America in the Grip of an Idea

August 12, 2021 Updated: August 16, 2021


In 1979, historian Clarence B. Carson (1926–2003) published a book titled, “The World in the Grip of an Idea.” The idea that Carson explored was collectivism in its various forms, such as fascism, socialism, and communism, to which we can today add environmentalism.

Collectivistic ideas certainly have a strong grip in the United States today, particularly on the political left. In this article, I’ll pinpoint the genesis of today’s looming and booming socialist movement. It all springs from a single idea that has been gradually transforming the nature of our society and our polity for more than a century.

A Government’s Duty

In books published before “The World in the Grip of an Idea,” Carson identified the germ of today’s collectivism as “meliorism.” Adapted from the Latin adjective “melior” (“better”), meliorism is the belief that it’s the government’s duty to improve the economic well-being of citizens. If you wish to read a detailed account of the intellectual and political roots of meliorism, see Carson’s two books, “The Fateful Turn: From Individualism to Collectivism, 1880–1960” and “The Flight from Reality,” the latter of which is available for free from the Foundation for Economic Education (pdf).

Today, the notion of Uncle Sam being tasked with bestowing economic aid upon Americans is taken for granted. However, when that meliorist idea emerged and began to gain popularity late in the 19th century, it presented a radical challenge to our constitutional order. The Founders had established a federal government designed to protect us from anyone—foreign or domestic—who would infringe upon our inalienable rights to life liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. This is plain when reading the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

The problems with the government assuming power to attempt to elevate the economic status of citizens are multifarious, the most obvious of which is that this isn’t a power enumerated in the Constitution; hence, it’s extra-constitutional, if not unconstitutional. If the government is going to give economic assistance to some citizens, then an obvious question arises: From where will the wealth that government disburses come? The government itself doesn’t produce wealth; rather, it subsists on various forms of revenue appropriated from citizens. A government that disburses financial largesse is a powerful institutional middle-man that takes money from some citizens to bestow upon others.

The portentous consequence of having a government that redistributes wealth is that our country’s original classless society (slaves excepted, obviously and shamefully) became divided into two classes—what economists today often refer to as “taxpayers” and “tax consumers.” Before the rise of meliorist ideas, although there were significant disparities of wealth in U.S. society, there were no institutional barriers preventing the poor from prospering or keeping new wealth from surpassing old wealth. Such rigid class structures had been left behind in the Old World. But meliorism led to a new way of dividing society into classes whose economic interests are arrayed against each other.

Accepting the premise that government should be allowed to redistribute wealth—to take from some and give to others—obliterates the principle of equal treatment before the law. Instead, it institutes a system of privileges resting on no fixed ethical principle, but fluidly shifting as the balance of political power shifts. It undermines justice as the moral philosopher Adam Smith and America’s Founding Fathers understood it, replacing it with an Orwellian counterfeit, now known as “social justice.”

Progressive or Regressive?

As meliorism took political form in the progressive movement, the great irony is that the central value of progressivism—an activist government that redistributes property—is anything but progressive in the true sense of the word. As President Calvin Coolidge explained: “If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.”

For the U.S. government to alter its function from giving equal protection to property to giving special treatment to some at the expense of others isn’t progressive, but regressive. That’s the ruthless, unjust practice of governments that millions of Americans immigrated here to escape.

It should be noted that today’s leviathan redistributive state evolved gradually over the decades. Even though meliorist ideology was taking hold among intellectuals, and even though some immigrants brought revolutionary ideologies with them from the Old World, deeply entrenched American values kept revolutionary tendencies largely in check. The American belief in self-reliance ran deep. Indeed, many in the United States scoffed at the notion that a nanny state should look after them.

The tradition of small, limited government also was a formidable obstacle for the meliorists to overcome. Even political leaders, as opportunistic as that species tends to be, had a sense of honor about public finance. Members of both major parties shared the consensus that public debt was unfair to our children and should be avoided as a matter of principle. That consensus—though interrupted by the radical interventions pushed through Congress by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) and Lyndon Johnson—didn’t give truly begin to deteriorate until the 1970s.

While the expansion of the federal government—a perennial goal of meliorists and progressives—was apparent under progressive Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, it was under FDR that the Bill of Rights suffered a severe, and potentially lethal, mutilation that has progressively (double entendre intentional) weakened it ever since. FDR attempted to redefine rights, asserting that every American has a “right to a useful and remunerative job,” “a decent home,” “adequate medical care,” “a good education,” and so forth.

As worthy as those aspirations are, they can only be aspirations, not rights. Why? Because if one person has a legal right to have a home, then other people must be compelled to provide that home. That would infringe on those citizens’ rights to their own liberty and property. Traditionally, the jurisdiction of U.S. law was negative in character, codifying what individuals must not do to each other (attack them, steal from them, break contracts, and so forth). In the progressive/Rooseveltian ideology, the law was to become positive, telling people what they must do (such as pay for shelter for others).

