A century ago, the Progressives were on the march. They had a simple straightforward argument: Industrialization, urbanization, the growth of corporations, the emergence of political machines, the invention of the telegraph and the railroad, and the like – these had so transformed the world that the old political formulas no longer applied. The species of government designed by the American Founding Fathers – with its division of responsibilities between the states and the union, and its implementation of a separation of powers at both levels of government – was, they claimed, an anachronism.
What was needed in its place was not governance, not law, not statesmanship. Ordinary human beings and the men they elected were not up to the task. What was required in this brave new world was regulation and rational administration by acknowledged experts trained in the social sciences at universities – such as Johns Hopkins, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Michigan – which had been constructed on the German model. Hegel had once spoken of civil servants as “the universal class.” We should train them and follow their dictates, and all will be well.
If you read the speeches that Woodrow Wilson gave when running for the Presidency in 1912 – they are conveniently collected in a volume entitled The New Freedom – this is the vision that you will find. If you examine the platform promulgated by Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party that same year, you will discover within it the same principles. And if, after reading through both of these, you take a close look at the Commonwealth Club Speech, tellingly entitled “Of Progressive Governance,” which was delivered by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in San Francisco twenty years later when he was first running for the Presidency, you will find more of the same.
There was one obvious objection to be made to this vision. It left something out. The Progressives told us that we were threatened by big business, big labor, the political machines – and that government had to be brought in to redress the balance. Their defense of what FDR called “rational administration” was reminiscent in many ways of the surface argument in Plato’s Republic: that the troubles besetting the world will not cease until kings become philosophers and philosophers kings and wisdom and rule are made to coincide. At a deeper level, however, Plato’s Republic is an argument for the limits of political life. It is an elaborate display of what it would take to make wisdom and justice reign, a parody of the pretensions of those who think themselves wise, but our modern the Progressives do not get the joke. What Plato mocked they want to institute. The obvious objection to the Progressive impulse is that, even if the Progressives’ critique of the old political formulas is true and even if they are right that our inherited institutions are an anachronism, the administrative state and the rule of the “universal class” is nothing other than tyranny dressed up in a new and fashionable outfit.
The question that needed asking in 1912 and that still needs asking today is the old Roman question: Quis custodes custodiet? Who will guard the Guardians? Put simply, what would lead us to think that this “universal class” of putative experts would administer the world in which we live in our interest rather than their own? What check is there to the power they wield? What have they done to deserve our trust? Even if we admit their expertise, what is to prevent them from using it to bilk us?
The administrative state depends on an abolition of the separation of powers. It presupposes the concentration of the legislative power, the executive power, and the judicial power within a single executive agency. That body is authorized to issue regulations that have the force of law, to enforce those regulations, and to adjudicate disputes arising in their regard. Those who run the executive agency are not elected; they are appointed; and, once appointed, they are accountable to no one. That is, as Montesquieu pointed out in the sixth chapter of the eleventh book of his Spirit of Laws two hundred sixty-three years ago, the very definition of despotism – and nothing has happened since to prove false his insight concerning the concentration of power.
As I pointed out in Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty and again in Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift, because of his book, Montesquieu was cited in North America in the period stretching from 1762 to 1800 more often than any other figure, and his argument provided the underpinnings for the deliberations that took place in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 at the Federal Convention. When the Progressives of 1912 and their heirs rejected the American Founding, it was Montesquieu that they were rejecting, and it was his question that they were resolutely refusing to ask: Quis custodes custodiet? Who will guard the Guardians?
Thanks to the Progressives, we now live in the worst of times, and we also live in the best of times. Our greatest misfortune is our greatest good fortune. Thanks to our benefactor Barack Obama, we live at the moment – one hundred years after the initial victory of Progressivism – when the tyrannical character of the administrative state is becoming evident to one and all, when with the help of what my friend Michael Barone calls “gangster government,” we are being made aware that, due to our abandonment of federalism and the separation of powers, we now live under a government that is irresponsible in every sense of the word. Put bluntly, President Obama is giving us the political education that we were denied in the schools and universities that the Progressives have crafted for our indoctrination. Unpleasant as it is to be confronted with gangster government, it is enlightening – and now, for the first time in my lifetime, we are in a position to think clearly about our options. No one is kidding anyone any more, and no one is pretending. We are witnessing the Great Unmasking. As William Blake once said, it is the road of excess that leads to the palace of wisdom. For us, alas, there is no other road.