In a recent interview, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said that the Health and Human Services (HHS) order requiring all employers to include contraceptives as part of any health insurance pln they offer to their employees was a “teachable moment in Progressive philosophy.” According to Ryan, President Obama’s order manifests the problem with Progressive thought: It’s incompatible with the Constitution.
“So you have Obamacare, and it’s a philosophy that believes we now have government-granted rights and it’s the government’s job to grant us our rights,” Ryan said. “And when those government-granted rights collide or conflict with our constitutional rights, well, such is the sacrifice needed in the name of progress.”
Ryan is right. The HHS order is a culmination of 150 years of the Progressive thought that has steadily undermined our natural rights. For Progressives, our rights do not come from natural law, as the Founders asserted, but from the government, which determines our rights based on what it deems best for the general welfare of the people. In this case, the government believes contraceptives are good for the people, so it has taken it upon itself to ensure free, easy access to contraceptives.
But what about people who believe contraceptives are immoral? The administration believes the invented right of free access to contraceptives trumps the natural right of religious freedom. According to the president and his Progressive friends, the government can disregard natural rights whenever they stand in the way of “progress.”
This is nothing new. Since the end of the 19th century, Progressives have been trying to redefine the role of government. In the Founders’ view, government’s role was limited to securing our natural rights, which pre-date government. These rights include life, liberty, property and conscience. As James Madison said, man “has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.”
But Progressive thinkers reject the Founders’ view of natural rights. Progressive political scientist Charles Merriam, who headed FDR’s National Resources Planning board, wrote in 1903 that “[R]ights are considered to have their source not in nature, but in law” and that when considering policy, “[It] is fully conceded that there are no ‘natural rights’ which bar the way. The question is now one of expediency rather than of principle … Each specific question must be decided on its own merits, and each action of the state justified, if at all, by the relative advantages of the proposed line of conduct.”
Without the limits of natural rights on government power, Progressives could achieve what they viewed as the object of the State: securing freedom in the positive sense. In the Progressive view, men are not truly free unless they have access to the resources which enable them to pursue their “highest good.”
Progressive John Dewey thought the Founders’ view of freedom was inadequate, saying, “[T]he freedom of an agent who is merely released from direct external obstructions is formal and empty.” What good is a legal right to pursue the things we need if we don’t have the means to obtain them?
Therefore, the government’s role is to take resources from some and distribute them to others, ensuring freedom in the positive sense. But in order to secure positive freedom, the government must expand its power beyond the limits of natural rights.
With Progressive influences in mind, it is easy to see why our government adopts policies like the HHS mandate. In this case, the government is promoting positive freedom, by ensuring access to contraceptives, since it believes unwanted children restrict our freedom. If this is the object of government, then the First Amendment is irrelevant. Instead, as Dewey asserts, freedom is no longer maintained by securing “the liberty of individuals in matters of conscience and economic action.”