Its “California Forum” section front page is dominated by a huge story and editorial cartoon on “Why we need food stamps,” occupying 2/3 of the front page. (It’s humorously disguised as “Views on food: an occasional series.”) Inside we find an opinion piece from Leonard Pitts, Jr., of the Miami Herald, entitled “At Easter, heed call to save the children.” The “Viewpoints” page carries an article by Ann Notthoff, California advocacy director for the National Resources Defense Council, called “Senate set to gut nation’s key law that safeguards the environment.” On the back page, the Editorial Board itself posts an editorial opining that “Sequester cuts could add to homelessness.” And finally, not to be out-libbed by the writers, the editorial cartoonist Jack Ohman draws up a cartoon entitled “New York Stockton Exchange” blaming Wall Street bankers for Stockton’s looming bankruptcy.
The rest of the section is filled with fluff pieces and anodyne exhortations for better public behavior (e.g., “California must vet various operating models for its struggling state parks”). Nowhere will you find a single article, opinion piece, editorial, or cartoon speaking for our founding American principles. Dissent is airbrushed out behind an avalanche of politically correct posturing.
The Recovering Bureaucrat occasionally takes on the tedious task of fisking these assaults on careful thinking and analysis because it is the relentless and ubiquitous nature of these statist opinions that have over the past forty years helped shape public hostility to our founding American principles of limited government, individual freedom, and consent of the governed.
Multiply this single editorial section of a single newspaper in a medium-sized market by 52 weeks a year and by all the media markets in the country; add in the worldview of the major television networks and their endless propagandizing; and finally figure in forty years of the dumbing down of academia and you arrive at a mass culture that assumes that the belief system of the Church of the All Powerful State is the only appropriate one.
And what’s the message behind all the Bee’s editorializing? It’s the “progressive” notion that the founding principles of the United States as stated in the Declaration of Independence and embodied in the governance principles of the Constitution are outmoded and in fact inimical to survival in today’s complex world. Individual liberty is seen as a danger to our collective existence and thus must be superseded by a new set of principles that place the sum of us above the individuals of us.
“Progressive” thinking and attitudes have so permeated our public discourse that most of us assume that they have always been part of the American governing philosophy. But that is not so.
Hegelian Origins of Progressivism
It’s important to understand the history of this “progressive” creed now animating the Church of the All Powerful State. Its philosophy was invented in the 19th century by, among others, Georg W. F. Hegel, the towering intellect of his time, who saw the all-powerful state as the embodiment of the will of a people to progress as a civilization.
In his Philosophy of History, compiled in 1837, Hegel says that
World history is only concerned with peoples who formed states. Any "value" and any "spiritual reality" is through the State alone, because the State is a direct embodiment of the "rational essence" of a given people; it is the essence of a people in a form that is "objectively there for them as knowers." In that sense, the State allows for self-consciousness, both of its people, and, through them, of Spirit. Thus, the State is also the realization of the Spirit in the world, "the divine Idea as it exists on earth," the thing in which "freedom gains its objectivity."Hegel’s writings stretch across thousands of pages; what he was trying to communicate was a both a powerful critique of Romanticism and an integral understanding of cosmic evolution that could account for all phenomena. His was a pioneering inquiry, and the system of the evolution of Spirit as it was impacting humanity in his day resonated powerfully with those Europeans already inclined to follow the Americans by overthrowing monarchy and instilling democracy. Hegel influenced every continental philosopher that followed him, even as the sprawling nature of his writings made his thoughts subject to considerable misinterpretation.
Thus, among many others, Hegel inspired not only Karl Marx and the continental communist movement, but also Otto von Bismarck and the prototypical welfare state he introduced to the unified German Empire. In America, especially after the Civil War, Hegel’s thought was transmitted by students seeking postgraduate degrees before any universities offered them. According to Jean Yarbrough, author of Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition, “Americans who wished to pursue advanced degrees were compelled to study abroad, with the overwhelming number of them enrolling at German universities, principally at Heidelberg and Berlin.” Such was the influence that they brought back with them that Walt Whitman wrote, “Only Hegel is fit for America—is large enough and free enough.”
