The reconciliation of government with liberty

UR is neither a politics blog or a link blog. Frankly, citing others’ work detracts from the atmosphere of maniacal solipsism I’m trying to nurture. And it offends my vanity to suggest that anyone else may have said anything before me, or said it better, or worse—both.

However, Conrad Roth’s history of Western art from the perspective of podiatric mycosis is simply too audacious to go unnoticed. So is Michael Rozeff’s tale of murky intrigue in the secret world of Gay Nineties geology.

And for any readers who found my vicious excoriation of 20th-century American politics a little immoderate, I have just the book for you: The Reconciliation of Government with Liberty, by John Burgess (1915, free from the Internet Archive—the Google version is very badly scanned).

I may be unqualified—in fact, I am. But some may find it easier to accept the same statements from John Burgess, JD, PhD, founder and dean of Columbia’s Faculty of Political Science, “widely regarded as one of the founders of modern political science.”

Of the Progressive Movement, in the concluding chapter of a 394-page book, published three years after his retirement, which sketches the story of all efforts to secure liberty in government, on every continent and for all of human history, Burgess writes:

Down to the year 1898, we had all this [limited government] in fair degree and in fuller measure than any other state of the world.

It needed some readjustments, but no radical or revolutionary changes. But it did not lend itself to an imperial policy abroad nor to a paternal programme at home. A School of Sociologists and Political Economists arose, who, impatient of the voluntary methods of religion, charity, and philanthropy, have sought to accomplish what they call social justice, the social uplift, by governmental force. There is no question that they have exercised a strong influence in directing the thought of the present, and they have taught the politicians that there is no vote-catcher in a system of universal suffrage comparable to the promise of forcing those who have to divide with those who have not or have less. The Jingo and the Social Reformer have gotten together and have formed a political party, which threatened to capture the Government and use it for the realization of their programme of Caesaristic paternalism, a danger which appears now to have been averted only by the other parties having themselves adopted this programme in a somewhat milder degree and form. All parties are now declaring themselves to be Progressives, and all mean in substance the same thing by this claim, viz.: the increase of governmental power over the constitutional Immunities of the Individual, the solution by force of the problems of the social relations heretofore regulated by influence, by religion, conscience, charity, and human feeling, the substitution of the club of the policeman for the crosier of the priest, the supersession of education, morals, and philanthropy by administrative ordinance.

And here is his prediction for the result. Remember, this dude is writing in 1915. Next to the bombastic monstrosity of today’s Polygon, the regime of Woodrow Wilson was unimaginably small, simple and humble. It was libertarian beyond the wildest fantasies of the Cato Institute. But Burgess saw it differently:

And let us also profoundly reflect what may be the effect of a vast advance in governmental power and activity. In his criticism of Hasbach’s recent most valuable work upon Modern Democracy, Professor Schmoller relates that when, in the year 1890, the question of social reform was being considered by the Prussian Council of State, the Emperor uttered these profound, and for so young a man, remarkable words. He said: “Das Mass ertraglicher socialer Reform ist bedingt durch die Starke der Staatsgewalt und deshalb ist bei uns Vieles moglich, was anderwarts vielleicht gefahrlich ware.” That is, a permanent, stable, powerful Government, a Government standing over all classes in the Society and independent of them all, might be trusted to say how far force can be safely employed in requiring sacrifices from one class to another, but a changing, shifting Government, a Government representing either the property class, or the propertyless class, especially a Government representing the propertyless or small-property class, a Government representing the modern democracy under universal suffrage, a Government representing the class to be benefited by the confiscation and redistribution of wealth through governmental force, cannot be safely trusted with any such power. It would become a temporary despotism, which would destroy property, use up accumulated wealth, make enterprise impossible, discourage intelligence and thrift, encourage idleness and sloth, and pauperize and barbarize the whole people.

This is no idle prophecy. The whole history of the world’s political development sustains it. The history of that development shows beyond any question or cavil that a Republic with unlimited Government cannot stand, that a Republic, which makes its Government the arbiter of business, is of all forms of state the most universally corrupt, and that a Republic, which undertakes to do its cultural work through governmental force, is of all forms of state the most demoralizing. If a state will have Government undertake those tasks which naturally belong, or have come through historical development to belong, within the sphere of Individual Liberty, then it must have a Government lifted so far above all class and party interests that it cannot be controlled or even influenced by any of them. But this is authority reaching from above downward and not from below upward. This is Monarchy in the original sense of jure-divino sovereignty. This is the reason for and the advantage of its existence. But, for us, this is not progress. It is for us retrogression of the most positive kind known to political history.

In the face of this consideration, it is time, high time, for us to call a halt in our present course of increasing the sphere of Government and decreasing that of Liberty, and inquire carefully whether what is happening is not the passing of the Republic, the passing of the Christian religion, and the return to Caesarism, the rule of the one by popular acclaim, the apotheosis of Government and the universal decline of the consciousness of, and the desire for, true Liberty. The world has made this circuit several times before. Are we making it again or is it only a step backward in order to get a better foothold for another advance in the true direction? Let us hope it is the latter and make it so by keeping always consciously before us as the goal of political civilization the reconciliation of Government with Liberty, so that, however, the latter shall be seen to be the more ultimate, shall be seen to be both end and means, while the former is only means. This is fundamental in the profoundest sense and there can be no sound progress in political civilization without it.

And with those words he ends his book.