The Foundations of American Political Thought

If I were paid every time I heard someone criticize someone’s political ideology based on a tired cliche with little intellectual backing, I’d quit my job and retire. We all understand what I’m talking about; Progressives are reduced to lazy, power-hungry cry babies who like free stuff; Conservatives are racist reactionaries stuck in the past; Classical Liberals are all corporate shills who just like big business for the hell of it; only my ideology is operating in good faith with a coherent platform to improve society. 

Although there are certainly people in each camp who actually fit those descriptions, most people hold their beliefs because they genuinely think they are good for society and subscribe to their philosophy. Not only that, but all three of these major American political ideologies are based on the American tradition of freedom, some more than others. Finally, all three of these ideologies have a proud, long and compelling intellectual history. Intellectual histories that are worth studying not only because it will allow you to make better, more precise arguments, but because they help provide a window into the forces that shape our world.

American political thought as a whole is an amalgamation of all these intellectual traditions and understanding their general foundations will not only allow you to understand your opponents but the system we all share. Consolidating other ideologies into wild conspiracy theories while placing your own on a pedestal is not only bad for our overall political discourse but also for your own intellectual development.

As authors with our own apparent beliefs, we will attempt to the best of our ability to present complete and good faith overviews of the three intellectual traditions mentioned above. 

The Roots of American Conservatism 

The year is 1789 and the French Revolution rages. What started as an inspiring movement to overthrow the monarchy and instate a regime dedicated to freedom and equality has turned into a bloodbath. A man by the name of Edmund Burke, widely considered to be the father of Anglosphere-style conservatism, watched in horror as he saw the result of what was essentially liberalism, or an attempt at it, run amok. He noted that change just for change’s sake is a recipe for disaster. Instead of depending on human reason to craft reforms, Burke believed that man discovers order and eternal truths through tradition and that shared sentiments — not rigorous philosophical examination of the current order — is what binds society together. Further, Burke supported a system of ordered liberty, because pure liberty, a system that only provides freedom, eschews duty and morality. To conservatives, pure liberty is not only shallow and purposeless, but those who live under such an easily corrupted system will not stay free for long. 

Fast forward to the 20th century and the Progressive era (which will be explained next), leaders like Woodrow Wilson and, a few decades later, Franklin Roosevelt, author of the New Deal, were rapidly altering the landscape of American politics, economics and society writ large. They were experimenting with a drastic and frightening expansion of government power, guided by what they thought was “science.” FDR was so confident in the technocratic expertise of the advisors he appointed to address the myriad economic and social problems of the Great Depression, that he referred to them as “The Brain Trust.” To many, FDR’s policies eschewing the principles of established economics in favor of experimental Keynesian economics, which involved a hitherto unprecedented degree of state intervention, threatened to make us less prosperous and less free. Across the world, Conservatives saw the logical conclusion of such policies: fascism in Italy; national socialism in Germany; communism in the Soviet Union; Maoism in China. The Classical Liberal Friedrich Hayek explained how these extreme ends are necessarily reached eventually — or expeditiously — as one proceeds, in The Road to Serfdom (1944). In other words, when power is granted to the state in order to achieve the all-encompassing goal of “equity” and “social justice,” untethered by the guiding light of tradition and commitment to individual rights, free people are rendered into servants to the state and whatever it deems as the “common good.”

Russell Kirk, the father of American-style Conservatism, published The Conservative Mind in 1953, detailing a long intellectual tradition going from Edmund Burke to the heroes of his current day. Although conservative tendencies are as old as humanity itself, this book codified the modern American conservative movement. The Heritage Foundation explains that Kirk’s six principles of conservatism are:

  • A divine intent, as well as personal conscience, rules society;
  • Traditional life is filled with variety and mystery while most radical systems are characterized by a narrowing uniformity;
  • Civilized society requires orders and classes;
  • Property and freedom are inseparably connected;
  • Man must control his will and his appetite, knowing that he is governed more by emotion than by reason; and
  • Society must alter slowly.

