John F. Kennedy, “Commencement Address at Yale University”
Throughout the twentieth century, one of the most fundamental tenets of progressive ideology was what many historians called the “gospel of efficiency” that found salvation in scientific rather than republican government. Progressives believed that democratic, partisan politics based upon representative government was often corrupt but always too messy. The people were too uninformed, the Progressives believed, and political compromise did not always result in the “best solutions.”
The Progressives thought that they had a much better alternative. They believed that if policymaking were removed from the hands of the sovereign people and their representatives and placed in the hands of the academic experts in executive agencies, then scientific government could rationalize all areas of American life to bring order and efficiency out of democratic chaos. The gospel of efficiency became indisputable truth and worshipped as a creed by those who simply knew better than ordinary people.
The result of this for progressive liberals has been to believe arrogantly that they are acting scientifically and rationally while conservatives rest their arguments on platitudes and slogans. This was recently seen in the debate over gun control in the wake of several tragic mass shootings. The supporters of increased gun control described their reforms as “reasonable,” “common sense,” or “moderate,” implying that anyone who opposed them were irrational extremists. Progressives after all were academic experts – they simply knew better than everyone else, who should simply passively accept the policies handed down to them.
President John F. Kennedy clearly expressed his belief in the kind of progressive ideals described above. His 1962 Commencement Address at Yale University reads like a Progressive manifesto on the superiority of progressive over consensual government.
After some amusing digs at Yale from a Harvard Man, Kennedy tells the graduates that the central domestic issues of his administration were not based upon “basic clashes of philosophy or ideology but to ways and means of reaching common goals – to research for sophisticated solutions to complex and obstinate issues.” Kennedy explains some of the hidden meaning behind his statement. The Republicans and conservatives, though without naming them, rest their arguments on “myths,” “clichés,” “repetition of stale phrases,” “illusions,” and “platitudes.” Instead, Kennedy offers a post-partisan, progressive solution. “We need not partisan wrangling, but common concentration on common problems,” he explains to his audience. If the Republicans would simply accepted Kennedy’s ideas about government, then there wouldn’t be a problem.
He uses the occasion to shatter three prevailing illusions that “prevent effective action.” The first myth is that government is too large and that government is bad. He seeks to demolish this myth with the argument that the size of the government bureaucracy and federal debt had grown less rapidly than the size of the economy and any other sector of national life. Moreover, he argues that the large size of government “can bring benefits.” For example, even though he proudly states that three out of every four dollars for medical and scientific research comes from the federal government, “American scientists remain second to none in their independence and in their individualism.”
The second myth is that the growing federal debt is a problem. As proof, Kennedy states that although the debt was growing, it was decreasing as per capita and relative to Gross National Product. Additionally, he maintains that the public debt is increasing at a slower pace than private debt or the debt of state governments. If Kennedy can be forgiven for not guessing that our debt would reach a staggering seventeen trillion dollars, he might have foreseen that his support of a much larger government with almost limitless responsibility might contribute mightily to an unsustainable federal debt.
The third myth that Kennedy debunks is that business lacked confidence in his administration leading to stagnation. The president argues instead that confidence is rooted upon institutions – business, labor, and government – all fulfilling their obvious “obligations to the public.” The “solid ground of mutual confidence is the necessary partnership of government with all of the sectors of our society in the steady quest for economic progress.” The national administrative state run by experts necessarily reaches into every aspect of American life to usher in a perfect society not just for the United States but the world. Indeed, he continues, arguing that, “The safety of all the world – the very future of freedom – depends as never before upon the sensible and clearheaded management of the domestic affairs of the United States.”
What is at stake, Kennedy avers, is not contending rival visions of liberals and conservatives who would debate as politicians in a republican system, but the “practical management of a modern economy” by experts who could solve “sophisticated and technical questions.” Political compromise and representative government may have been adequate in a bygone age but the modern era had more subtle challenges for which only “technical answers, not political answers, must be provided.”
Kennedy’s embrace of progressivism traced its lineage back to Woodrow Wilson and the early twentieth century. Kennedy advocates a government based upon the European model when he promotes a government by experts and an increasingly large government that manages society,. Just as Wilson admired the German model and philosophy, Kennedy thinks America should become more like Europe. “The example of Western Europe,” Kennedy explains, “shows that they are capable of solution – that governments . . . prepared to face technical problems without ideological preconceptions, can coordinate the elements of a national economy and bring about growth and prosperity.”
President John F. Kennedy sought to administer government by progressive experts rather than the people. He sought to bring efficiency and order to democratic politics and free enterprise. He sought to impose a European vision of statism on American institutions, and then promised that this was the way to protect and promote freedom. It would supposedly “demonstrate anew to the world the superior vitality and the strength of a free society.” Perhaps we are living with the illusion that one could live freely and enjoy prosperity in a managed society.
Tony Williams is the Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute in Charlottesville, VA, which teaches teachers American founding principles. Free downloads of its recently published WJMI Guide to the Constitution are available at http://www.thefederalistpapers.org/ebooks/jefferson-and-madisons-guide-to-the-constitution. He is the author of four books including American Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.