And what did Hegel bring postwar Americans? As they began to assimilate the Darwinian theories about evolution, and as “social Darwinism” started coming into vogue, Yarbrough writes,
Hegelian philosophy, stressing the progressive unfolding of freedom in history, seemed to offer . . . a way to make sense out of their own experience. With Hegel as their guide, they now saw the Civil War as a dialectical clash between the southern slaveholders’ “abstract right” and the northern abolitionists’ “abstract morality,” through which the United States emerged at last a unified nation. Carrying this logic forward, they were convinced that it was time for America to advance toward a new synthesis: an “ethical state” that would satisfy the spiritual as well as the material needs of the nation.And thus regarding America’s founding classical liberal philosophy of natural rights, Hegel’s doctrine that “these ‘subjective’ rights did not naturally belong to the individual but were the gift of the state” began to attract those concerned about the disruption that industrialization was wreaking upon the American social compact. These men and women eventually coalesced into the Progressive Movement, spearheaded politically by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and philosophically by such men as Richard Ely, Herbert Croly, and Walter Lippman.
Beyond providing Americans with an interpretive framework for understanding their own troubled history, Hegel offered a comprehensive critique of Lockean liberalism . . . To begin with, liberal political philosophy looked at “man” in the abstract as he existed in a “state of nature,” apart from all social and political influences. It then went on to construct a model of legitimate government for human beings everywhere, based on the idea that all men were equal with respect to certain inalienable rights.
. . . Hegel sought to rectify this error by focusing on the development of particular peoples in their concrete historical circumstances. By history, Hegel did not mean the record of random and contingent events; rather, history was the movement of Spirit or reason, directing the actions of individuals and leading them toward a greater consciousness and realization of freedom.
. . . Freedom was not, then, as the social compact philosophers argued, the natural condition of all individuals everywhere, but emerged only historically as men became conscious of their freedom and acted on it. Far from being the gift of nature, freedom had to “be achieved and won through an endless process involving the discipline of knowledge and will.”
All of them rejected the original doctrine of the U. S. Constitution, based on the classical liberalism of the European (and in particular the Scottish) Enlightenment, and instead sought to replace it with a Hegelian “community rights” orientation that would put the welfare of the collective above that of the individual.
Of course, the debate between the “progressives” and the classical liberals has now raged for over a century. The turning point came with the election of Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal firmly turned American governance away from its founding principles. A number of rear guard actions have been fought since then, most notably in the presidency of Ronald Reagan, but Americans have yet to decisively reject the “progressive” philosophy. In fact, with the presidency of Barack Obama, we are currently swinging back toward “progressive” bias; the traditionalists are in disarray and can do little more than impede the state aggrandizement project of the Left.
It is an article of faith among the traditionalists, the Recovering Bureaucrat included, that the “progressive” detour is an aberration, and that its platform contains the seeds of its own destruction. (The reverse belief is also true for the progressives.) This presumes an objective truth about reality, which may be in fact not accurate—at least as far as we can apply our current evolutionary tools for knowing. It would perhaps be prudent to adopt an attitude of humility when it comes to these matters, for it often appears that we humans are making things up as we go along, and only later find a philosophical framework to explain what we did.
That is not to say that we cannot subject these philosophical conjectures to some rigorous analysis. It seems evident to the RB that rigor is not a particular hallmark of the Left, because “progressivism” has incorporated postmodern deconstructionism, thereby setting reason and logic loose and replacing them with emotion, something which by its very nature cannot be analyzed rigorously.
The Invisible Propaganda Machine
Which brings us back to fisking that tiresome Sacramento Bee editorial section.
Ms. Elaine Corn’s paean to the federal food stamp program begins with the obligatory conservative-bashing; Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) receive the lash of her righteousness. Sessions, in fact, gets a double slap: not only did he “attack the U. S. Department of Agriculture for encouraging people to enroll in SNAP” (the new Orwellian name for food stamps: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), he had the temerity to oppose raising the federal minimum wage (“a stance that many would find immoral”). This is “immoral” because the current low wage rate is why so many people to need food stamps.
She then recounts her own experience as a SNAP beneficiary eight years ago when she and her husband “lost a business and became instantly unemployed.” Unintimidated by the “room bare as an interrogation cell” where she filled out her application, she found that “being on food stamps was marvelous.” Why, she was even able to shop at Whole Foods and buy lamb, salmon, and brie!
