Arnold Kling  

Reformers vs. Limited Government

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I am not repeating the famous sentence of the Massachusetts Bill of Rights, "to the end that this may be a government of laws and not of men." There never was such a government. Constitute them how you will, governments are always governments of men, and no part of any government is better than the men to whom that part is entrusted. The gauge of excellence is not the law under which officers act, but the conscience and intelligence with which they apply it, if they apply it at all.
That is from Woodrow Wilson, Constitutional Government in the United States, 1908. It is quoted in an article by Bryan Garsten in the latest issue of Critical Review.
Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of government. The history of liberty is the history of resistance. The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it.
That is from Woodrow Wilson, in a speech given in 1912 (the year he was elected President). I found it while vainly searching for an online version of the other quote.

I continue to enjoy Daniel Walker Howe's history of America from 1815-1948, What Hath God Wrought. Reading Howe tends to confirm Mencius Moldbug's view of the continuity between evangelical Yankee reformers of the early 19th century and today's Left. The reformers never cared much for the Constitution's provisions of limited government when those provisions conflicted with programs for improvement under the planning and direction of government.

Similarly, the tradition of those supporting limited government is a long one, primarily Southern. Running from Jefferson through Jackson to Goldwater, this tradition unfortunately used limited government and states' rights to rationalize a reluctance to confront slavery and Jim Crow laws.

My sense is that Woodrow Wilson meant what he wrote in 1908, not what he said in 1912. Actually, he might have believed what he said about liberty and limited government going together. It's just that what he failed to mention is that he was no fan of either. He was a quintessential reformer (although he also was a racist).


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (1 to date)
Eric Hanneken writes:

Have you read Gene Healy's The Cult of the Presidency? He traces the modern predilection for great leaders to the Progressive Era, although he also identifies some precursors. The book also contains some additional evil quotes from Woodrow Wilson.

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