Failing To Connect

A couple of weeks ago, someone I knew in high school posted a link to this opinion piece to our class reunion mailing list.

In it, he purports to be asking one question: Do you believe that human nature evolves?

He follows that question with the emphatic statement that Our Founders did not.

That statement is a little puzzling, not in the least because there is no evidence that the word "evolve" was tossed around much by the Founders - not even Lamarck had published before 1801 - and I am generally perplexed by folks who claim to know the minds of not just one but all of the Founders on any one question. I must admit, however, that should the question have been put to them, it is likely that most of them would have agreed with him.

His argument, however, is not at all about the nature of human nature. His argument, it turns out, is that Progressives believe that human nature evolves and therefore beliefs of Progressives are antithetical to the beliefs of the Founders. As a card-carrying Progressive (got one around here somewhere) I had to object. As follows:

Do you believe that human nature evolves?
No. As a progressive, I don't. And as a progressive living in a very blue city, surrounded by progressive friends, I can assure you that we none of us believe that "human nature evolves." We do, however, believe that social needs and values change over time. If they did not, monarchy would still suit most of us very well.

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. ... In framing a government ... you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
- James Madison
Therefore the need for civil rights legislation and regulation of industry, among other things, as required for the health and well-being of the citizenry.

The basic force which men act upon never changes. It is and always will be self-interest.
That sounds like something straight out of the Ayn Rand playbook, and it neglects to add the fact that, by and large, people see their self-interest within the context of a community of people who work together for the common good which, in turn, makes individual effort more likely to succeed. One does not negate the other.

Progressives believe that in normal times the decision makers in our society are men and women with good intentions attempting to do good things to help make society a better place — which progressives accept as the proper role of government.
Not at all. We believe in government by the people - but realize that the people do not speak as one voice. So we do our best to elect those who best represent our values and our vision of the nation as a whole. As do those with other values and other visions.

Human nature does not change - but visions of who we are can and do change. Jefferson himself said, "We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."

Magna Carta, if adhered to religiously today, would apply only to the baronial class. The Constitution, if adhered to religiously today, as originally written, would apply, in most rights including that of the vote, only to those men of European ancestry who owned land.

I never know quite what to think of people who purport to know what it is that Progressives believe, as if we are a monolithic bloc with one set of ideas. Your definitions may fit one Progressive here and there, but your understanding of who and what we are and how we think serves only to perpetuate a narrow preconception that does neither of us justice.

In a subsequent e-mail, he quoted Thomas Paine: Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; , but he had no response when I countered with Paine's grand vision for society: he was staunchly anti-slavery, and he was one of the first to advocate a world peace organization and social security for the poor and elderly.

Finally, when he assered that Progressivism is rooted in the philosophy of European thinkers, most notably the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, I think I found the nut of his argument. Hegel (I had to look this up to be reminded) was the author of the dialectic, infamously taken up by Karl Marx, and indeed later on Gary states specifically:

There is a connection between Progressives, Communists and Socialists. They all are Collectivists in which the goal of government is to make society better. The Founders were Individualists who believe that the purpose of government is to secure the natural rights of the individual.

My response: There are those who can argue, and I would agree with them, that the principles of the American Founding are themselves progressive principles.

We agreed to disagree, but I don't think we made a connection.