Winter is coming. The days are getting shorter, and the nights successively longer. One gloomy afternoon, when you dispel the encroaching darkness with an easy flick of a switch, pause for a moment to reflect gratefully on the genius of Thomas Edison, who invented the first long-lasting practical electric light bulb in 1879.
Before Edison, people had struggled for millennia, setting fire to one noxious substance after another, to hold back the darkness that descended with each setting sun. Edison’s remarkable invention changed everything. Clean, dependable electric lighting radically improved our productivity, prosperity, public safety and physical well-being.
The electric light was only one remarkable example of Edison’s practical genius. He was a prolific inventor, holding over 1,000 U.S. patents, and a highly successful entrepreneur. His numerous inventions and wide-ranging business ventures launched, or helped to advance, several industries that became central to the American economy: electric power, telecommunications, audio recording and motion pictures. He founded over a dozen corporations, including General Electric. From humble beginnings in a small Ohio town, Edison’s skills and abilities propelled him to fame and fortune. He died a wealthy man, respected around the world.
What a great American story! We love progress and practical improvement. We love to think of ourselves as a can-do people always pushing forward, unrestrained by existing conditions and unfazed by any notion of the “impossible.” We love to fix problems, fill needs and produce useful things. And we love to be financially rewarded for our successful efforts.
What, then, is the key to the progress and prosperity we love so much? What can we best do to support the efforts of all the aspiring Thomas Edisons among us today? Should we fund more STEM programs in the public schools? Distribute more government subsidies to the backers of unproven technologies?
An increasing body of research shows that the rule of law, with a firm commitment to individual liberty and natural rights, including property rights, is the key to achieving sustained progress and prosperity. This should not be surprising. The individual, after all, is the source of creative activity and private property is the foundational factor of production.
The rule of law, through fixed and clearly written rules, restrains the unpredictable exercise of arbitrary power. This restraint provides a predictable and clearly bounded open space within which individuals can freely manage their affairs, utilize their property and pursue their happiness.
The rule of law and natural rights found their fullest expression in classical English liberalism and, most exceptionally, in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. As a result of this commitment to the rule of law and individual liberty, America and other western nations enjoyed unparalleled progress and prosperity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
However, as the twentieth century unfolded, some Americans began to question the principles and institutions of our founding in light of the serious challenges that confronted the country: large scale concentrated industrialization, urbanization, mass immigration, labor unrest, and the threat of world war and revolution.
Certain politicians and intellectuals, Woodrow Wilson the embodiment of both, thought that the principles of individualism, natural rights and limited government embodied in the Declaration and Constitution were outdated relics of a simpler past that dangerously undercut the ability of the government to deal with the challenges that confronted it. Wilson and others had more “progressive” ideas for the updated government that America urgently needed.
Wilson and the other progressives turned away from England as a source of political inspiration. They turned instead to Germany. Impressed by the regimenting efficiency of German bureaucracy, the pacifying effect of the German welfare system, and the exhilarating implications for state power contained in German philosophy, the progressives sought to create nothing less than a “new republic” to meet the new challenges of the modern era.
In their new republic, the progressives replaced our founding concept of inalienable natural rights with the concept of malleable rights that are created and then distributed and redistributed by the government according to its evolving policies and constituencies. The progressives replaced our founding concept that individuals utilize their property as a matter of natural right with the concept that property may be utilized only after and to the extent permitted by government.
And the progressives replaced our founding concept that individuals should be protected by the rule of law and largely left alone by the government to freely manage their affairs. In place of a government whose powers were enumerated in the Constitution, divided among its branches and generally limited by fixed and clearly written rules, the progressives advanced the antithetical concept of an unrestrained executive bureaucracy freely wielding consolidated power to manage every aspect of American life.
The progressives believed that this new form of administrative government was necessary and proper because the American people, who might have been able to manage their affairs in the simple agrarian society of the Founders, could not possibly be expected to do so in the complex, interdependent urban society that America was fast becoming.
Experts were needed to manage things; disinterested experts schooled in the social sciences and public administration; experts in the bureaucracy operating outside and above the realm of politics; experts freed by a reinterpreted Constitution and broadly written statutes to exercise their professional discretion on a case by case basis. By permitting and prohibiting, rewarding and punishing, allocating and reallocating the resources of society, the progressives believed their experts could efficiently manage the subject matter and citizens under their care to ensure steady progress and widespread prosperity.
Thus, the progressives replaced the rule of law with the rule of the regulator. They replaced a system of government committed to traditional liberty at the expense of efficiency with a system of government committed to efficiency at the expense of traditional liberty. They replaced a reliance on individual invention to achieve progress and prosperity with a reliance on officially certified experts and centralized administration.
Our current regulatory state is not, of course, a model of either progress or prosperity. We are all familiar with the alarming statistics and recurring reports concerning the national debt, cheap money asset bubbles, the uncertain recovery, declining participation in the labor market, falling rates of new business formation, endlessly delayed project permits, and the widespread pessimism about the future.
The progressives, however good their intentions, tragically miscalculated when they dismissed the timeless value of our founding principles and commitment to natural rights, individual liberty and the rule of law. The ultimate lesson of the American Revolution and the counterrevolution launched by the progressives is simply this: If a nation wants progress and prosperity, it must first strive to be free. If we can again grasp this self-evident truth, that would be progress.
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J. Kennerly Davis is a former Deputy Attorney General for Virginia, and past President of the Richmond Lawyers Chapter of the Federalist Society. He currently serves on the Chapter’s steering committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This piece is adapted from an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.