Category: Robert Curry

How to Defend the Second Amendment


Defending the 2nd Amendment by Robert Curry a

Recently, there has been quite a lot written in defense of the Second Amendment.  Some of those defenses have been quite good, but what is most remarkable to me is that I have not found one that makes the case as the American Founders would have.  Perhaps some did, and I simply failed to find them. 

On one side of the debate, there is the left.  The Founders’ understanding is certainly not to be found there.  The left rejects the thinking of the Founders and is determined to take the Founders’ republic down.  On the other side, the defenders of the Founders do not even use the language of the Founders – and do not seem to realize how far afield they have wandered.  James Madison, who drafted the Second Amendment, would be astonished by this strange post-constitutional, even post-American, debate.  

How would any of the Founders have made the case for the Second Amendment?  Why, in terms of unalienable rights, of course.  The concept of unalienable rights is the key to understanding the American Founding.  The Declaration of Independence declared that we have unalienable rights.  It went on to declare that securing those rights is the very purpose of government – “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”  According to the Declaration, any government that deviates from the noble purpose of securing those rights is illegitimate.

John Paul Stevens – how astonishing that this man once served on the Supreme Court, charged with upholding the Constitution! – and others have called for repealing the Second Amendment.  But according to the Founders, repealing the Second Amendment would not get rid of our unalienable right to keep and bear arms. No action by government can overturn an unalienable right.  An unalienable right remains no matter how a government moves against it.  That’s what “unalienable” means.  Repealing the Second Amendment would not in put an end to the right it was designed to protect; it would only put an end to the government’s claim to legitimacy.

To understand the Second Amendment as the Founders did, we need to remember what the Constitution does.  It defines how the federal government is to function – and the very purpose of its design is to secure our unalienable rights.  Consequently, unalienable rights are senior to, on a higher level than, the Constitution and, of course, any amendment to the Constitution.  The sequence in logic goes like this:

The Constitution is all about defining and dispersing the powers of government.  It is fundamentally a design for limiting the federal government, limiting it precisely in order to secure our unalienable rights from attempts by people in government to violate or even infringe upon those rights.  In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”

In fact, the Founders’ understanding of unalienable rights caused Madison and other Founders to oppose a bill of rights initially.  Here is Hamilton in Federalist 84:

It has been several times truly remarked, that bills of rights are, in their origin, stipulations between kings and their subjects, abridgments of [royal] prerogative in favour of privilege[.] … Here, in strictness, the people surrender nothing; and as they retain everything they have no need of particular reservations[.] … For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?  Why, for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?

For Madison and Hamilton, a bill of rights, traditionally a concession of privileges wrested from the sovereign political power, had no place in the American Constitution.  (When Madison eventually realized that the public’s demand for a bill of rights made it a political necessity, he took responsibility for drafting it and made certain that it included the Ninth Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

The Ninth was intended to insure that enumerating some rights would not have the effect of narrowing our understanding of the vast range of our unalienable rights.

Now, let’s consider the First Amendment before moving on to the Second.  Please notice how it begins: Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press[.]”  The very first words of the very first amendment are “Congress shall make no law.”  No rights are here granted to the citizen.  They cannot be because those rights are unalienable, that is, already possessed by the citizen. 

The First Amendment follows the logic of the Constitution as a whole; it restricts what the federal government – in this case, Congress – can do. 

So does the Second: “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  That “shall not be infringed” is strong language and perfectly clear.  To infringe is to trespass, to intrude, to encroach.  “Shall not be infringed” in plain language means “No Trespassing.”  And it is the government that is warned to keep out.

George Washington wrote that the American Founding occurred during a time “when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined than at any former period.”  Our current debate about the Second Amendment makes it all too clear that that better understanding and clearer definition of our rights has been slip-sliding away during the period in which you and I live.

Robert Curry serves on the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute and on the Board of Distinguished Advisers of the Ronald Reagan Center for Freedom and Understanding.  He is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books.  You can preview the book here.

Defending the 2nd Amendment by Robert Curry a

Recently, there has been quite a lot written in defense of the Second Amendment.  Some of those defenses have been quite good, but what is most remarkable to me is that I have not found one that makes the case as the American Founders would have.  Perhaps some did, and I simply failed to find them. 

