The View From 1776

Democrat/Socialist Party Newspeak

In 1984, his novel about left-wing collectivist tyranny under Big Brother, George Orwell coined the term Newspeak to designate the government’s use of words and phrases to mean whatever the government wanted words to mean.  The aim was to keep Big Brother’s subjects confused and afraid to do or say anything on their own.  As in Thomas Hobbes’s “Leviathan,” the sole source of power was to be the sovereign’s sword, and the principle of political order was continual fear of sudden and violent death.

Robert Curry explains how the Democrat/Socialist Party uses Newspeak.

by Robert Curry

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.
Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism

The term “liberal” comes from the Latin “liber” meaning “free.”  Liberalism originally referred to the philosophy of liberty, that is, the philosophy of the American Founders and their tradition, the great tradition which inspired the Founders and which they did so much to define and advance.

In fact, if Freidrich Hayek is correct, the introduction of the term in its original sense has a very close historical link to the Founders.  Hayek traces the introduction of the term “liberal” to its use by Adam Smith.  Hayek points to such characteristic passages as this one in The Wealth of Nations of 1776 where Smith wrote of “allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice.”

The term “liberal” today means the precise opposite of what it once meant.  Using the original, classical meaning, Mises wrote:

“As the liberal sees it, the task of the state consists solely and exclusively in guaranteeing the protection of life, health, liberty, and private property against violent attacks…Anti-liberal policies have so far expanded the functions of the state as to leave hardly any field of human activity free of government interference.”

The policies Mises refers to here as “anti-liberal” were actually labeled as liberal by their proponents. 

So, we have a familiar word with two totally opposite meanings, one meaning having been very nearly completely buried by the other.  How did this confusing state of affairs come about?

It was the result of a political master stroke by that shrewdest of politicians—FDR. 

If you measure presidential success simply by the number of times a man is elected to the presidency, then FDR is the most successful American President.  Once elected, FDR was able to hold office until his death.  His claim on the office attests to his astonishing ability to dominate the game of politics. 

But to understand the brilliance of his capture for his political purposes the term “liberal,” we need to understand the challenge FDR faced and the opportunity that he seized.


“Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Lord Acton, 1834-1902

“I cannot imagine power as a thing negative and not positive.”
Woodrow Wilson, 1856-1924

As the noted scholar J. Rufus Fears has written, Lord Acton was “a thinker of supreme importance in the intellectual heritage of classical Liberalism.”  (Prof. Fears is here forced to use the phrase “classical Liberalism” because of the confused state of the term “liberalism.”  In Acton’s day, it was simply called “Liberalism.”)  Acton’s book Essays in the History of Liberty is one of the greatest works of scholarship of the 19th century.  Although a baronet by birth and later elevated to the peerage as Baron Acton, Acton was a powerful intellectual champion of the American Founders. 

Woodrow Wilson, of course, was the great champion of progressivism in American politics.  It was Wilson who set the Democratic Party on the course that was to make it the party of progressivism.  The Wilson quote, by the way, is from his book “Congressional Government.”

Take a look at the two quotes above.  The Acton quote may be familiar to you.  Acton points at the hard testimony of human history as revealed by Caligula, Louis XIV and Hitler.  He also with matchless brevity makes clear what classical liberalism is all about. 

According to classical liberalism, the problem of government is how to make it strong enough to do what government must do without encroaching on individual liberty. This understanding of the dangerous nature of political power was uppermost in the minds of the Founders when they were debating the design of the Constitution.  If we want to understand the efforts of the Founders during that hot summer in 1787, we must see them as trying to design self-government with this very sober assessment of human nature in mind. 

This view of the effect of power on human nature explains the Founders’ focus on defining and limiting federal power by distributing power among three branches, preserving the political independence of the states and creating a zone of liberty around the individual—even by further dividing the (supreme) legislative power itself, crafting two legislative bodies with separate powers and potentially competing interests. 

The Founders’ republic is the supreme achievement of classical liberalism.

