November 25, 2009

From liberty to democracy

By From liberty to democracy

Author: R. S. Radford

Ever wonder why there is a Statue of Liberty on an island in New York Harbor, rather than a Statue of Democracy? Many people apparently think the two terms are synonymous, and those who don't often seem embarrassed by references to the supposedly antiquated (or politically tainted) notion of liberty. The National Park Service, for example, assures us that over the years, the Statue of Liberty "has grown to include" democracy, whatever that means. Maybe it's bigger now.

More likely, Big Park is as confused as everybody else over the shift in political rhetoric from the time of the Founders (whose most intense concern was in securing the blessings of liberty to all Americans) to
the present day (when America's youth are sent to die in far-off lands to deliver democracy to people who've never had it and don't seem to want any).

The story of how this shift came about is nicely laid out by Randall Holcombe in a book entitled, appropriately, From Liberty to Democracy: The Transformation of American Government (University of Michigan Press, 2002).  This volume is well worth perusing in detail, but I'll give away the plot.  It turns out that the culprits responsible for diverting America's focus from liberty to democracy were none other than the Progressives — the same folks who brought you dysfunctional public education and a Supreme Court doctrine that relegates private property rights to a level of constitutional protection somewhere below that of dung beetles.

To be sure, the Progressives had plenty of help in eroding our nation's revolutionary commitment to the cause of liberty (the rise of special-interest lobbying and FDR's New Deal leap to mind), and Holcombe provides all the gory details.  But arguably, the full transition of American government to the rapidly expanding federal behemoth of the 20th century could not have occurred without the guidance of such Progressive luminaries as Charles Beard, Louis Brandeis, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein has recently focused on the Progressives' influence in undermining our economic liberties in a small but worthy volume, How Progressives Rewrote the Constitution (Cato Institute, 2006).  Together with Holcombe's book, Epstein's account demonstrates the extent to which our country's highest court remains under the influence of a defunct political philosophy that flourished 100 years ago, despite being profoundly at odds with the Founders' vision of America.

The Progressives are long gone, but the dead hand of their ideas, at once radical and outdated, continues to rule our lives.  Is it too much to hope that a new Supreme Court, in a new century, may pause to ask itself: What was so bad about liberty, anyhow?

What to read next