On one side of the debate, there is the left.  The Founders’ understanding is certainly not to be found there.  The left rejects the thinking of the Founders and is determined to take the Founders’ republic down.  On the other side, the defenders of the Founders do not even use the language of the Founders – and do not seem to realize how far afield they have wandered.  James Madison, who drafted the Second Amendment, would be astonished by this strange post-constitutional, even post-American, debate.  

How would any of the Founders have made the case for the Second Amendment?  Why, in terms of unalienable rights, of course.  The concept of unalienable rights is the key to understanding the American Founding.  The Declaration of Independence declared that we have unalienable rights.  It went on to declare that securing those rights is the very purpose of government – “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”  According to the Declaration, any government that deviates from the noble purpose of securing those rights is illegitimate.

John Paul Stevens – how astonishing that this man once served on the Supreme Court, charged with upholding the Constitution! – and others have called for repealing the Second Amendment.  But according to the Founders, repealing the Second Amendment would not get rid of our unalienable right to keep and bear arms. No action by government can overturn an unalienable right.  An unalienable right remains no matter how a government moves against it.  That’s what “unalienable” means.  Repealing the Second Amendment would not in put an end to the right it was designed to protect; it would only put an end to the government’s claim to legitimacy.

To understand the Second Amendment as the Founders did, we need to remember what the Constitution does.  It defines how the federal government is to function – and the very purpose of its design is to secure our unalienable rights.  Consequently, unalienable rights are senior to, on a higher level than, the Constitution and, of course, any amendment to the Constitution.  The sequence in logic goes like this:

The Constitution is all about defining and dispersing the powers of government.  It is fundamentally a design for limiting the federal government, limiting it precisely in order to secure our unalienable rights from attempts by people in government to violate or even infringe upon those rights.  In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”

In fact, the Founders’ understanding of unalienable rights caused Madison and other Founders to oppose a bill of rights initially.  Here is Hamilton in Federalist 84:

It has been several times truly remarked, that bills of rights are, in their origin, stipulations between kings and their subjects, abridgments of [royal] prerogative in favour of privilege[.] … Here, in strictness, the people surrender nothing; and as they retain everything they have no need of particular reservations[.] … For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?  Why, for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?

For Madison and Hamilton, a bill of rights, traditionally a concession of privileges wrested from the sovereign political power, had no place in the American Constitution.  (When Madison eventually realized that the public’s demand for a bill of rights made it a political necessity, he took responsibility for drafting it and made certain that it included the Ninth Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

The Ninth was intended to insure that enumerating some rights would not have the effect of narrowing our understanding of the vast range of our unalienable rights.

Now, let’s consider the First Amendment before moving on to the Second.  Please notice how it begins: Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press[.]”  The very first words of the very first amendment are “Congress shall make no law.”  No rights are here granted to the citizen.  They cannot be because those rights are unalienable, that is, already possessed by the citizen. 

The First Amendment follows the logic of the Constitution as a whole; it restricts what the federal government – in this case, Congress – can do. 

So does the Second: “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  That “shall not be infringed” is strong language and perfectly clear.  To infringe is to trespass, to intrude, to encroach.  “Shall not be infringed” in plain language means “No Trespassing.”  And it is the government that is warned to keep out.

George Washington wrote that the American Founding occurred during a time “when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined than at any former period.”  Our current debate about the Second Amendment makes it all too clear that that better understanding and clearer definition of our rights has been slip-sliding away during the period in which you and I live.

Robert Curry serves on the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute and on the Board of Distinguished Advisers of the Ronald Reagan Center for Freedom and Understanding.  He is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books.  You can preview the book here.



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The Trouble with Conservatism


When FDR stole the name of “liberalism” to disguise the fact that he was a Progressive, he succeeded in doing more than simply confusing America’s voters in his day, many of whom had been made suspicious of Progressivism by Woodrow Wilson’s policies.  Taking for the Progressives the name that once belonged to the American founders was more than a brilliant election-winning tactical masterstroke.  FDR’s plan to sow confusion in the minds of the political opposition to Progressivism has become a war-winning strategy.  We see the results all around us.  While flying the flag of liberalism, the Progressives laid waste to the liberal Republic of the American founders.

