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No Man for Himself, And The Devil Take Most

The human cost of the transfer of power from the American people to the American government this century is staggering, and growing.

We can say this for Congress’s recent budget deal: it won’t be easy to call House Republicans “anarchists” for a while.

Republicans, in fact, have long since abandoned any claim to being the “party of small government”—let alone the party of no government. Almost a century ago, future Republican President Herbert Hoover delivered one of the death blows to the Founders’ idea of constitutionally-limited government by advocating a new progressive individualism:

Individualism cannot be maintained as the foundation of a society based upon contracts, property, and political equality. Such legalistic safeguards are themselves not enough. In our individualism we have long since abandoned the laissez faire of the 18th Century – the notion that it is “every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.” We abandoned that when we adopted the ideal of equal opportunity . . . We have indeed gone even further in the 20th Century with the embracement of the necessity of a greater and broader sense of service and responsibility to others as a part of individualism.

Republicans and many of their conservative allies have been fighting an uphill political battle ever since. Having misunderstood, maligned, and willingly ceded the higher ground of the Founders’ project of constitutional liberalism, they have been left arguing for Hoover’s progressive individualism on the utilitarian basis that it is better for the average American than the more explicit statism peddled by the American Left.

And, relatively speaking, it probably is. But having granted that it is the federal government’s job to provide a comprehensive social safety net, moderate income inequality, and guarantee “real” equality of opportunity, Republicans have little room to complain when they are characterized as cold-hearted for wanting to do these things for a few dollars less than the Democrats. After all, as President Obama reminds us regularly, there’s always “more work to be done.”

Hoover was not alone among his generation in suggesting that the Founders’ vision amounted to “every man for himself, the Devil take the hindmost.” In fact, most influential American politicians (Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt), thinkers (Herbert Croly, John Dewey), and literati (Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald) intimated as much in their work within the public square–unable or unwilling to see that there are more ways to love your neighbor than with a government check.

What distinguished Hoover and his contemporaries from earlier, more sober critics and reformers (like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Abraham Lincoln, and Mark Twain) was their millennialist expectation that they had the knowledge and means to transcend entirely the errors and disappointments of the past.

Our last essay noted how the Progressive project has transformed the American republic in terms of the relationship between the government and the governed. In the 21st century,  the federal government, in its quest to actualize equality, consumes (during peacetime) about ten times more of the American economy than it did a century ago. And yet economic inequality, in the President’s words, still amounts to “the defining challenge of our time.”

What’s at the top of every Progressive’s Christmas list? Given the daily news, probably an Obamacare that works (and one of those great plaid onesies). But if true-believing Progressives could be granted but one wish this holiday season, it would probably be an end to the economic inequality that, in their view, unjustly produces so much human suffering and holds back far too many individuals from experiencing human fulfillment.

Consider Progressive commentator Thomas Edsall’s telling column this week, Is the Safety Net Just Masking Tape? Highlighting the work of the Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konzcal and Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman, Edsall asserts that “the shift of the Democratic Party from economic to ‘pity-charity’ liberalism has put the entire liberal project in danger.”

The good news is that today a new fusionism forming within libertarian, conservative, and populist circles offers a deeper critique–a reexamination of both means and ends and a reaffirmation of the virtue of treating equals equally, grounded in the founders’ moral and political realism.

What is to be done? Edsall shares Konzcal’s set of prescriptions: “Full employment. A higher inflation target to make monetary policy work better . . . government spending to ensure the Federal Reserve can do its job . . . a more active role for the government in public investment, and the replacement of means-tested programs [with] universal benefits.” To this list Edsall adds “some more expansive structural proposals include a universal basic income; a sharp increase in top tax rates, including on income from capital gains; raising the minimum wage much higher; an integrated social welfare system; trade agreements to protect workers and the environment; labor law reform; and confronting the long-term unemployment problem head on.”

Here Republicans are tempted to reach for their own economists’ studies and actuarial tables. A high minimum wage stunts job growth; high income tax rates discourage enterprise; trade restrictions increase consumer costs and keep workers in failing industries; we’ve already put more on our social welfare spending credit card than future generations can pay.

True, true, true, and true. But if the argument stops there, the Progressives have already won: all we’re debating is the practicability of their chosen means to their millennialist ends. The good news is that today a new fusionism forming within libertarian, conservative, and populist circles offers a deeper critique–a reexamination of both means and ends and a reaffirmation of the virtue of treating equals equally, grounded in the founders’ moral and political realism.

 It’s clear that at least one of the founders was no radical individualist from the opening sentence of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist 23, introducing a series of fourteen essays meant to demonstrate the “necessity of a Constitution, at least equally energetic with the one proposed. . . .” In fact, though the leading founders (Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison) would later divide over exactly how much energy the national government needed, all of them wished for more vigor than the feeble Articles could provide.

On the other hand, Hamilton believed, like the others, that history and experience suggested a limited role for the federal government that amounted to four easily-defined, essential tasks: “the common defense of the members; the preservation of the public peace as well against internal convulsions as external attacks; the regulation of commerce with other nations and between the States; the superintendence of our intercourse, political and commercial, with foreign countries.” Almost all of this was already the responsibility of the national government under the Articles. But that charter had not provided the power necessary to accomplish these important ends.

The Constitution, in other words, would succeed where the Articles had failed not by expanding the role of the federal government, but by granting it the authority to fulfill its responsibilities. Nothing could be more “absurd,” Hamilton argued, than expecting the government to make bricks without straw.

Today’s Progressives, however, are not content with bricks; in the spirit of medieval alchemists they dream of turning baser human metals into silver and gold. While their success is equally improbable, the consequences of their attempt are much more serious. They’ve gone a long way into transforming a city of free men into a city of pigs.

What would it take to solve the problem of income inequality? What would it take to actualize Obamacare’s promise of cheaper, better healthcare for all? Power: more and more and ever more raw, arbitrary power. And when, despite all their efforts, we’re still no more than a lump of lead? More power still.

Hamilton chides the anti-Federalists for wishing to withhold some of the “powers which a free people ought to delegate to any government.” Progressivism requires powers which a free people ought never to delegate to any government. The human cost of the transfer of power from the American people to the American government this century is staggering, and growing.

The Founders built a political edifice that they hoped would better enable the American people to pursue happiness. Their vision was not every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost, but every man a man, in the hope that equal freedom under the law would encourage the better angels of our nature.

Our wish for our neighbors without jobs, on food stamps, in debt over their heads, or experiencing any other form of human suffering is that the Devil would take no one. But it will be better for our neighbor and our nation if their aid is equally human, extended from the hand of someone equally frail, rather than that of a Leviathanic state.

David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011). You can follow their work on Twitter orFacebook.

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