A Conservative seeks to create a city on a hill, which is characterized by a free but also stable and moral society. Hierarchy, values, and virtue are just as important to maintaining a sustainable society as freedom and prosperity for all. Unlike a Libertarian, a Conservative does not prize individualism and markets above all else. Matthew Continetti of The Atlantic quotes Russell Kirk on this matter by writing,

“Politically, it ends in anarchy; spiritually, it is a hideous solitude. I do not even call myself an ‘individual’; I hope I am a person.” Libertarianism, Kirk said, was a dead end because it failed to excite the moral imagination. 

Conservatives hold that a society that fails to pass its core values onto the next generation is less a society and more an amalgam of atomized human beings making rash decisions that can prove disastrous for the community taken as a whole. For this reason, Conservatives advocate for policies that critics call paternalism such as prohibitions on drug usage, the enforcement of traditional values, trade protections, and immigration restrictions. These are important because, while change isn’t bad a priori to a Conservative, it must be slow and gradual so that we can preserve all that is good with society for the next generation. Furthermore, tradition, not science or reason, is the most important decision-making tool for a Conservative. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy quotes philosophy professor Anthony O’Hear, who says that the Conservative

“[a]pproach to human affairs [is one] which mistrusts both a priori reasoning and revolution, preferring to put its trust in experience and in the gradual improvement of tried and tested arrangements.”

Conservatives have a tremendous pessimism when it comes to human nature. Science, which is favored by Progressives, can be abused and corrupted. Reason, which is favored by Classical Liberals and Libertarians can be misinformed and too abstract. The most reliable tool to build a sustainable and stable society is tradition because we know it works. To paraphrase the late Sir Roger Scruton, Conservatism is the idea that when presented with horrendous and radical ideas, maybe society shouldn’t change. 

The Roots of American Progressivism 

A Progressive says to the Conservative that tradition might be great, but human history has frequently shown that the old ways of life have benefited the few at the expense of the many. The year is 1890, the beginning of the modern American Progressive movement. America is in the midst of the Gilded Age, a period of tremendous economic expansion and tremendous wealth inequality. The rich live in luxurious mansions while the less fortunate toil in horrific working conditions that characterized American industry at the time. The political process is blatantly dominated by entrenched powerful factions that stand for the interests of the few over the many. Empowered by advancements in education and science, people can tell that something isn’t quite right. The foundations of American democracy have provided the people with freedom which is essential, but are people truly free when they are kept down by powerful economic interests? This question runs in accordance with Isaiah Berlin’s definition of positive freedom in “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958) as liberation not just from coercion, but from the danger of unregulated goods as Upton Sinclair described in The Jungle (1906) and the desperate living and working conditions as documented by Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives (1890). In light of these considerations, popular change was necessary over the dated notions of order and liberty. The Center for American Progress quotes the Progressive John Dewey when he remarked,

“Liberty in the concrete signifies release from the impact of particular oppressive forces; emancipation from something once taken as a normal part of human life but now experienced as bondage. At one time, liberty signified liberation from chattel slavery; at another time, release of a class from serfdom…Today it signifies liberation from material insecurity and from the coercions and repressions that prevent multitudes from the participation in the vast cultural resources that are at hand.”

The Center for American Progress also adds,

“In the famous formulation of progressive thought often associated with the progressive theorist Herbert Croly, this meant using Hamiltonian means (national action) to achieve Jeffersonian ends (liberty, equality, and opportunity). Progressives’ overall goal was to replace a rigid economic philosophy—one that had morphed from its egalitarian roots into a legalistic defense of economic power and privilege—with a more democratic political order that allowed people to flourish individually within a larger national community.”