The classical liberalism of the American founders focused on reining in the powers of government.  The purpose of the founders’ design of the government was protecting our unalienable rights from encroachment by people in the government.  Taking their cue from the German thinker GWF Hegel by way of Woodrow Wilson, the Progressives instead put their faith in the state.  They rejected the idea of the American Republic root and branch.  But the original Progressives understood the American people well enough to know that overthrowing the Republic by force and violence was out of the question.  So they set out to overthrow it little by little, progressively.

FDR’s capture of the flag of his political opponents made it easier for the Progressives to advance their project.  FDR left without a name the political opposition that wanted America to continue to live according to the Constitution.  What should they call themselves?  As Charles Kesler writes in his book I Am the Change, “FDR suggested, helpfully, that they ought to call themselves conservatives, a designation they were loath to accept because it sounded …vaguely un-American[.] … Robert Taft, “Mr. Conservative,” was still insisting he was a liberal in 1946.” 

They finally gave in and started calling themselves “conservatives.”  Giving in had a bad consequence, because the American idea is not conservative.  It is true that the American miracle includes the prudence of the founders, and prudence is a virtue prized by conservatives.  But the American Republic is the most radical regime of liberty, the most radically liberal regime in human history. By calling themselves conservatives and thinking of themselves as conservatives, Progressivism’s opposition gradually tended to lose sight of the principles that made America.

Conservatism is fundamentally a disposition.  It represents the political expression of caution and the underappreciated virtue of prudence.  It defends the traditional.  Since drastic, hasty change is likely to have unintended consequences, even terrible ones, we must protect our traditions, make change slowly and carefully, and be on the lookout for unintended consequences, says the prudent-minded conservative.

Probably every society and every time has its conservatives, with tenets specific to each society’s traditions.  For example, English conservatives today might want to preserve the monarchy, the Church of England as the established church, and the British aristocracy.  In the same way, those Iranians who opposed the revolution that changed Iran from a monarchy to a radical Islamist theocracy or those Russians who long for the return of the Soviet Union are often referred to as “conservatives.”  However, to call them conservative is not to suggest that they hold similar political principles or that their political principles are similar to those of an American dedicated to the principles of the American Founders.

According to F.A. Hayek, whether British, Iranian, Russian, or American, the trouble with conservatism is this:

It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance.  It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing.

Hayek’s description does seem to capture the story of the last century in American politics – the Progressives setting the agenda and their opposition dragged unwillingly along a path not of its own choosing.  During the past century, the classical liberal order of liberty, free markets, and limited government has been in the process of being systematically dismantled by the Progressives.  Change has become the name of the political game, and the direction of change is being set by the Progressives.  The rate of change is not the problem; America’s problem is the direction.

But worse, because the opposition began thinking of themselves as conservatives, they began to look to traditional conservative thinkers for guidance – thinkers like Edmund Burke, the brilliant and eloquent champion of prudence and tradition but not of the American idea.  Burkean conservatism is a far cry from the classical liberalism of the American founding; it cannot light our way home. 

We need to find our way by making the founders’ principles once again our polar star.  If Americans decide to reclaim the limited government and achieve the truly liberal, the classically liberal, society envisioned by the founders, we must be guided by the founders’ wisdom.  It will require a complete change of direction.  Slowing the rate of the Progressive advance won’t save the Republic.

There is much to undo and a bountiful harvest of progress and liberty to be gained. 

Robert Curry serves on the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute and on the Board of Distinguished Advisers of the Ronald Reagan Center for Freedom and Understanding.  He is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books.  You can preview the book here.

When FDR stole the name of “liberalism” to disguise the fact that he was a Progressive, he succeeded in doing more than simply confusing America’s voters in his day, many of whom had been made suspicious of Progressivism by Woodrow Wilson’s policies.  Taking for the Progressives the name that once belonged to the American founders was more than a brilliant election-winning tactical masterstroke.  FDR’s plan to sow confusion in the minds of the political opposition to Progressivism has become a war-winning strategy.  We see the results all around us.  While flying the flag of liberalism, the Progressives laid waste to the liberal Republic of the American founders.

The classical liberalism of the American founders focused on reining in the powers of government.  The purpose of the founders’ design of the government was protecting our unalienable rights from encroachment by people in the government.  Taking their cue from the German thinker GWF Hegel by way of Woodrow Wilson, the Progressives instead put their faith in the state.  They rejected the idea of the American Republic root and branch.  But the original Progressives understood the American people well enough to know that overthrowing the Republic by force and violence was out of the question.  So they set out to overthrow it little by little, progressively.

