washington
The State has only one arrow in its quiver: force. If only more people understood this. Unfortunately it is human nature to seek simple solutions for complex problems, and what is more seemingly simple than a central government with guns and guards and to which we pay fealty through taxes? Surely the State can solve our problems if it can wage war on a grand scale? One of the founding fathers of progressivism, William James, sought to expand the reach of the State by imbuing onto progessive programs the “moral equivalent of war.” Socialists and progressives were in awe of government’s ability to centralize resources and production in times of war while also galvanizing the populace around a nationalistic, “all in this together” theme. Placing the same exigencies that accompany war on peace-time domestic programs quickly became the modus operandi of progressivism in the early 20th century. They needed to instill the same urgency and desire for quick action and results in order to persuade Americans that their statist plans for the economy were the only passable solution to any perceived crisis. Bestowing the “moral equivalent of war” on public policy would be the clever mechanism used to create the income tax, the Federal Reserve, the New Deal, the War on Poverty/Drugs/Terror, and the “entitlement programs” of the postwar era.
The progressive inclination is to use the State to produce desired results for society (or at least for their constituencies), but if the State’s only commodity is force, logic dictates that progressivism seeks to forcibly remake society through the vehicle of the State. A progressive is pro-“C” alright, but the “C” doesn’t stand for “choice.” It stands for coercion.
In a free society or a constitutional republic like ours, coercion is anathema. State coercion is even worse; it is the ultimate transgression on what is supposed to be a sacred covenant between citizen and State whereby the citizen is elevated as master of the State. When you get that equation backwards, as most civilizations have throughout history, you get tyranny, where the State is master of the citizen. And State coercion of the individual or of a more local polity is grounds for the people’s exercising their right to overthrow tyrannical governments. Our nation was founded on exactly this principle. Modern progressives seem to either forget this fact or deem it impertinent as they lurch headlong towards coercive policy prescriptions at every turn.
Progressives know that, given the choice, free individuals will opt for independence and self-reliance over arbitrary intrusions by the State into their affairs. However, progressives also know that humans are adaptable in both directions: they can adapt to better circumstances of course, but they are likewise remarkably capable of adapting to worse circumstances. It is an extreme and probably inappropriate example (of Godwin’s Law, no less), but many Jews willingly boarded trains during the Holocaust. Throughout history there are countless examples of victims being slaughtered without much or any resistance. It is a brutal and sad reality that force and coercion work. As a true as the maxim is that “freedom is won at the tip of the bayonet,” I think it is even more true that tyranny and slavery are established and sustained by force. If humans can be conditioned by circumstance, the progressive aim is to “nudge” people toward a collectivist mindset by making the State a vital component of every individual’s life.
It has worked in other places, but in America, with its traditions and institutions so grounded in ideas of liberty and diffuse power, the progressive aim is constantly being thwarted by realities such as federalism, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the separation of powers. When Woodrow Wilson became the first US president to challenge the the moral and practical underpinnings of the American founding, he was doing so for more utilitarian than philosophic ends. His wasn’t an argument for a principled recalibration of constitutional ideals; it was a purely Machiavellian argument for putting progressives in power. Wilson understood that his comrades could attain a virtual lock on power by following Otto von Bismarck’s example and establishing a welfare state. By embracing a dogma of positive rights, whereby rights come from the State instead of nature or God, the progressives embarked on a century-plus odyssey to erode traditions of American enterprise and self-reliance through a series of State expansions into more and more of the economy and into more aspects of our lives. Today the progressive mantra is that health insurance is a “right” every American should have, and it is government that must provide. Nevermind that the government provision of things necessarily means coercion of some for the benefit of others. Whether it’s through redistributive taxation or more violent forms of coercion, any delivery of a positive right effectively involves an affront to another’s negative right. But it is by being the faction that favors positive rights that progressives have always recognized as their avenue to power. They took Ben Franklin at his word and decided, “we don’t want to keep it!” Constitutional republics are anathema to progressivism because republics are a check on base majoritarianism. Our republic is grounded and restrained by limiting principles and sacred documents and cherished ideals, yet for the other side, our republic has always just been a nuisance. Progressives wish to eliminate all limiting principle from our governance because only with an unrestrained and unaccountable administrative bureaucracy can they freely implement their collectivist vision.
And when the proles resist their benevolent offerings? The progs can make it mandatory. “The politician is the man who has the power to make his preferences mandatory.” The progressive is the man who will always result to coercion when his preferences inevitably fail.