A Progressive intellectual famous for his defense of egalitarianism and a positive conception of freedom, it is no surprise that John Rawls worked alongside Isaiah Berlin while at Oxford. Rawls is most famous for his work, “Justice as Fairness (1958), in which he outlines his first principle: that everyone being metaphysically equal, we all possess the same indefeasible claim to a set of equal liberties, e.g. the right to speak freely, think independently, to not be aggressed, etc.; and his second principle; the social and economic inequality between otherwise equal individuals can only be justified if both of the following conditions are met: firstly, that the positions be open to all under conditions of equality of opportunity; secondly, that the inequality is to the greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society. 

Rawls’ moral injunction that, for a society to be just, its policies must behoove those worst off is best illustrated by the following graph provided by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Unlike an absolute egalitarian who would advocate for economy A, in which all economic tertiles experience a truly equitable distribution of wealth, Rawls’ minimaxing philosophy calls for Economy C to be adopted. This is because, while not resulting in the greatest good for the greatest number (an optimal utilitarian outcome) like Economy D does, this is the policy which leaves the least-advantaged tertile the best off. 

Rawls’ conception of justice is naturally antagonistic to a system of justice which recognizes and upholds all individuals’ equal right to self-ownership, as espoused by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974). While Rawlsian progressives may be affronted by Nozick’s assertion that people have a right against being forced to assist others, and would certainly contest that to forcibly transfer income from one to another is morally equivalent to forced labor, both Progressives and Libertarians believe in what Rawls described as public reason, summarized by the The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as:

Citizens engaged in certain political activities have a duty of civility to be able to justify their decisions on fundamental political issues by reference only to public values and public standards.

That is, unlike Conservatives, especially Paleo-Conservatives like Patrick Buchanan, both Progressives and Libertarians believe it is insufficient to appeal to a given religious doctrine or some special instance-revealed wisdom to proscribe any system of laws or adjudication thereof. Furthermore, Progressives and Libertarians reject the appeal to nature with which Conservatives claim that, by the simple accident of being born within or choosing to live within the geographic confines of a certain state, you have implicitly consented to the prevailing system of laws, morals and justice. 

Progressives believe that every generation builds on the next, which stems from the narrative of history theory provided by the German philosopher Hegel. Much like American Progressives, Hegel was inspired by the 18th and 19th-century German state which was highly advanced for its time. To him, it showed that states and societies continued to advance through the years and eventually there would come a point in history where most problems could be solved through collective institutions. Institutions like science and academia which continue to build on the past could then be leveraged by an increasingly competent state to solve the problems that have long plagued humanity. This is why Progressives are friendly to change and revolution, because they often associate them with a narrative of history that builds on the past and fulfills democratic functions.

This is in contrast to Conservatives and many Classical Liberals who believe that every generation starts from zero and that history could go in any direction if the right ideas aren’t passed down. 

Progressives, unlike Conservatives, subscribe to the idea that society can be advanced with new theoretical ideas, particularly through science, academia, and reason more generally. The 19th century American journalist and activist, Edward Bellamy, took this belief to its utopian conclusion in Looking Backward (1888) in which he argued that all pain, suffering, strife and scarcity would be ultimately resolved through technological and scientific progress. A Progressive seeks to leverage the resources that arise from a prosperous, educated, and free society to create a stronger national and international community that can ensure the success of all. Progressivism demonstrates a populist embrace of the common good over the values of tradition and individual freedom.

Classical Liberalism/ American Libertarianism

Classical liberalism is predicated upon negative rights of free and rational individuals. The legitimacy and primacy of these principles are believed, a priori, to be natural, non-derogable, and universal. Individual freedom is viewed as superior to any abstract idea of the collective good enforced by the government because, in the words of Deirdre McCloskey,

“The Leveller Richard Rumbold, facing his execution in 1685, declared, “I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another; for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.”