FDR’s capture of the flag of his political opponents made it easier for the Progressives to advance their project.  FDR left without a name the political opposition that wanted America to continue to live according to the Constitution.  What should they call themselves?  As Charles Kesler writes in his book I Am the Change, “FDR suggested, helpfully, that they ought to call themselves conservatives, a designation they were loath to accept because it sounded …vaguely un-American[.] … Robert Taft, “Mr. Conservative,” was still insisting he was a liberal in 1946.” 

They finally gave in and started calling themselves “conservatives.”  Giving in had a bad consequence, because the American idea is not conservative.  It is true that the American miracle includes the prudence of the founders, and prudence is a virtue prized by conservatives.  But the American Republic is the most radical regime of liberty, the most radically liberal regime in human history. By calling themselves conservatives and thinking of themselves as conservatives, Progressivism’s opposition gradually tended to lose sight of the principles that made America.

Conservatism is fundamentally a disposition.  It represents the political expression of caution and the underappreciated virtue of prudence.  It defends the traditional.  Since drastic, hasty change is likely to have unintended consequences, even terrible ones, we must protect our traditions, make change slowly and carefully, and be on the lookout for unintended consequences, says the prudent-minded conservative.

Probably every society and every time has its conservatives, with tenets specific to each society’s traditions.  For example, English conservatives today might want to preserve the monarchy, the Church of England as the established church, and the British aristocracy.  In the same way, those Iranians who opposed the revolution that changed Iran from a monarchy to a radical Islamist theocracy or those Russians who long for the return of the Soviet Union are often referred to as “conservatives.”  However, to call them conservative is not to suggest that they hold similar political principles or that their political principles are similar to those of an American dedicated to the principles of the American Founders.

According to F.A. Hayek, whether British, Iranian, Russian, or American, the trouble with conservatism is this:

It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance.  It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing.

Hayek’s description does seem to capture the story of the last century in American politics – the Progressives setting the agenda and their opposition dragged unwillingly along a path not of its own choosing.  During the past century, the classical liberal order of liberty, free markets, and limited government has been in the process of being systematically dismantled by the Progressives.  Change has become the name of the political game, and the direction of change is being set by the Progressives.  The rate of change is not the problem; America’s problem is the direction.

But worse, because the opposition began thinking of themselves as conservatives, they began to look to traditional conservative thinkers for guidance – thinkers like Edmund Burke, the brilliant and eloquent champion of prudence and tradition but not of the American idea.  Burkean conservatism is a far cry from the classical liberalism of the American founding; it cannot light our way home. 

We need to find our way by making the founders’ principles once again our polar star.  If Americans decide to reclaim the limited government and achieve the truly liberal, the classically liberal, society envisioned by the founders, we must be guided by the founders’ wisdom.  It will require a complete change of direction.  Slowing the rate of the Progressive advance won’t save the Republic.

There is much to undo and a bountiful harvest of progress and liberty to be gained. 

Robert Curry serves on the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute and on the Board of Distinguished Advisers of the Ronald Reagan Center for Freedom and Understanding.  He is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books.  You can preview the book here.



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Liberalism: It's All in the Name


There is so much confusion about the meaning of the term.  In fact, “liberalism” seems to be a word at war with itself.  For example, “illiberal” means “restricting freedom of thought or behavior.”  Yet people in government who call themselves “liberal” used the force of law to impose politically correct thought and behavior on a Christian baker who declined to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his faith.  So we have an illiberal policy, imposed by “liberals.”  What is going on here?

The key to untangling the confusion is this one remarkable fact: in politics, the term “liberal” today means the precise opposite of what it meant to America’s founders.  The important point to understand is that the name of liberalism was confiscated by the political enemies of (true) liberalism.    

The term “liberal” comes from the Latin “liber,” meaning “free.”  Liberalism originally referred to the philosophy of liberty, the great tradition in political thinking the American founders did so much to define and advance.  Washington’s celebrated “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport” of 1790 makes perfectly clear how the founders used the term: “The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy — a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience[.]”  According to the founders, “liberal” is all about liberty.  In their time, the word was not at war with itself.

