President Obama sounded a familiar theme in his recent commencement address at the University of Michigan. He called, yet again, for "change," and vowed to lead government's crusade to bring us more of it.
This sounds far less appealing than it did during the 2008 campaign. Then, many Americans -- wowed by his charisma -- didn't inquire too deeply into what he meant by the word. Now we know how far-reaching the change he envisions is. It encompasses vast new government entitlements such as Obamacare and expansive regulations that increasingly intrude on Americans' daily lives.
Sixteen months into Obama's presidency, it's clear there are profound differences between the principles on which the United States was founded -- and which made it great and prosperous -- and those of the political class in power today. The vision that animates our power brokers has recently grown in influence, but its roots date back to the Progressive Movement launched at the turn of the 20th century.
This is a good time to remind ourselves of our nation's core principles. America's democratic experiment -- inspired by 18th-century classical liberalism -- flows from a very specific idea of human rights. Our Founding Fathers believed that human beings' right to freedom and self-government is a matter of timeless, universal truth, with its source in "Nature and Nature's God." They enshrined this in the Declaration of Independence: "All men are created equal, [and] endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," which include "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
The Founders believed that government's purpose is to secure these "unalienable" rights for its citizens. To this end, they designed a limited government, for history reveals -- in their view -- that an expanding state is the greatest threat to freedom. In the Constitution, they laid out a system of checks and balances -- including federalism and separation of powers -- and restricted the federal government's role to certain "enumerated" powers, such as national defense. In this way, they sought to preserve the greatest possible zone for personal freedom, so citizens could pursue happiness as they saw fit.
By 1890, however, "progressive" thinkers were dismissing these principles as obsolete. Under the influence of two ideas then in vogue -- social Darwinism (human beings and institutions must "adapt" as conditions change) and German historicism (history evolves toward progress), these Progressives sought to remake the old American republic and form a "New Republic."
Progressives rejected both the Founders' core idea of "unalienable rights" and the notion of universal, timeless truths. They saw rights -- not as issuing from "Nature and Nature's God" -- but as the creation of government, bestowed to promote human happiness and progress, and valid only when government recognizes them. They believed that government can redefine or add rights in response to changing conditions.
The Progressives viewed government's goal much more ambitiously than the Founders did. Instead of a limited government to protect individual freedom, they saw government's role as actually to achieve progress -- to constantly improve citizens' lives through scientifically planned reforms. Instead of leaving people free to pursue happiness as they saw fit, government would do all it could -- through massive entitlement programs and redistribution of wealth -- to guarantee happiness itself, defined as equality of social outcomes.
Progressives, then, viewed the Founders' checks and balances as an obstacle to progress. They sought to expand and centralize government to engineer sweeping change and reform. If government's goal is progress and happiness for all, its object is unlimited -- and so, theoretically, can be its size, as historian Matthew Spalding points out in his new book, "We Still Hold These Truths." Progressives aimed to shift power to experts and bureaucrats, who claim the specialized knowledge necessary to reform society so as to promote the public good -- whether the people like it or not.
The great 19th-century political observer Alexis de Tocqueville predicted what Spalding calls the "soft despotism" that might ensue when egalitarianism combined with centralized government's regulatory power: "Above [the people]," Tocqueville wrote, "an immense tutelary power is elevated. ... It seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood. ... It provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures ... directs their industry ... . [C]an it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?"
Such a power, wrote Tocqueville, "does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd."
Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.