Let me insert here a crucial point made by 19th-century French economist Frédéric Bastiat: “Socialism … confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. … It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.”

We don’t oppose helping our fellow man. Legally, though, under our original constitution, the federal government, properly understood, was never given the authority to compel us to do good works. (See Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Modern Sentiments,” in which the three cardinal social virtues of prudence, justice, and beneficence are spelled out.) Americans accepted the good Samaritan model of charity whereby we voluntarily help others directly or via proxy, but never involuntarily by force. We reject the warped notion that A and B should compel C to do something for D (as William Graham Sumner once put it).

The problem with FDR’s redefinition of “rights” is that such supposed “rights” negate “rights” in the founders’ sense. The pseudo “right” of Citizen A to have a house necessarily involves abridging the right of other citizens to use their property for their own ends (not only buying goods or making investments, but also paying taxes to a government in payment of benefits received from that government, such as the protection of property or providing public goods, such as roads, postal service, etc., that are available to all equally). The newly discovered “right” of Citizen A trumps the original rights of other citizens, essentially relegating the rights of some citizens to second-class status.

With rights being constantly tinkered with and redefined, our society stepped onto the slippery slope of legal positivism, which holds that law isn’t natural and immutable, but is whatever those holding the reins of power at any given time say it is. Such arbitrariness leads to tyranny as democratic (small “d”) politicians find that they can win votes by bestowing new “rights” that benefit people who vote. The slippery slope of legal positivism is greased with the beguiling reasoning that if the government helps some citizens, then why not help more? And if it’s to be the government’s responsibility to subsidize citizens’ health care, then why shouldn’t the government bestow help for other needs, such as child care, transportation, housing, and so forth? The opened Pandora’s box of a government that’s to take care of all our needs leads inexorably to socialism—the theory that government will take care of all our needs (and the too-often-ignored reality that it will end up impoverishing the masses).

Economic Folly

As mentioned above, the bipartisan consensus that peacetime deficit spending was to be curtailed and that a balanced federal budget was a desirable fiscal goal dissolved in the 1970s. Federal debt exceeded $1 trillion for the first time during the Reagan administration, reached $4 trillion a decade later under Bush 41, slowed under Clinton, and has mushroomed nonstop since the turn of the century, standing at more than $28 trillion today.

The temporary slowdown in the 1990s was due to the confluence of most nonrepeatable events—the reduction in military spending when the Cold War with Soviet Russia ended, dramatic welfare reform that greatly shrank welfare rolls, surging tax revenues from the stock market boom, and a short-term bump from the creation of Roth IRAs, as well as the gridlock between Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich.

In today’s political environment, balanced budgets are inconceivable: Republicans are unwilling to go against the tide of an electorate that has grown to expect big government, while to Democrats, deficits and national bankruptcy are irrelevant, even desirable, since they want the government to exercise central economic planning anyhow. Today’s Democratic Party fanatically believes in the delusion that government is omnicompetent. Their idealism has become utopian. They seem to believe that since a majority of Americans are prosperous, then not a single American should have to do without any of the nice things that prosperous Americans enjoy, and so, the government should provide all those things. The only conceivable way to achieve this fantasy is for the government to control the entire economy, or socialism. (If a progressive protests, “No we don’t want to control everything,” just ask them where they would stop with their redistributionist agendas. That generally stumps them.)

Today’s partisan standoff has congealed into ever-escalating class warfare in the United States. Democrats and their minions in “the swamp” energetically persecute our wealth producers for the alleged sin of prospering. Any student of history knows that things don’t turn out well for a polity that sabotages and cannibalizes its productive sector.

Consider the fall of Rome. Foolish senators kept raising taxes on productive citizens to fund bread and circuses for the unproductive, until so many wealth producers went on strike—either by ditching work and going on the welfare rolls or by simply moving away and going into hiding—that Rome’s redistributive state collapsed, broke and broken.

It’s desperately urgent that more Americans realize that wealth producers are society’s benefactors, not its enemies, and that the left’s increasingly irrational hostility toward them is the path to national suicide. Clever politics may prevail over economic realism in the short run, but economic realism can’t be voted out of existence, and it ultimately asserts itself. Our sleek politicians have been sowing the wind, and one day our country will reap the whirlwind.

The story of American history over the past 140 years is that meliorism morphed into progressivism which morphed into socialism. The root of today’s socialist fanaticism and bankrupt government finance stems from one flawed belief: the premise that part of the legitimate function of government is to act as an economic provider for its citizens. Never has an idea that sounds so innocuous, if not kindly, been so destructive in its ramifications.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Mark Hendrickson
Mark Hendrickson
Mark Hendrickson is an economist, who retired from the faculty of Grove City College in Pennsylvania where he remains fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He is the author of several books on topics as varied as American economic history, anonymous characters in the Bible, the wealth inequality issue, and climate change, among others.