"W e're making progress downstairs," Mr. Peepers told me a few weeks ago, "Why is that a bad thing?"
He's an all-around handyman in the office, and he'd been tasked with renovating some old office space into a multimedia conference room. He seemed satisfied with his work.
"Why do you ask that?" I asked, "Does someone disapprove?"
"Why is progress a bad thing?" he requeried.
"Who says it is?"
"Mr. Right, Republicans, conservatives. They don't like progressives, but what's wrong with progress?"
I've been pondering ever since how to explain it in a way that's intellectually fair to conservatives. That gave George Will time to write a column that explains it as well as anyone could.
Will has just read a critique of American progressivism written by conservative editor William Vogeli. According to Vogeli, writes Will, progressivism is defined by the absence of a "limiting principle." They believe, we may presume, that progress itself is limitless, that things can get better and better, even if they may also get worse at times. Conservatives by definition question whether progress is improvement. It's a fair question to ask, but some conservatives automatically assume that progress, understood as deviation from proven wisdom, is often the opposite of improvement. It often depends on the subject of progress. Few conservatives, I presume, question technological or scientific improvements, except possibly in the realm of biology. In politics, however, conservatives by definition believe that the definitive answers to the problems of human society have already been discovered. They believe either that the answers were given to us by a higher power, or that they were discovered through the use of reason applied to the subject of the abstract human individual. For the latter group, the problems of politics are solved by discovering the "natural rights" of individuals, which follow from "human nature." Since human nature is unchanging, so are our natural rights. In Will's words, they are "rights that human reason can ascertain in unchanging principles of conduct." This was once a radical viewpoint, so long as it granted individuals more rights than traditional governments did. It becomes conservative, and must do so inevitably, once political progress comes up against the supposed limits of natural rights. A believer in natural rights most likely believes that there is an upper limit to what people can demand as their rights from society. There may be no limit to the individual's right to what he can "earn," but there must be a limit, conservatives believe, to what he can demand materially from other individuals. That limit applies to governments as well.
Will, speaking for himself as well as, presumably, for Vogeli, believes that Progressivism is a heresy against the Founders. As he understands them, they instituted government "to protect pre-existing and timeless natural rights." This understanding depends on the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution, of course, though the provision for amendments in the latter document belies any Founding commitment to inherently limited rights. Progressivism, which Will partisanly dates back only to Democrat Woodrow Wilson (forgetting his predecessor, Republican Teddy Roosevelt) is a repudiation and reversal of the Founding restraints upon government and a mandate for unlimited state power at the expense of individuals' most important natural right, that of keeping the property they earn. As elaborated by arch-Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, it threatens to treat "all human desires as needs and hence as rights." Will does not elaborate on which of our desires don't make the timeless cut, but one can imagine.
Since I write about the Progressive Era, I have some idea of what Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt were about. They weren't as interested in government vis-a-vis the individual as Will would imply. They and fellow Progressives believed that government had to grow because the nation had grown and, most importantly, business had grown. Wilson and TR differed in their approach to the problem, but they both recognized the problem presented by the rise of giant corporations, monopolies and trusts, as well as the slower rise of large-scale labor unions in opposition to corporate power. Progressives believed that corporate influence could overwhelm traditionally-limited government, and they believed that it was the nation's business to govern corporations. They also saw government as an objective referee between Big Business and Big Labor, and realized that it had to become Big Government, or at least bigger than the 1788 ideal, to do so. They were Progressives not because they had a theory of desirable human or social Progress, but because they saw Progress happening right in front of them and had to deal with it. Whoever questions Progressivism had better be able to prove that the problems that Roosevelt and Wilson perceived weren't really problems.
Will and Vogeli complain that there's no apparent limit to progressive rights claims on government or government claims to more power, but nowhere in his column does Will assert a limit to the individual right to accumulate personal wealth. But if society is to be based on limits, then limits should apply to individuals as well as the state. The Progressives saw an imbalance developing in favor of wealth and other concentrations of power. The Founders themselves worried about the effect of inequality on their ideal polity. As far as I can tell from this column, George Will is unconcerned about inequality. So who's really against the American tradition this time?