The Acton quote in one sense only states the obvious, but in a much more important sense it stakes out a point of view.  As Americans it is easy for us to forget that our native perspective is not the perspective of all humankind.  Today, we are told, many Russians still revere Stalin, even Russians who were alive during the horrors of the Stalin era.  And among Muslims, even Muslims living in the West, there are vast numbers, perhaps even an overwhelming majority, who believe that self-rule by the people is a violation of their religion.  Such non-believers in the philosophy of liberty are presumably not concerned about the bad effects of unchecked power on their rulers or on the countries ruled by them.

Turning to the Wilson quote, what are we to make of it?  What strikes me at first glance is that it seems to be a remarkable confession of failure.  Is it difficult for you to imagine power as a negative thing?  If you say in reply that you don’t even need to try to imagine it because the world we live in and all of history offer countless examples of power as a negative thing, may I suggest that your thinking, at least on this point, is closer to Acton than to Wilson?

Before I try to examine how we can even begin to understand the Wilson quote, let me first address why we should consider it at all. 

As strange as the Wilson quote may seem, it does as much for our understanding of Wilson’s thinking as the Acton quote does for Acton’s thinking.

As shocking as it may be to you if you are learning it for the first time, what Wilson and the progressives were trying to progress beyond was the vision and the works of the Founders.  Here is Wilson on the Founders’ thinking:

“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.”

Wilson utterly rejected the Founders’ philosophy of liberty and, as a result, even the Constitution itself.  According to Wilson, the Constitutional limits on the power of government the Founders had so carefully designed were actually defects.  Those limits hobbled government, preventing it from using its power to advance progress.  Wilson’s view of governmental power is in direct opposition to the view of Acton and the Founders, that is, of classical liberalism. 

Moreover, according to Wilson, the Founders’ self-evident propositions and unalienable rights were merely historically contingent ideas, ideas for that time and that time only, neither true nor false in themselves and therefore no longer valid.  For Wilson, history had moved on and the philosophy of liberty had been left behind in the dustbin of history.

Wilson grounded his rejection of the Founders and the Constitution in the philosophy of the 19th century German G. W. F. Hegel, writing:

“The philosophy of any time is, as Hegel says, ‘nothing but the spirit of that time expressed in abstract thought.’”

Professor Ronald Pestritto states Wilson’s and Hegel’s position succinctly:

“Historical contingency makes it impossible to ground politics on an abstract principle.”

For Hegel and for Wilson, history advances as each age replaces the preceding age through a dialectical process.  History had simply moved on and the Constitution had outlived its time and, therefore, its claim to validity.  Marx, of course, also took his notion of history advancing dialectically from Hegel.

From a traditional American perspective, it gets worse.  Where the Founders had put the focus on the individual and individual liberty, Hegel placed the state and its power at the center, writing “all worth which the human being possesses—all spiritual reality, he possesses only through the State.”  For Hegel, the movement of the state through time was the “march of God on earth.”

“The State is the actually existing, realized moral life…The divine idea as it exists on earth.”

Hegel revered political power as God’s instrument on earth, and Hegel’s ideas were tailor made for Wilson, an intellectual who for his whole life was infatuated with political power.  As Jonah Goldberg writes:

“Wilson would later argue when president that he was the right hand of God and that to stand against him was to thwart divine will.  Some thought this was simply proof of power corrupting Wilson, but that was his view from the outset.  He always took the side of power, believing that power accrued to whoever was truly on God’s side.” 

Wilson came by his views in the most natural way possible—he learned them in college.  During the second half of the 19th century German ideas were very much in fashion, and Johns Hopkins University, where Wilson got his Ph.D. in political science in 1886, was then an outpost of German thinking in America.  Wilson’s teachers at Johns Hopkins, and nearly every member of the faculty of the entire university, had been educated in Germany. 

The fact of Hitler was later to lead thoughtful people to reconsider the premises of German political thought, but in those days German political thinking was the latest thing.  Wilson was German political thought’s man in America, and he was impatient to change America in conformity to the German way of political thought and action.

Wilson’s ambitions were not limited to overturning the Founders’ ideas in the realm of abstract thought.  He wanted to get his hands on the levers of power.  For that he needed a concrete political program, something Hegelian philosophy by itself does not provide.  Of course, he found his model in Germany, and of course it was a far cry from the classical liberal ideal. 

