Guest Essayist: Professor Will Morrisey, William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College

Liberty and the Administrative State: Goodnow’s Gambit

Hillsdale’s Reader on the U. S. Constitution begins with Thomas Jefferson and ends with Ronald Reagan. Of the many `contributors’ to the anthology, none is less-remembered today than Frank Goodnow, who never won an election for public office, having spent his career almost entirely in academia.  Unlike John Dewey, another professor, Goodnow wrote no books that have been widely read beyond his own generation. Yet he stands as an important figure in the Progressive movement, particularly with respect to his championing of Progressivism’s most distinctive institutional feature, the administrative state.

Born in 1859 in Brooklyn, New York, Goodnow received his advanced degree not in history or political science but in law from Columbia University, which hired him to teach administrative law in 1882. “Political science” as an independent academic discipline barely existed in the United States at that time, but Goodnow and such like-minded academics as his colleague John W. Burgess at Columbia and  Woodrow Wilson of Princeton  established it as such in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, founding the national professional organization of political scientists, the American Political Science Association, in 1903. Goodnow was its first president.  He ended his career as president of the Johns Hopkins University–the first American university to emulate the great German research universities not only in its emphasis on scholarly research and graduate studies as distinguished from the education of undergraduates but also in its promotion of German political philosophy in opposition to the principles of John Locke, Montesquieu, and the other philosophers whose ideas had animated the American founding. At this time university presidents enjoyed greater prominence in American public life than at any time before or since; Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia was a well-known voice nationally, and of course Wilson vaulted from the presidency of Princeton to the governorship of New Jersey and the presidency of the United States in the space of about three years.  Obscure today, Goodnow nonetheless exercised a decisive influence on American political history. If, as he writes in “The American Conception of Liberty,” “we teachers are in a measure responsible for the thoughts of the coming generation,” Goodnow helped to shape the thoughts of not only the next generation but of every generation of American citizens up to and including that of President Barack Obama. Universities are now conceived as engines of social and political progress, and many if not all American educators more or less self-consciously think as `progressives’ of one sort or another.

Following their German preceptors, American progressives committed themselves to the rejection of the laws of nature and of nature’s God as the source of moral and political right. Instead, they looked to `history’–defined as the course of all events, said to be unfolding rationally toward a culmination or `end of history.’ Whether the end of history was understood to be a constitutional monarchy (as inHegel), worldwide communism (as in Marx), social democracy (as in Dewey), or the dominance of a `Caucasian master race’ (as in Gobineau and the other `race theorists’), all past and present human thoughts and actions are judged good or bad, `progressive’ or `reactionary,’ insofar as they do or do not contribute to mankind’s advance toward that end. What is more, the course of events or `history’ was held to unfold in accordance with scientifically discernible laws of development–not unlike Darwin’s laws of natural selection, which in fact had `historicized’ natural science.

This explains why Goodnow’s critique of the philosophy behind the American founding–natural rights, social contract–amounts to a critique of that philosophy from the standpoint of historical accuracy. The founders’ ideas did not depict any real social condition; rather, the social and economic conditions of the founders’ time in effect produced their ideas.  For example, the founders’ theoretical justification of property rights merely reflected the economic interests of men living under the conditions of early capitalism, under which governmental controls tended only to cramp individual initiative and the security of profits. Oddly, Goodnow associates the “extreme individualism” of the founders not with Locke–who did indeed defend property rights–but with Rousseau, whose moral commitment to such rights was considerably less decided.  Be that as it may, Goodnow associates the founders with “a doctrine of unadulterated individualism” whereby “social duties were hardly recognized, or if recognized little emphasis was placed upon them.” This doctrine had embedded itself even more in American courts than it did in our legislatures. At places like Columbia, the next generation of lawyers would learn differently.

Goodnow attributes two flaws to the Rousseauian-American doctrine of natural rights. First, it assumes an incorrect theory of nature, having been “formulated before the announcement and acceptance of the theory of evolutionary development.”  Since Darwin, nature itself has been `historicized.’ We now speak not so much of nature as of `natural history.’ In terms of human society this means that a `natural right’ to property might be valid in the eighteenth century but increasingly invalid in the nineteenth and twentieth century, as human societies and perhaps even human beings themselves change, evolve, progress. With the disappearance of a frontier society founded upon agriculture and herding, with the rise of large-scale industry–“a social organization such as our forefathers never saw in their wildest dreams”–our rights also must evolve. “Changed conditions… must bring in their train different conceptions of private rights if society is to be advantageously carried on.

”This leads to the second flaw of the American doctrine: It is too individualistic.  Given the new conditions of industrialism and urbanization, which put men and women in factories wherein their movements must be coordinated rather than independent of one another, the private rights of the individual person increasingly must give way to “social duties.”  Although Goodnow remained a liberal in the sense that he opposes any form of absolute statism–“We are not… taking the view that the individual man lives for the state of which he is a member”–he did expect vast improvement in administration–the institutional agent of well-coordinated social duties.  Just as modern business corporations require the administration of a vast array of persons and their actions, so too will the modern state need its administrators–if only to coordinate the activities of the corporations.

This is where the modern university comes in.  As the president of one such institution, Goodnow deplores the fact that “many universities have in the past been the homes of conservatism,” not progressivism.  To keep up with the historical evolution of human societies, universities needed to take the lead, educating students who will become, among other things, administrators of the modern state. Quickened by the new historical consciousness that has replaced the old notion of natural rights, and by the new sense of social duty that now eclipses the old individualism, students would now learn the new form of government–scientific administration–which will replace or at least supplement the old regime of government by elected officials identified with political parties.

Under Progressivism, America would see a radical transformation of the foundation and purposes of its regime: natural right abandoned for historical right; social coordination preferred to individual effort; the politics of the courthouse and the party clubhouse replaced by the politics of bureaucracy and `administrative science.’ For better or for worse, Frank Goodnow deserves to be better-remembered than he is.

Read The American Conception of Liberty by Frank Goodnow here:

Will Morrisey holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College; his books include Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War and The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government.Wednesday, May 29, 2013 – Essay #73 –

May 29, 2013 – Essay #73

2 replies
  1. Barb Zack
    Barb Zack says:

    And now, under Obama, we are seeing that radical transformation talked about so long ago. Obama was not kidding when he said in 2008 that “the transformation of America begins in 5 days”.. It began many years earlier, and instead of ordinary people standing up and fighting for our Nation and its founding principles, let these academia types tell us we were not intelligent enough to understand these new progress principles. And now, its just a given that we must progress towards the perfect utopia these progressives envisioned. Obama and his minions are trying to take this theory of progressivism to its logical conclusion. We don’t live for the state? It seems we are, more and more now. The question is are there enough people left, strong enough to withstand this final push towards the progressivism that started years ago and that Obama is hell-bent on completing?

  2. Ron
    Ron says:

    We have no excuse. Wilson, Goodnow, et al put it all on paper for us to see where they were headed. Question now is: what are we going to do about it?


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