Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director for the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute in Charlottesville, VA

We’re No Longer Lockeans Now: John Dewey & the Rise of Modern Liberalism, by Tony Williams

In his 1861 “Cornerstone” speech, Vice-President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens argued that Thomas Jefferson and the Founders really meant all humans, including blacks, were created equal in the Declaration of Independence.  He just believed that they were wrong.  John Dewey, in his “Liberalism and Social Action,” does much the same thing.  He largely summarizes the ideas of John Locke correctly and notes his influence on the Founding.  Again, much like Stephens did, he rejects those ideas, this time because of his belief in the new liberalism of the modern Progressive administrative state. 

John Dewey was an intelligent philosopher who gets Locke and his social compact theory right.  Locke believed in natural rights of life, liberty, and property, Dewey notes, which were embodied in the Declaration of Independence.  Government was instituted to protect those rights.  If the government violated those rights, the people had a right of rebellion against tyranny.  Man was a reasonable and moral being who lived under natural law.  This theory, Dewey argues, “held to the primacy of the individual over the state.”  Dewey even states, as did James Madison in his 1792 essay “On Property,” that individuals had a property in their rights by their natures that political society was bound to protect.

Next, Dewey gets Adam Smith right as well.  The cumulative effect of individuals exchanging goods and services in a market economy guided by the invisible hand of supply and demand would promote social welfare and dynamic capitalist productive energies.  Smith held “that the activities of individuals, freed as far as possible from political restriction, is the chief source of social welfare,” Dewey writes.

These philosophies of individualism may have been good, Dewey concedes, for an older American pioneer society, but they were destructive ideas for the modern industrial age.  He describes them as creating a system that was “outmoded” and “oppressive,” promoted “harsh regimentation,” was characterized by “political absolutism,” and defended a “regime of despotism.” Dewey instead esteems utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill as the philosophers appropriate to the new social realities.  As Dewey writes, they supported a new philosophy of “radical change” that advocated the “power of government to create, constructively and positively, new institutions if and when it should appear that the latter would contribute more effectively to the well-being of individuals.”

The “aggressive assault” on classical liberalism included the entire “conception of inherent natural rights.”  Individuals no longer had natural rights built into the fabric of their natures, but only the rights that society and the government defined.  Next, modern liberals would impose equality of condition upon individuals because they were “committed to the principle that organized society must use its powers to establish the conditions under which the mass of individuals can possess actual as distinct from merely legal liberty.”

This new Progressive liberalism would reach its apex (or nadir, from a conservative perspective) when socialism and a massive administrative state of experts in the executive branch of the federal government would plan society for the supposed benefit of all.  “The only form of enduring social organization that is now possible is one in which the new forces of productivity are cooperatively controlled and used in the interest . . . of the individuals that constitute society,” Dewey maintains.  He continues, “Organized social planning, put into effect for the creation of an order in which industry and finance are socially directed in behalf of institutions that provide the material basis for the cultural liberation and growth of individuals, is now the sole method of social action by which liberalism can realize its professed aims.”  In other words, the natural rights republic and free enterprise system of the Founding was decisively rejected in favor of the modern administrative state of the Progressives and New Dealers.

Dewey wrote this in 1935, when the New Deal was seeking fundamental changes in American institutions.  The “horse and buggy” Constitution, as FDR described it, was being replaced by a modern “Living Constitution” that could supposedly adapt to modern circumstances and provide for a virtually unlimited executive state that would establish that elusive social control and planning that Progressives had sought for decades.  The New Dealers worked to reshape the individual’s relationship to his rights and to the state.  In short, they sought the Progressive perfectibility of society, the perfectibility of the state, and finally the perfectibility of man in their secular utopia.

Read Liberalism and Social Action by John Dewey here:

Tony Williams is the Program Director for the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute in Charlottesville, VA, which teaches teachers American Founding principles and documents.  He is the author of four books, including America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.

May 28, 2013 – Essay #72

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