From my friend and former colleague at Hillsdale College, the unmatched Paul Rahe, on the “scientific racism” of the Progressives. No, that is not a typo. Progressive intellectuals a century ago — which meant virtually all intellectuals — were thoroughly caught up in the historicism and evolutionary theories of the 19th century, including what came to be known as “social darwinism.”
What Progressives Believed
The idea that History provides the ultimate standard of right, that right is evolutionary and changes with changing social conditions, was, for the Progressives, irresistible and in their minds irrefutable. To be fair, the historicist view of the world had been expounded by the greatest modern minds, beginning with Rousseau and buttressed by Hegel and Marx among others. Historicism became the overarching framework within which history, politics, theology, economics, sociology, and virtually every other branch of higher education came to be understood.
In a nutshell, here’s where we have been and where we are today: Progressive academicians rejected wholesale the idea of equal individual natural rights. They believed and argued with philosophic erudition that nature offers no standard of right, and therefore the idea of natural rights is an illusion, a myth. They believed and argued with philosophic erudition that the individual, therefore, is almost meaningless and utterly helpless, and that it is “der staat” (the state) that provides and makes possible all human goods. And they re-defined equality to mean equality of condition or outcomes, especially economic equality.
What Conservatives Shunned
For more than a generation, virtually no serious intellectual mind in America attempted to defend or recover the moral and political authority of the natural right principles of the Declaration of Independence. Much later, as the conservative movement began to coalesce in the 1950s and 60s, most conservative thinkers shunned the idea of equality because they thought any talk of equality offered support for the socialist meaning equality had come to possess, effectively distancing themselves from the natural right principles of the Founding.
This is a story that any serious freedom-lover has to understand if we are to restore the moral significance of equal individual natural rights in our politics and policies today. Paul Rahe’s little essay is a good place to begin. For those who have not checked out Rahe’s masterpiece, all three volumes of Republics: Ancient and Modern, please do so. It might cause some to think deeper when we assert that America is a “republic” rather than a “democracy.” Both terms have deep and old meanings, of which too few people are aware.