By Jeff Rutherford
Many people ignore politics, but you don’t – or you wouldn’t be reading this blog article. Do you observe from afar, study & investigate closely, or actively participate?
As a husband and father approaching retirement with loved ones permanently dependent on me, I recognize the political battlefield has a powerful effect on my family’s well-being that I’ve worked so hard to secure. The study of political philosophy – its history, current application, and future implications – has become the dominant flame of my learning in recent years. I’m a studier that digs into the philosophies and motivations of politics and politicians.
What about you? Do you ever stop and give thought to questions like these?:
What is the purpose of government?
What should government do, and not do? Why?
Who decides the scope of government? How?
If you do think about these matters, your personality and outlook on human interaction likely lead your answers to fall roughly into one of two political visions:
1) Confidence in the inherent virtue of mankind as a whole. Unconstrained commitment to empowering wise public officials to lead us all, however they think best, towards a managed society where everyone is happy and safe from harm.
2) Confidence in the ingenuity and hard work of individuals and households to set and achieve goals for their own prosperity. Constrained concern that the authority of public officials to direct what others can/can’t do should be limited.
According to Dr. Thomas Sowell, these two hemispheres of political visions are representative of the political divide in most Western countries since the 1600s. The never-ending debate is over which vision is correct, or at least more correct. If your thoughts are torn between the two hemispheres, perhaps you haven’t finished forming the basis for your views. In order to probe deeper, I suggest a couple more philosophical questions might be useful:
What if government decision-makers are wrong?
What if government officials have self-serving motivations?
My reflection on these questions has led me to these observations about Western politics: I believe that those who are deeply committed to the Progressive movement think that man and his communities can be fundamentally transformed to become a perfected, uniform, safe, predictable, homogenized society. They think that human existence can be perfected, and their efforts to achieve that goal know no constraints. They believe a master plan is achievable, if the right human masterminds are given free reign to design the perfect society, and if each citizen sacrifices their individuality and submits to the collective plan.
I would broadly summarize the philosophy of the opposition to Progressivism as follows: Mankind is NOT perfectible. All human flaws (and their consequences) are not solvable – at best they can be partly mitigated. All humans are corruptible — especially those who are given power to control others’ lives. So the institutions of a society must be structured and operated in a way that recognizes the unfixable flaws of mankind. Society’s institutions must protect humans from their unpreventable desire to infringe on each others’ unalienable rights. Government must remain subservient to the sovereignty of the individual (“consent of the governed”), and its lawful power must be spread out to ensure checks and balances that can expose and punish the power-abusers.
One of my favorite quotes from America’s founding fathers is this one by James Madison from the Federalist Papers #51:
“It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices [as Constitutional chains] should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? … If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. [But lacking these angels,] in framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Collectivism gives too much power to too few corruptible people, and removes too many protections and avenues for recourse from all the masses. By giving the “philosopher kings” unconstrained power funded by the vast public treasury with little or no accountability, the inevitable corruption of the ruling class leads it to seize a higher level of prosperity and power for itself than for the ruled. Society’s resources are squandered trying to achieve an impossible Utopia. Except for the bare necessities of government obligations — national defense, protection of individual liberty, and enforcement of property rights — those resources are better left in the hands of the people whose hard work produced and earned them.
The biggest Paradox of Progressivism is that its premise of human perfectibility is its own demise. All leaders – past, present, future – are imperfect. Imperfect leaders cannot lead society to a perfect existence.
After all, Sir Thomas More first coined the word utopia in 1516 from two Greek words (οὐ and τόπος) that mean “not” and “place.”