The liberalism of the American founders focused on reining in the powers of government.  The purpose of the founders’ design of the government was protecting our unalienable rights from encroachment by people in the government.  But today’s so-called liberals are dedicated to expanding government into every area of life and to attacking the safeguards of liberty in the founders’ design.  Whether they are using Obamacare to force Americans to buy government-approved insurance or attacking the Electoral College and the 1st and 2nd Amendments, they are the sworn enemies of the founders’ gift to us.

Ludwig von Mises puts it like this in his book Liberalism:

In the United States “liberal” means today a set of ideas and political postulates that in every regard are the opposite of all that liberalism meant to the preceding generations.  The American self-styled liberal aims at government omnipotence, is a resolute foe of free enterprise, and advocates all-round planning by the authorities[.] … Every measure aiming at confiscating some of the assets of those who own more than the average or at restricting the rights of the owners of property is considered as liberal and progressive.

Today, “liberal” and “progressive” often travel together as virtual synonyms, but originally the Progressives made it clear they were the enemies of liberalism.  The Progressives intended to replace America’s founding principles with new, improved Progressive principles.  Instead of overthrowing the American system by means of a bloody revolution, their plan was to do it progressively, one step at a time. 

To understand Progressivism, let’s start with Woodrow Wilson.  He proudly called himself a Progressive, and here he is making clear what he thought of the founders’ ideas: “No doubt a great deal of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as fundamental principle[.]”  “Nonsense,” he said of the principles of the American founders.   

Wilson was a disciple of the 19th-century German philosopher GWF Hegel.  According to Hegel, the process of history itself renders the ideas of each earlier period obsolete.  Therefore, according to Hegel and to Wilson, the founders’ principles were relevant only to the time of the founders.  The founders believed that the proposition that all men are created equal is, as Lincoln said, “an abstract truth applicable to all men and all times.”  According to Hegel and Wilson, it was merely an idea for another time.

By championing Hegel, Wilson played a leading role in introducing an alien strain of thought into the American body politic, a strain of thought that rejected the self-evident truths and the unalienable rights of the founders.  Hegel rejected the idea of individual liberty, exalting the state instead.  “One must worship the state as a terrestrial divinity.”  Consequently, a more accurate name for Wilson’s political philosophy would be “statism,” though Progressivism was obviously a more appealing-sounding label to present to America’s voters.  However, that label soon lost its appeal.

The Progressive policies of the Woodrow Wilson era quickly gave Progressivism a bad reputation.  FDR was a proud Progressive who had served in the Wilson administration, but running as a Progressive had become politically unwise by 1932.  Prohibition, enacted at the crest of the Progressive wave in 1919 during Wilson’s administration, had not exactly turned out to be a crowd-pleaser.  The country was mired in the Depression, making it painfully clear that the Federal Reserve, one of Progressivism’s crown jewels, had not in fact smoothed out the business cycle as promised.  And the Progressive income tax, another of Progressivism’s most prized accomplishments, was a sore point for many voters.

Time for a name change!

And what a change it was.  Nowhere is FDR’s genius for politics more evident than in his decision to call himself a liberal.  FDR stole the label of the philosophy of liberty and bestowed it on the Progressives.  Thanks to FDR, the illiberal party of the state – the party of government, the self-proclaimed political enemies of the classical liberalism of the founders and of limited government – got away with calling itself liberal.

FDR’s theft left the proponents of the philosophy of liberty without a name.  What should they call themselves?  As Charles Kesler writes in his book I Am the Change: “FDR suggested, helpfully, that they ought to call themselves conservatives, a designation they were loath to accept because it sounded … vaguely un-American[.]  … Robert Taft, ‘Mr. Conservative,’ was still insisting he was a liberal in 1946.”  The people who wanted America to continue to live according to the Constitution at first resisted taking FDR’s helpful suggestion.  They finally gave in when they decided that the Progressive theft of their name had succeeded.

The philosophy of America’s founding documents is the classical liberalism of the founders.  It has been under attack in politics and academia by the Progressives for over one hundred years.  Consequently, it is now only dimly remembered, if at all, even by those Americans who are alarmed by what the Progressives are doing to America. 

Robert Curry serves on the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute and on the Board of Distinguished Advisers of the Ronald Reagan Center for Freedom and Understanding.  He is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books.  You can preview the book here.