Not only does SNAP help the needy like Ms. Corn and her family, it is in fact “designed” as “an economic stimulus.” “Using an 89-cent head of broccoli as an example, the federal reimbursement for the full 89 cents benefits the grower, the distributor, the store and the person who consumes the broccoli’s nutrition.” It’s “a nearly instantaneous transfer of funds from Washington” that “starts a cash ripple effect locally.” If the evil Republicans prevent a raise of the minimum wage to “a living wage, expect even more people to need” SNAP.
Why listen to Paul Krugman when we have Elaine Corn to explain basic economics to us ignorant voters? Like Krugman, Ms. Corn believes in magic, that money just simply appears “from Washington,” and that the government is a benign and disinterested caretaker of the impoverished American children. She has no curiosity about the root causes of an unprecedented number of Americans accepting SNAP’s wealth transfer payments; she doesn’t even explain why her family business failed in 2005. She does not attempt to explain, much less understand, the principles that people like Sen. Sessions and Sen. Roberts might apply in opposing the expansion of federal government power into the lives of ordinary citizens, nor does she seem particularly worried about its impact on her own freedoms.
Leonard Pitts uses his column to explain how Easter week commemorates “that in the end, the bitterest tears transmute to the greatest joy,” so of course we have to have stricter gun control laws. That’s because children are gunned down in the streets of America, demonstrating “our failure to keep them safe.” The cause of this failure is that “ours is a nation that does not simply enable private gun ownership, but that worships and fetishizes it to the point were sensible restrictions—even sensible conversation—seems impossible.”
Mr. Pitts also indulges in the standard leftist demonization of those who do not share his beliefs and misuse of statistics to support his argument. “Nearly 100,000 people will be shot this year, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.” Well, yes. Deaths by gunshot have averaged about 30,000 per year for the past thirty years, with about a third of those caused by murder. Yet somehow Mr. Pitts manages to miss the trend: gunshot wounds and deaths per capita are both steadily trending downward.
The article is frivolous; its argument puerile and illogical. But by focusing on our emotional response to the horror of children murdered, it’s an all-too-typical weapon stashed in the arsenal of the Church of the All Powerful State.
Ann Notthoff’s article laments the U. S. Senate’s amending of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), “the ‘green Magna Carta’” that leads to many a “happy win-win . . . At its core, it’s about government transparency and accountability.” But now “some in Congress want to gut” NEPA, including our own Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. Comparing assaults on NEPA to demands for reform of California’s Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), Notthoff dismisses the reformers assertion that they want to streamline the laws by declaring that “in fact they are steamrolling over the public’s right to full participation in government decisions.” The RB finds this ironic because Sen. Boxer is a darling of the greens; Ms. Notthoff’s conspicuous silence on the Senator’s motivations speaks volumes.
Notthoff’s is a PR piece for the NRDC’s (a key choir in the Church of the All Powerful State) policy of using environmental concerns to disguise its aims of ever-increasing government control over our daily lives and economic activities. Think the RB is making this up? On Monday of this week a California legislative committee approved a bill to give the California Coastal Commission authority to levy fines against alleged violators rather than taking them to court. What’s a little due process when an unelected body disapproves of actions you might want to take with your own property? It’s an article of the progressive faith that such assemblies of “experts” are smarter and more loving of the community than you.
“Green” babble is just the latest method of bludgeoning us into accepting government control over all of our personal choices and decisions. Using our justified concerns about the effects of environmental degradation they find increasingly authoritarian ways to impose their arbitrary view of the proper world on an uninvolved and self-absorbed citizenry.
Now that you’ve been assaulted with all this collection of emotional and illogical flimflammery, you get to the Editorial Board’s fine work. It, too, starts with the obligatory slap at old white guy reactionaries, this time Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS). It seems they have been too cavalier about the impacts of the sequestration agreed to by both the Congress and President Obama upon the poor people in Sacramento.
Why? Because the authors think that they could not care less that the “Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency is bracing for a 9.4% cut, or the loss of $13.9 million this year. The bulk of the money goes to subsidize rents for poor families.” After examining various options for addressing the short-term stress this might cause, the Editorial Board resolutely discovers “the ultimate solution”: Congress should end sequestration!
