Re: English Liberty and American Liberty (Part II)

Various traditions in subsequent American political history have rejected Tocqueville’s distinction. The Confederate states rejected it, arguing for an ideological form of localism that outranked universal principles and national stability (among other things). The Progressives later rejected it from the other side of the fence, rejecting localism for a totalitarian set of national principles and efficiency. (Both led eventually to centralized administration; the Progressives via war and the Confederates via their political inability to conduct one.)

The Progressives argued that all interests were common to all parts of the nation and therefore the vast majority of administration should be centralized. Perhaps this is slightly unfair, but the Porchers often appear to uncritically accept the Progressives’ framework for considering these questions, implying that no interests are common to all parts of the nation and therefore no government should be centralized (I except Prof. Deneen from this accusation). More precisely, Porcher logic seems to go something like this: (1) Progressives dislike particularism, localism, and decentralization; and (2) Progressives like universalism, nationalism, and administrative centralization; therefore (3) talk of universal principles, nation, and centralized government is dangerous.

Yet as Tocqueville demonstrated, the things the Porchers value have never existed in stability for long in the absence of centralized governments limited by universal truths (i.e. natural law, whether applied directly or through tradition). Far from being anti-ideological, many of the Porchers and their fans turn localism itself into an ideology (note the very term, localism). They consequently lump together political concepts that are in fact quite different, notably centralized government and centralized administration. Since they do not make the key distinction that empowers mixed government, they also have difficulty translating their bottom-up ideas to national top-down politics without sounding either anarchic or communist.

The Progressives, on the other hand, made the nation-state into an ideology, and subordinated the individual, the family, the town, and the state to its divine will and centralizing force. By imagining that power and authority have the same source, they created a combination of mass government and mass administration that attempted to defy any notion that politics is at root a human endeavor. They abdicated the government’s responsibility, as Charles Murray put it, “to make sure the little platoons work,” and instead chose to declare the little platoons out of date.

While Progressivism and Porcherism pit themselves as polar opposite ideologies, they do in fact share some of the same assumptions about the nature of government. This does not prevent either from being right about certain things (both, for example, criticize atomistic individualism). But it does prevent both from addressing the nuances of political reality that the Founders knew must be understood to craft good national policy.

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