American progressivism is identified with the welfare state.  The welfare state was the invention of Otto von Bismarck.  Bismarck’s Wohlfahrtsstaat was the inspiration for Wilson and his fellow progressives.  Jonah Goldberg, again:

“No European statesman loomed larger in the minds and hearts of American progressives than Otto von Bismarck.  As inconvenient as it may be for those who have been taught “the continuity between Bismarck and Hitler,” writes Eric Goldman, Bismarck’s Germany was “a catalytic of American progressive thought.”  Bismarck’s “top-down socialism,” which delivered the eight-hour workday, health care, social insurance, and the like, was the gold standard for enlightened [progressive] social policy.”

If you are surprised to learn of progressivism’s roots in German philosophy and political history, it is simply because for obvious reasons it eventually became essential, a matter of political survival, that progressives hide those roots.

More on that shortly, but meanwhile what are we to make of the Wilson quote above?  Clearly, the philosophical and political exaltation of the state Wilson got from the Germans provided him with a positive view of government accorded vast powers to make progress happen, as if progress would not happen unless government had the power to make it happen.  In addition, the Founders’ worries about the dangers of government power had, for Wilson, joined their other obsolete ideas in the dustbin of history.  But even if Wilson believed that the political philosophy of the Founders had been ground to pieces by Hegel’s dialectical historical process, what about the lesson of history that is the point of the Acton quote?  Do you and I have nothing to fear from political power?  One searches in vain in Wilson’s writings for the powerful refutation of the Founders’ concern with the dangers of political power. 

Which returns us to the quote:  “I cannot imagine power as a thing negative and not positive.” By now it should be clear that the quote does not misrepresent Wilson’s thinking.  But the question is this: how are we to understand it?  Is this a confession of a failure of imagination, though perhaps an unwitting confession?  Or does he proclaim here an act of will, stating that he will not allow himself to imagine such a thing?  How are we to understand this remarkable statement?

Prudence advises that I simply let the quote stand.  One could argue that enough has been done simply to point to it and let its strangeness speak for itself.  At the risk of going too far, it does seem to me that there is a way to understand it by reference to Wilson’s unusual personality.  Wilson was a strange, solitary man with a head full of ideas and a lifelong infatuation with power.  I believe that his peculiar nature was such that he was unable to analyze the concept of power except as being wielded by himself.  Long before he had come to power, when he extolled power, I propose, he was speaking in the first person, imaging himself in power.  As a result, he could not imagine that as anything but positive.  In the quote he is saying “just look at all the good I could do if I only had the power to make it happen.”

Whether or not this is the way to understand the quote, and perhaps to understand Wilson, we are now ready to consider the challenge FDR faced and the opportunity that he seized.

Liberalism 2.0

FDR faced a challenge.  He and Hitler both came to power in 1933.

FDR was a proud progressive who had served in the Wilson administration.  Yet he was elected in a time when progressivism’s German roots, Wilson’s open admiration for all things German and Wilson’s scorn for the Constitution had enormous potential to make political trouble for FDR and his party.

There were other purely domestic developments that had put progressivism in bad odor.  Prohibition, passed at the crest of the progressive wave, had not exactly turned out to be a crowd pleaser.  The country was 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 progressivism’s other crown jewel, the progressive income tax, though prized by the elite, was a sore point for many voters.

Time for a name change!

And what a choice it was.  Nowhere is FDR’s genius for politics more evident than in his decision and his brilliant campaign to re-name progressivism as liberalism.  A lesser politician could never have gotten away with it. 

The Democratic Party was reborn as the party of liberalism, and the benefits were enormous.  FDR managed to change the meaning of a word and to transform American political discourse right up until our own time.

Think of it: FDR stole the label of the philosophy of liberty and bestowed it on the party of the state, the party of government, the political enemies of limited government.  It was a knock-out punch that left the proponents of the philosophy of liberty without a name. 

The blow was so devastating to the defenders of the Constitution that, I believe, they have still not recovered from it.  I can’t help but visualize the classical liberals as still today being like the cartoon figure who has been hit hard but is depicted still on his feet, walking in circles with little + signs where his eyes should be and little birds orbiting his cranium where FDR landed his roundhouse punch. 

What should they call themselves now?  As Charles Kesler writes in his masterful 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.”

