Twilight of the Sort-Of Gods

The distinctive mark of the Progressive movement was reliance on the university as effectively a fourth branch of government, employing new fields of “social science” to define the state’s goals and to prescribe cures for social problems. The state and the university became a joint reform project -- government by academic and administrative experts, using a centralized bureaucracy, to transcend politics. Sociology replaced philosophy as the highest form of human wisdom. It was social science, after all, and it needed only forward-thinking politicians to implement it.

Wilson envisioned a nation “led by a man who hears more than [common opinions] ... understands them better, unites them, puts them into a common meaning; speaks ... a new principle for a new age.” The Founders had built a governmental structure that would protect citizens from well-meaning leaders with concentrated power; Wilson was the apostle of the president as the agent of social perfection.

The second stage of modern liberalism came with FDR, who as a young man had been an ardent Progressive and had served in the Wilson administration. In his 1932 acceptance speech, FDR called on the country to “feel that in everything we do there still lives with us ... the great, indomitable, unquenchable, progressive soul of our Commander-in-chief, Woodrow Wilson.” In the famous phrase of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., FDR had “a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament,” and temperament was what the second stage needed.

Wilson laid the intellectual foundation; the second stage required a more effective teacher, and FDR believed “the greatest duty of a statesman is to educate” the public. He endorsed what he called “militant liberalism” as the means to electoral success, promising to give government “the vibrant personal character that is the very embodiment of human charity.” His message was that the more power government got, the more rights it could give; expanding the power of government thus did not threaten rights, but enhanced them. It is not a theory the Founders would have endorsed.

Liberalism's goals resonated, but Kesler notes that it did not necessarily follow “that the best way to furnish these pleasant, useful, and occasionally noble things was through a planned economy and government ukases.” On the contrary, once the federal government mandated new economic rights, there was a corresponding duty to supply the jobs, living wages, education, health insurance, pensions, etc., necessary to effectuate them, and to do so indefinitely into the future. Once declared to be “rights,” they became entitlements; once entitlements, spending on them became “non-discretionary"; and the government subjected itself to endless lobbying for still more “rights.”

LBJ ushered in the third wave of modern liberalism. He wanted, in the words of his speechwriter Richard Goodwin, “to out-Roosevelt Roosevelt.” He initiated a “war on poverty” and sought to construct through government a “Great Society” to improve “the quality of our American civilization.” He promised “to assemble the best thought and the broadest knowledge from all over the world to find those answers for America,” telling students at the University of Michigan that “your generation has been appointed by history” to “build a society where the demands of morality, and the needs of the spirit, can be realized in the life of the nation.”

At a commencement address at Howard University, LBJ said “freedom is not enough.” His goal, he said, was “not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.” The means would be more programs, run by more experts, in more federal agencies, leading to an ever-expanding bureaucracy and the emergence of group rights and identity politics in the continuing battle to effectuate asserted “rights.” The “living Constitution” set no effective limits on the goals or powers of liberal government; once rights were identified, the “living Constitution” was interpreted to permit or mandate government to effectuate them.

Obama represented the fourth wave of this process. He set as his primary goal in his first year the establishment of a massive new entitlement. Faced with two health care entitlement programs that were approaching bankruptcy -- Medicare and Medicaid -- Obama set about adding a third one, extended not simply to the elderly or the poor but to the entire country. The new legislation created a panoply of new boards and agencies to mandate coverage and control costs, largely shielded from oversight by Congress, with broad powers to prescribe coverage by regulations.