Libertarianism as a philosophy holds the individual as an end in and of himself, not to be used as a means to further the Conservative goal of a cohesive society nor the Progressive objective of the “common good.” In stark juxtaposition to a Rawlsian conception of distributive justice, as well as the Conservative conviction in duty and sacrifice, the Libertarian first principle of self-ownership prohibits the treatment of people “as mere things to use or trade off against each other.”

While Rawls would contend that one can simultaneously respect autonomy and promote equality, Robert Nozick would beg to differ. Nozick holds that one can either respect people’s sovereignty over their lives, labor and property, or one can favor the abrogation of this autonomy in order to forcibly redistribute resources as need be. This dichotomy was teased out a century earlier when the French Classical Liberal political economist, Frederic Bastiat, recounted his debate with French statesman Alphonse de Lamartine:

“Mr. de Lamartine once wrote to me thusly: “Your doctrine is only the half of my program. You have stopped at liberty; I go on to fraternity.” I answered him: “The second half of your program will destroy the first.” (The Law, 1850)

Bastiat, like Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) more than a century later, continued to explain how such a system of distributive justice necessarily undermines a system of justice predicated on respect for human liberty, self-ownership, and autonomy:

“In fact, it is impossible for me to separate the word fraternity from the word voluntary. I cannot possibly understand how fraternity can be legally enforced without liberty being legally destroyed, and thus justice being legally trampled underfoot.” (Ibid)

However, while many Progressives and Conservatives are skeptical of individualism and egoism, classical economic texts such as Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the the Wealth of Nations (1776) and Frederic Bastiat’s Economic Harmonies (1850) recognize that, in pursuing their own happiness, profit and well-being, individuals create and exchange value with those around them and make the society, unintentionally and unwittingly, better off. Far from being atomistic and antisocial, Libertarians believe in helping those disadvantaged through voluntary association and charity, as documented by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835):

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate.”

While many Libertarians base their conviction in autonomy on a Lockean conception of Natural Law and Natural Rights as universal, non-derogable, and existing a priori, there are less tautological pathways to a Libertarian system of morals and justice. F. A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and other Austrian school economists contend that free markets and free people are not just the least coercive and most just way of arranging society, but that such a system is the most efficient means of communicating complex information of local needs, desires, productive capacities. Therefore, if one were to substitute a monocentric form of governance instead of a polycentric, voluntary market-based system, the coordination of prices and communications of subjective value would be next to impossible. 

Instead of forwarding a system of law and justice which seeks to make economic and other material outcomes between members of a society equitable, Libertarians, at least, those who believe in a state-provided justice or legal system, believe that justice is strictly negative in nature and should punish those who would violate individual autonomy. As articulated in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), those rules which

“[c]all loudest for vengeance and punishment are the laws which guard the life and person of our neighbour; the next are those which guard his property and possessions; and last of all come those which guard what are called his personal rights, or what is due to him from the promises of others [a.k.a. contracts].”

At its core, Classical Liberalism seeks to leverage the power of spontaneous order, markets, and individual rights to create the most prosperity for the most people in the most ways possible. It is suspicious of government power, as it understands that it is a necessary evil to preserve individual rights at best and an incompetent, genocidal leviathan at its worse. Classical liberalism is as old as the human spirit itself. It’s reflected in the ancient stories of civilizations and their struggle to be free and prosperous. It asserts that no man is born to be a slave to any other and entitled to his own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. 

Key Takeaways

It is clear that we have barely scratched the surface as each of these ideologies are worthy of entire volumes of books. American political thought is unique from the rest of the world in that for the most part, all sides value freedom, some more than others. In many countries, political spectrums can swing from old school Communism, to religious theocracy, to monarchy. The three major schools of thought we outline all try to put forward a vision for society that prioritizes liberty and well-being. They have their own unique histories and doctrines that understanding not only enlightens one to their finer workings but also to the forces that shape human civilization. Understanding the intellectual foundations of these ideologies will not only elevate political discussion but lend greater clarity to the political forces and narratives driving change in society.

Read the Full Article here: >AIER