Of course, the classical, Constitutional liberals did not want to take FDR’s helpful suggestion because “conservative” had always been the label of their political foes.  As Jacques Barzun wrote, “free enterprise, free trade, freedom to vote and run for office, free speech and religion are Liberal achievements,” and classical Liberalism’s political foes in the fight for liberty, the champions of the old order, had always, and very properly too, been called the conservatives.

It gets confusing, doesn’t it?  That is the beauty of it from FDR’s point of view.  Political discourse in America has been plunged into terminological and perhaps even terminal confusion.  This confusion has not been good for our republic, dependent as it is ultimately on the ability of the voters to make sound and prudent choices at the ballot box.

The decision of William F. Buckley and others finally to accede to FDR’s helpful suggestion may have been inevitable given the failure of the proponents of the philosophy of liberty to mount a successful defense of their right to the label at the time of FDR’s bold gambit.  Perhaps the decision to take FDR’s suggestion was a tragic error, or maybe only a tragic necessity. 

In any case, FDR’s masterstroke has made the way easier for Progressivism’s sweeping advance during the past century.  Progressivism’s success in transforming the shared assumptions of Americans has been simply astonishing.  In the words of Mises, writing in 1962 and still using the term “liberal” in its original sense:

“In our age, in which anti-liberal ideas prevail, virtually everyone thinks accordingly, just as, a hundred years ago, most people thought in terms of the then prevailing liberal ideology.”

FDR’s capture of the liberal label has had, and continues to have, the most far-reaching consequences for America.


“Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change.”
Freidrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty

Any attempt to make sense of the meaning of liberalism simply must address conservatism.  Both terms are generally understood in relation to each other.  However, the generally accepted image of them occupying different positions on a line, with the liberals on the left and the conservatives on the right is fundamentally misleading.

Conservatism, at least as defined by Hayek, is fundamentally a disposition.  It represents the political expression of caution or of prudence.  Drastic change, hasty change can have unintended consequences, even terrible ones.  Let us learn from the past, make change carefully, be on the lookout for unintended consequences, says the sober-minded and careful conservative. 

Probably every society has its conservatives, and no doubt it is a good thing, too.  In this sense, conservatism exists independently of liberalism or progressivism equally.  For example, it makes sense to speak of conservative mullahs, say, opposing the radical changes in Iran that made it a theocracy ruled by the mullahs.  To call such mullahs “conservative” is not to suggest that they are by and large in agreement with William F. Buckley.

Whether American or Iranian, according to Hayek, the problem 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 insight does seem to capture the story of the last century in American politics—the Progressives setting the agenda and the opposition dragged along a path not of its own choosing.

But classical liberalism and progressivism each do “indicate a direction” and can be placed on the same plane. Additionally, because progressivism defined itself in opposition to liberalism, they exist in direct opposition to each other. 

The progressives are all for change of a certain kind.  They are keen to use the power of government to bring about the changes in society that they believe are desirable.  As a result, they, like Woodrow Wilson, see governmental power as a good thing, especially when it is wholly or largely in their hands as it has been for much of the last century. 

The classical liberals are all for change and for progress, too.  For liberals, liberty is their polar star and progress is its natural result.  In the words of H. B. Phillips:

“In an advancing society, any restriction on liberty reduces the number of things tried and so reduces the rate of progress.  In such a society freedom of action…will on the average serve the rest of us better than under any orders we know how to give.”

One trouble, then, with the attempt to force change by governmental power is that it actually reduces the rate of progress. 

Progressivism, for all its belief in itself as the most advanced thinking, really is just our contemporary version of statism, the oldest idea in government.  In this sense, Adam Smith wrote about the progressive in his Theory of Moral Sentiments long before Woodrow Wilson got to work on progressivism:

The man of system is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess–board. He does not consider that…in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

At this point in America’s history, the liberal no doubt points in the direction of even greater change than does the progressive.  For the liberal, as Hayek wrote, “the chief need is…to free the process of spontaneous growth from the obstacles and encumbrances that human folly has erected.”  Progressivism has in the last century added a mountain of follies under the burden of which our society now labors.  America has a great distance to travel in the direction of a liberal society and a limited government. 

As our government has grown ever larger and inserted itself into every area of life, our society suffers the inevitable results, the disorder Smith explains to in the Moral Sentiments and the economic stasis he explains to in the Wealth of Nations.