There is so much confusion about the meaning of the term.  In fact, “liberalism” seems to be a word at war with itself.  For example, “illiberal” means “restricting freedom of thought or behavior.”  Yet people in government who call themselves “liberal” used the force of law to impose politically correct thought and behavior on a Christian baker who declined to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his faith.  So we have an illiberal policy, imposed by “liberals.”  What is going on here?

The key to untangling the confusion is this one remarkable fact: in politics, the term “liberal” today means the precise opposite of what it meant to America’s founders.  The important point to understand is that the name of liberalism was confiscated by the political enemies of (true) liberalism.    

The term “liberal” comes from the Latin “liber,” meaning “free.”  Liberalism originally referred to the philosophy of liberty, the great tradition in political thinking the American founders did so much to define and advance.  Washington’s celebrated “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport” of 1790 makes perfectly clear how the founders used the term: “The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy — a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience[.]”  According to the founders, “liberal” is all about liberty.  In their time, the word was not at war with itself.

The liberalism of the American founders focused on reining in the powers of government.  The purpose of the founders’ design of the government was protecting our unalienable rights from encroachment by people in the government.  But today’s so-called liberals are dedicated to expanding government into every area of life and to attacking the safeguards of liberty in the founders’ design.  Whether they are using Obamacare to force Americans to buy government-approved insurance or attacking the Electoral College and the 1st and 2nd Amendments, they are the sworn enemies of the founders’ gift to us.

Ludwig von Mises puts it like this in his book Liberalism:

In the United States “liberal” means today a set of ideas and political postulates that in every regard are the opposite of all that liberalism meant to the preceding generations.  The American self-styled liberal aims at government omnipotence, is a resolute foe of free enterprise, and advocates all-round planning by the authorities[.] … Every measure aiming at confiscating some of the assets of those who own more than the average or at restricting the rights of the owners of property is considered as liberal and progressive.

Today, “liberal” and “progressive” often travel together as virtual synonyms, but originally the Progressives made it clear they were the enemies of liberalism.  The Progressives intended to replace America’s founding principles with new, improved Progressive principles.  Instead of overthrowing the American system by means of a bloody revolution, their plan was to do it progressively, one step at a time. 

To understand Progressivism, let’s start with Woodrow Wilson.  He proudly called himself a Progressive, and here he is making clear what he thought of the founders’ ideas: “No doubt a great deal of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as fundamental principle[.]”  “Nonsense,” he said of the principles of the American founders.   

Wilson was a disciple of the 19th-century German philosopher GWF Hegel.  According to Hegel, the process of history itself renders the ideas of each earlier period obsolete.  Therefore, according to Hegel and to Wilson, the founders’ principles were relevant only to the time of the founders.  The founders believed that the proposition that all men are created equal is, as Lincoln said, “an abstract truth applicable to all men and all times.”  According to Hegel and Wilson, it was merely an idea for another time.

By championing Hegel, Wilson played a leading role in introducing an alien strain of thought into the American body politic, a strain of thought that rejected the self-evident truths and the unalienable rights of the founders.  Hegel rejected the idea of individual liberty, exalting the state instead.  “One must worship the state as a terrestrial divinity.”  Consequently, a more accurate name for Wilson’s political philosophy would be “statism,” though Progressivism was obviously a more appealing-sounding label to present to America’s voters.  However, that label soon lost its appeal.

The Progressive policies of the Woodrow Wilson era quickly gave Progressivism a bad reputation.  FDR was a proud Progressive who had served in the Wilson administration, but running as a Progressive had become politically unwise by 1932.  Prohibition, enacted at the crest of the Progressive wave in 1919 during Wilson’s administration, had not exactly turned out to be a crowd-pleaser.  The country was mired in the Depression, making it painfully clear that the Federal Reserve, one of Progressivism’s crown jewels, had not in fact smoothed out the business cycle as promised.  And the Progressive income tax, another of Progressivism’s most prized accomplishments, was a sore point for many voters.

Time for a name change!

And what a change it was.  Nowhere is FDR’s genius for politics more evident than in his decision to call himself a liberal.  FDR stole the label of the philosophy of liberty and bestowed it on the Progressives.  Thanks to FDR, the illiberal party of the state – the party of government, the self-proclaimed political enemies of the classical liberalism of the founders and of limited government – got away with calling itself liberal.

