The Founders vs. The Progressives

by Burt on April 11, 2012

What is the nature of man? Are we basically good people, corrupted somewhat by our environment, or are we flawed, and in need of divine help? The answer to that question is at the heart of the difference between our nation’s Founders, who wrote the Constitution, and the progressives, who came much later and dominate much of our political life today.

The Founders wanted men of decent character to be our leaders. But even if the U.S. elected men of sterling character, their power, the Founders believed, should still be limited. Why? Because even outstanding people could make huge mistakes, or be corrupted by power. That thinking was reflected in the writing of the Constitution, which divided power among the president, the House and Senate, and the Supreme Court. The best chance to secure and perpetuate freedom, the Founders argued, was to divide authority among several groups.

The progressives disagreed. President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), among others, believed in the perfectibility of man. If men were perfectible, they should be trusted with more power–so that they could overcome the fragmented power under the Constitution, and do good works directly for humanity. “[T]he only fruit of dividing power,” Wilson argued, “was to make it irresponsible.”

Once Wilson was president, he only wanted to be bound by a “living Constitution,” a document he could stretch to do good works. To do good works, Wilson needed much federal revenue. Wilson favored a progressive income tax, one where some groups would be taxed higher than other groups. The Founders, by contrast, believed in equal opportunity (on most issues) and protection of property. A progressive tax, by hitting some groups harder than others, is by definition unfair and a potential deprivation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to those highly taxed citizens.

The Founders believed that if some Americans were heavily taxed, and others taxed not at all, that we would be encouraging envy and instigating class warfare. No nation can endure if envy and class warfare is intense. Thus, a key question for our nation is this: Will we continue down the path of the progressives, or will we recognize that human nature is flawed, and that even good people entrusted with power may be tempted to increase it and deny constitutional liberties to others. Will we return to a more limited government?

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