It’s probably too snide to note the complete disregard for the long-term policies that have got us to the place where so many people are dependent on wealth transfer to subsidize their rents. The relentless growth of dependency in the name of the children (as the editors make sure to point out) presumes the endless expansion of money to pay for them. When the money runs out—which sequestration bluntly warns—those who were lured onto the dole are the ones left in the lurch, not those who designed the programs or voted to raise the taxes to pay for them. That these actions may have depressed economic activity that might have allowed these families to earn enough to take care of themselves is not even considered.
So of course when the money runs out, it is natural to cry, “find more money someplace else,” and “tax the rich!” True leadership demands acceptance of reality, including human nature, as it is, not as we wish it to be. Only an expanding economy will yield more tax revenue. The Bee’s Editorial Board has been a cheerleader for every government dependency program that has come along, and yet they still don’t lose any sleep wondering about what their policy prescriptions have wrought.
As for Jeff Ohman’s silly editorial cartoon, perhaps it is sufficient to say that while depicting evil Wall Street bankers as white, fat, cigar-sucking greed bags might have some correspondence with reality, to pretend that the city fathers of Stockton who engaged them in their own fiscal follies are hapless victims of Wall Street greed is downright inane. But it’s in sync with the left’s determination to make us feel like victims whose only salvation lies in state protection.
This is just a snapshot of the invisible propaganda of the Church of the All Powerful State, seducing us to give in to its promises of utopia and peace. And because we contain within ourselves ambivalence about our capacity to survive and triumph particularly in chaotic times like today, many of us listen.
Systems of Hope v. Systems of Fear
Humanity has long struggled with the evolution of our ideas about ourselves, our world, and our nature. That in the nineteenth century philosophers like Hegel came to theorize that the State could be the guarantor of individual freedom was a tribute to their optimism about the possibilities that the political economy of their time suggested. That people perverted their ideas to less than noble aims out of their own fears or desires to dominate others is just part of our evolutionary struggle.
The Recovering Bureaucrat insists that we are better capable of defeating this manifestation of our dark side when we understand how things evolved to the straits we have created for ourselves today. The Progressive Movement’s greatest minds thought, like Hegel, that the State, created by universal assent of its people, could be the instrument to ennoble them. They wanted to believe that we could thereby transcend human nature and, among other things, create a servant class of disinterested experts to whom we could entrust the regulation of our economy to our collective mutual benefit. The dream of an eternally leveled playing field burns brightly in our hearts.
The Founders were, fortunately for this evolutionary struggle, devoid of this romanticism. They believed that for self-governance to work we must accept the reality of its citizens’ human nature. They devised a system that used our innate self-interest as leverage for governing toward the common good. They understood that tyranny in any form, even from a supposedly benign government, would undercut the power of the individual to be responsible for his or her own life, and that once that occurred, humanity would essentially be returned to a feudal state.
Successful self-governance is hard work, and it never ends. We know this to be true of ourselves as individuals, yet we have lost sight of this for our collective selves. Permitting someone else to make decisions for us that we should be making for ourselves is simply agreeing to surrender our sovereignty and become someone else’s serfs.
America’s founding was a resounding rejection of this pessimistic vision of humanity. It was and remains an invitation to be guided by the better angels of our nature. It is an invitation to stay engaged with the ongoing struggle to evolve toward the best of our possibilities, something that can only be done by assent, not by coercion.
Hegel and his students were wrong about the role of the State. Until humanity evolves to a level where everyone operates at Maslow’s highest level of needs fulfillment—self actualization—the State will always be a potential instrument of tyranny rather than enlightenment.
Hegel died in Berlin in 1831. Thirty years later a man became president of the United States who embodied the antithesis of Hegel’s State worship. Abraham Lincoln led his country through a bloody civil war to “a new birth of freedom” where the strategy of limited government established in the Constitution secured and perpetuated the universal principles of individual sovereignty set forth in the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln’s words, deeds, and example are the refutation of Hegel, the “progressives,” and the Church of the All Powerful State.
The Recovering Bureaucrat recommends study of Lincoln to the Editorial Board of the Sacramento Bee, the Republican Party, and to all Americans, for that matter. Lincoln and the majority of Americans who rallied to him knew that free citizens living our lives in peace, unencumbered by the pestering of blue noses, nannies, and overseers, governing ourselves by rule of law with a carefully and strictly limited government, is worth the blood shed to get there.