FDR’s theft left the proponents of the philosophy of liberty without a name.  What should they call themselves?  As Charles Kesler writes in his book I Am the Change: “FDR suggested, helpfully, that they ought to call themselves conservatives, a designation they were loath to accept because it sounded … vaguely un-American[.]  … Robert Taft, ‘Mr. Conservative,’ was still insisting he was a liberal in 1946.”  The people who wanted America to continue to live according to the Constitution at first resisted taking FDR’s helpful suggestion.  They finally gave in when they decided that the Progressive theft of their name had succeeded.

The philosophy of America’s founding documents is the classical liberalism of the founders.  It has been under attack in politics and academia by the Progressives for over one hundred years.  Consequently, it is now only dimly remembered, if at all, even by those Americans who are alarmed by what the Progressives are doing to America. 

Robert Curry serves on the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute and on the Board of Distinguished Advisers of the Ronald Reagan Center for Freedom and Understanding.  He is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books.  You can preview the book here.



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The Federal Jobs Program, Then and Now


Have you heard that a bill has been introduced in the House prohibiting federal employees from using government computers and devices to watch pornography on the job?

The bill is in response to many stories of federal employees spending their workdays watching pornography.   Evidently, this practice is rampant in the federal bureaucracy, and under the current rules, people employed by the federal government cannot be fired for it. 

Please note that if the bill passes and has its intended outcome, in order to be in compliance with federal work rules, employees will need to use their personal devices to spend their workdays watching pornography.  Perhaps this bill is better than nothing, but it is also pretty close to nothing all the same.

Is it possible that we have a deeper problem in here somewhere?

I recently got into a conversation with a young couple about government employment.  They made it amusing, though it was maddening at the same time.  He works for the federal government; she has a real job.  He told me that he has never yet seen anyone in his section do any actual work.  He amuses himself during his hours at the office by collecting anecdotes for his wife about the various ways the others in his section pass the time.  

I was not surprised to hear his story because I had been fortunate enough to get my own experience of government employment once upon a time.

In the early ’60s, the federal government, in its restless search for problems to solve, discovered that many college students wanted summer jobs.  This fact was declared to be a “problem” (or perhaps it was called a “crisis”; I don’t recall).  The decision – surprise! – that emerged was to throw money at it.  I got a position at the motor pool on a military base.  And a position is literally what it was.  It was the middle position on the bench seat of a truck.  My job was to occupy that part of the seat.  I spent eight hours five days a week sitting between the driver and his assistant.  The government had decreed, “Let there be jobs,” and lo and behold, jobs appeared.  But there was nothing for me to do, except to coordinate with the driver so as not to interfere with his operation of the floor shift.

For that matter, there was almost no work for the other two men in that truck.  The civil service commissar who ruled the motor pool had two rules: always look busy, and constantly vary where you eat lunch.  So it was that our days consisted of racing around the Navy base as if we were on urgent business while keeping an eye out for pleasant spots to open our lunchboxes and enjoy not being in the truck.  That was it.  The commissar occasionally did assign us tasks.  Now and then we would make deliveries, usually transferring furniture from one place to another.

The driver and his co-pilot were pleasant fellows who took a friendly interest in me.  The Navy base covered a vast area of great natural beauty, and my colleagues kindly made sure I got to experience all the best spots.  And the money was great – much better than any summer job in the private sector.  In fact, what with one thing and another, more than fourteen years were to pass before I made as much money again.  Because I was living at my parents’ home, I was able to save nearly everything after taxes, so my college fund grew rapidly.

All in all, you would think this was a very good deal for a college kid who needed money to get through the school year.  Nonetheless, I could take it for only so long.  I quit about halfway through the summer.

Whether or not it was a good deal for me, it was not such a good deal for the taxpayer.

The lesson about the problem with government is perfectly clear: the incentives are upside-down.  It’s just common sense.  Imagine if the commissar was the owner of a trucking service business instead the administrator of a government operation.  He would have had to raise money, and quite a lot of it, too, to go into that business.  Instead, he was able to requisition money from taxpayers.  To stay in business, he would have had to make a profit.  Instead of telling us to look busy, he would have had to find a way to keep us busy doing something that paid our salaries and his costs and made enough profit to keep the business going.

