The Reverse Metamorphosis of Sustainability: Governance

William H. Young

This is the fourth commentary in support of Stephen Balch’s thoughtful article on why colleges and universities should once more offer courses on Western civilization. Dr. Balch highlights the metamorphosis in human knowledge and achievement that occurred uniquely in the West over the past three hundred years. The sustainability ideology proposes a “reverse metamorphosis,” to turn America and the world back to pre-modern ideas about science, nature, the economy, and governance. I address governance herein.

In one such metamorphosis within the West, America was founded upon Western societal ideals, realized as constitutional civil liberties: individual freedom from oppression and undue political restraint, to think and act freely but responsibly; natural rights to political and social equality, to private property and pursuit of self-interest. These ideals revolve about the relationship between the individual and the state. The founders did not make equality a provision of the Constitution. They thought that there was an irreconcilable conflict between liberty and equality. They provided for government to establish as much equality as justice requires. They thought that equality before the law and equality of opportunity were compatible with the fostering of individual liberty and freedom of enterprise.

They founded the first commercial republic to provide for private pursuit by individuals of ambition, self-interest, and prosperity through a market system utilizing private property and capitalism. In doing so, they rejected the economic theory of the French Physiocrats, which Tocqueville characterized as “absolute equality, State control of the activities of individuals, despotic legislation, and the total submerging of each citizen’s personality in the group mind”— a Gallic precursor to Marxism and progressive social constructionism.

As discussed in previous articles, the sustainability ideology seeks to reverse the metamorphosis of the Industrial Revolution, to turn America to an economic concept—sustainable development—like that proposed by the Physiocrats, a form of contemporary transnational progressivism. What would that mean for American governance, for the relationship between the individual and the state? In the progressivism lexicon, “liberty is not found in freedom from state action,” said Woodrow Wilson, “obeying the state is the fulfillment of true freedom.” And Tocqueville’s warning that such a turn to equality would lead the individual to “naturally turn his regard to the immense being that rises alone in the midst of universal debasement”—to dependence on the state—would also be fulfilled.

In his article on ecological economics, sustainability’s guru Herman Daly’s definition of sustainable development would overturn the Western concept of private property and economic independence that began with the ancient Greeks and came to America from the British Enlightenment. Not only would income and financial property be redistributed, but the public would also own greater amounts of knowledge currently protected as intellectual property. With vastly increased powers, the centralized federal government would own and allocate natural and financial resources to the private sector. The concept of federalism that underlies our Constitution would be rendered ineffectual. Daly declares:

It is time for us to move away from free trade and free capital mobility and globalization. We should adopt compensating tariffs to protect efficient national policies of cost internalization from standards-lowering competition.

He purports to protect only efficient rather than inefficient domestic firms. But he would turn America back to the policy of mercantilism that the American Revolution was fought to overcome and that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was written to oppose.

In going far beyond mere environmentalism, sustainability’s concept of social justice reflects John Rawls’ progressive theory of justice, which he calls “justice as fairness.” The rewards to society’s privileged, talented, and successful formerly reaped in the marketplace become the property of the community as a whole, to be redistributed—communal sharing. Social and economic inequalities are permitted to work only to the advantage of the least advantaged members of society, the difference principle. Michael Sandel points out that Rawls rejects Aristotle’s way of thinking about justice, which is giving people what they deserve, considering virtues of human nature that are worthy of reward.

The founders recognized that the political power of groups or factions would become largely the basis for rewards from the state. Thus, they deliberately sought to circumscribe spoils and rewards from government. The difficulty they anticipated in controlling factions was exacerbated by twentieth-century progressivism. In The Rise and Decline of Nations(1982), Mancur Olson shows that factions seek to redistribute rather than create wealth and, over time, impose social and economic rigidities and costs which cause nations to lose vitality and reduce their rate of economic growth. This is America’s early-twenty-first-century affliction, and government-controlled sustainable development would further amplify the role of politics and factions in redistributing scarcity rather than creating wealth. Olson further warned that factions drive political life away from considerations of widespread common interests and spur divisiveness that can even make societies ungovernable.

Our colleges and universities, and the teachers they have educated, have undermined the understanding of, and attitudes towards, Western and American systems of economics and governance, guiding students from public schooling onward to become true believers in the reverse metamorphosis of sustainability. The concept of sustainable development would repeat the historical errors and failures of socialism and communism in the name of protecting nature. Our educational systems need to return to teaching the history of Western economics and governance that made possible the prosperity of the common man in the West over the past two hundred years. Only with such knowledge of Western civilization can our educated elites and people make informed decisions about future relationships between economics and governance and the environment. As Dr. Balch points out, metamorphosis is why we should study the West.


The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of OrderingAmerica: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).



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