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An old argument revisited

Reading the scholarly work of Woodrow Wilson is an educational experience. It is shocking to read the expressions of his disaffection for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. As R.J. Pestritto has demonstrated, the intellectual roots of modern liberalism lie in an assault on the ideas of natural rights and limited government. They eventuate in an administrative state and rule by supposed experts. Obamacare represents something like the full flowering of modern liberalism.

Wilson’s expressions of disapproval are the precursor to Barack Obama’s disdain for the Constitution and the Warren Court. Obama perfectly reflected Wilson’s views in his 2001 comments on the civil rights movement and the Supreme Court. In the course of the famous radio interview Obama gave to WBEZ in Chicago, Obama observed that the Warren Court had not broken “free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, at least as it’s been interpreted, and the Warren Court interpreted in the same way, that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties.” To achieve “redistributive change,” the limitations of the Constitution would have to be overcome by the Court or by Congress.

Franklin Roosevelt touted welfare state liberalism in the “second Bill of Rights” that he set forth to Congress in his 1944 State of the Union Address. “Necessitous men are not free men,” Roosevelt asserted, and enumerated a new set of rights, among which were the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation, the right of every family to a decent home, and the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.

Implicitly arguing that the teaching of the Declaration had become obsolete, Roosevelt asserted: “In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.”

Abraham Lincoln’s argument with Stephen Douglas also came down to a disagreement over the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln articulated this disagreement with special gusto in his critique of Douglas on July 10, 1858.

According to Douglas, the teaching of the Declaration had no general applicability beyond the immediate situation that confronted the Founding Fathers. Restating Douglas’s argument, Lincoln asked “in all soberness, if all these things, if indulged in, if ratified, if confirmed and endorsed, if taught to our children, and repeated to them, do not tend to rub out the sentiment of liberty in the country, and to transform this Government into a government of some other form.” This is certainly one of the question that is raised in acute form by the doctrine of welfare state liberalism in general and by Obamacare as a case in point.

The economic “rights” asserted by Roosevelt in his second Bill of Rights differ and conflict with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They are claims on the liberty of others. If I have a right to medical care, you must have a corresponding duty to supply it. If I have a right to a decent home, you must have a duty to provide it.

The argument for the welfare state belongs in the same family as “the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of king-craft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden.” That’s Lincoln again.

Lincoln memorably derided the underlying principle as “the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it.”

William Voegeli’s Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State is one of the books of the year. George Will drew attention to Voegeli’s book in his excellent column “The danger of a government with unlimited power.”

Michael Lind attacks Will and comes to the defense of liberalism. William Voegeli strikes back in “Why liberalism is dangerous.” Voegeli has reignited a profoundly important argument that ultimately requires us to recover a basic understanding of limited constitutional government.

FOOTNOTE: Readers interested in a few of Wilson’s pointed comments on the Declaration and the Constitution, drawn from Pestritto’s book, may want to take a look at my “Dr. Wilson’s cabinet, part 2.”

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