As a government administrator, the more money he spent, the greater the number of trucks in the motor pool, the more people reporting to him, the better for his career.  Those bigger numbers were the basis for determining his civil service rank and, therefore, his pay and benefits. 

So it has long been this way and will no doubt continue in this way.  What, then, is the commonsense explanation for the continued existence of this vast federal jobs program?  Think of it this way: it is a fabulously lavish welfare program for an army that can be relied on to vote for the Democrats.

Robert Curry is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books.  You can preview the book here.

Have you heard that a bill has been introduced in the House prohibiting federal employees from using government computers and devices to watch pornography on the job?

The bill is in response to many stories of federal employees spending their workdays watching pornography.   Evidently, this practice is rampant in the federal bureaucracy, and under the current rules, people employed by the federal government cannot be fired for it. 

Please note that if the bill passes and has its intended outcome, in order to be in compliance with federal work rules, employees will need to use their personal devices to spend their workdays watching pornography.  Perhaps this bill is better than nothing, but it is also pretty close to nothing all the same.

Is it possible that we have a deeper problem in here somewhere?

I recently got into a conversation with a young couple about government employment.  They made it amusing, though it was maddening at the same time.  He works for the federal government; she has a real job.  He told me that he has never yet seen anyone in his section do any actual work.  He amuses himself during his hours at the office by collecting anecdotes for his wife about the various ways the others in his section pass the time.  

I was not surprised to hear his story because I had been fortunate enough to get my own experience of government employment once upon a time.

In the early ’60s, the federal government, in its restless search for problems to solve, discovered that many college students wanted summer jobs.  This fact was declared to be a “problem” (or perhaps it was called a “crisis”; I don’t recall).  The decision – surprise! – that emerged was to throw money at it.  I got a position at the motor pool on a military base.  And a position is literally what it was.  It was the middle position on the bench seat of a truck.  My job was to occupy that part of the seat.  I spent eight hours five days a week sitting between the driver and his assistant.  The government had decreed, “Let there be jobs,” and lo and behold, jobs appeared.  But there was nothing for me to do, except to coordinate with the driver so as not to interfere with his operation of the floor shift.

For that matter, there was almost no work for the other two men in that truck.  The civil service commissar who ruled the motor pool had two rules: always look busy, and constantly vary where you eat lunch.  So it was that our days consisted of racing around the Navy base as if we were on urgent business while keeping an eye out for pleasant spots to open our lunchboxes and enjoy not being in the truck.  That was it.  The commissar occasionally did assign us tasks.  Now and then we would make deliveries, usually transferring furniture from one place to another.

The driver and his co-pilot were pleasant fellows who took a friendly interest in me.  The Navy base covered a vast area of great natural beauty, and my colleagues kindly made sure I got to experience all the best spots.  And the money was great – much better than any summer job in the private sector.  In fact, what with one thing and another, more than fourteen years were to pass before I made as much money again.  Because I was living at my parents’ home, I was able to save nearly everything after taxes, so my college fund grew rapidly.

All in all, you would think this was a very good deal for a college kid who needed money to get through the school year.  Nonetheless, I could take it for only so long.  I quit about halfway through the summer.

Whether or not it was a good deal for me, it was not such a good deal for the taxpayer.

The lesson about the problem with government is perfectly clear: the incentives are upside-down.  It’s just common sense.  Imagine if the commissar was the owner of a trucking service business instead the administrator of a government operation.  He would have had to raise money, and quite a lot of it, too, to go into that business.  Instead, he was able to requisition money from taxpayers.  To stay in business, he would have had to make a profit.  Instead of telling us to look busy, he would have had to find a way to keep us busy doing something that paid our salaries and his costs and made enough profit to keep the business going.

As a government administrator, the more money he spent, the greater the number of trucks in the motor pool, the more people reporting to him, the better for his career.  Those bigger numbers were the basis for determining his civil service rank and, therefore, his pay and benefits. 

So it has long been this way and will no doubt continue in this way.  What, then, is the commonsense explanation for the continued existence of this vast federal jobs program?  Think of it this way: it is a fabulously lavish welfare program for an army that can be relied on to vote for the Democrats.

Robert Curry is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books.  You can preview the book here.



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