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January 3rd, 2009
The Progressive Predicament
photo credit: Dunny
How is cultural and political progress to be measured? With any type of change there should be measurements or benchmarks to indicate in what direction or in what way something is changing. With a ruler, one can determine the progress that a snail makes; with the “change” mantra infusing contemporary politics, how is it to be calculated?
Political progressivism masquerades under the claim that it represents the people, but the very word hardly lends itself to such a definition. Instead, the word serves as a politically-correct label for what in truth is nothing more than the tyranny of the majority (although the majority can rarely even agree on the definition of the word they espouse so dearly). Tradition, the Constitution, and other time-tested bulwarks of our society are trampled through the “change” that the prevalent passions of the people demand.
In such a political philosophy, elements of culture and law older than the individual are viewed as anachronistic and obsolete, for progress demands continual change and renewal. To progressives, those who champion tradition and centuries-old laws are behind the times, clinging to the philosophies and practices of men from a long-forgotten age of oppression and ignorance.
To be sure, the right kind of progress is always welcome and should always be pursued. After all, just because something happened in the past does not mean it should continue into the future (e.g. slavery). But to abandon the pillars of past progress in pursuit of the progressive ideal (whatever that is) is little more than rhetorical political back-scratching; progressivism for progress’ sake is hardly a worthy effort without a strong case being made for why the sought-after change is truly better.
In short, progress from A to B doesn’t necessarily mean that B is better, only that more people want B. The passions of the majority have historically been and should continue to be insulated by established republican law so as to quell the momentary surges of popular demand. Short of this ideal, the demand for change and progress so prevalent in our recent political discourse will be absent any adequate rational, philosophical, or moral justification for its existence.
16 Responses to “The Progressive Predicament”
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I can’t figure out what you’re arguing against in this post, besides the word ‘progressivism’, which I admit is a sort of a self-serving label. Maybe people should only be allowed to pick unflattering names for their political movements. Like the Whigs did.
Let’s get a little more concrete. In the last century, progressives promoted laws for safer working conditions (e.g. to avoid another Triangle Shirt factory), for stopping the exploitation of children, and for the right of women to vote. Conservatives fought these reforms all the way.
Which of these reforms do you object to?
To be fair, some progressives also worked for Prohibition, which was in retrospect stupid. Also I am iffy on unions.
To progressives, those who champion tradition and centuries-old laws are behind the times, clinging to the philosophies and practices of men from a long-forgotten age of oppression and ignorance.
This is your sweeping generality, not reality. I suppose progressives feel this way about some traditions and laws. I lean progressive, but I’m not all slash and burn.
The question of how to define progress is an interesting one. I don’t have a non-vague answer. But I’m pretty sure progress is not standing athwart history hollering ‘stop’.
I believe the point is:
Be careful when you say we’re progressing or that we want change. Change in a bad direction is worse than no change at all.
Also a central point: Progressivism usually implies government by popular demand. Great quote: “The passions of the majority have historically been and should continue to be insulated by established republican law so as to quell the momentary surges of popular demand.”
Connor, it may be rare, but I’m afraid I’m with Daniel on this one–what are you trying to say?
Progressives in the New Deal Era were simply socialists/communists trying to put a more palatable label on their political agenda. They did do some good things (as Daniel mentioned). But their endgame is to push communism into the American mainstream. I think they’re winning.
Progressives today (if we can believe Hillary Clinton’s definition) don’t really have a different endgame. But they do have different things to complain about than back in FDR’s time.
Again, here’s the libertarian in me: I agree with progressives in identifying many things that are wrong in this country. I disagree on where to look for the solution.
We shouldn’t look to the government. We should be looking at God, the individual, and private organizations. Government should only do what is necessary to allow these other powers to do their jobs effectively. Beyond that, get out of the way.
I also doubt the “tyranny of the majority” statement, for two reasons:
* Many “progressive” programs are enacted by legislators without (or in spite of the lack of) widespread support by the people (i.e. they’re never put to a vote).
* Many pet projects and ideals of progressives are focused primarily on the individual: civil rights comes to mind, as does the closing of secret prisons like Gitmo and rejection of corporate-directed policy.
Then again, few “progressives” really live up to these lofty ideals (especially in Washington, where real philosophy has been replaced by pragmatism and politics), so my problem may be a self-correcting one.
In interesting view on progressive thought by Kevin at Y-Intercept can be found at http://blog.yintercept.com/2009/01/goth-funeral-rights.html .
It seems to me that almost all members of the political class, regardless of party affiliation or label, work (with rare exception) to effectively expand control over the individual and to centralize authority.
Carborendum said: We shouldn’t look to the government. We should be looking at God, the individual, and private organizations.
Since no one’s challenged this view, let me ask a general question about the appropriateness of government action.
The government runs fire departments. They receive tax money, and they save many lives. But if we followed Carb’s approach, we would fight fires by
2) having individuals rush to the scene of any house fire they happen to see, and
3) having private organisations fund firefighters when they felt like it.
Number 1) would do nothing, and
number 2) would get a lot of non-professionals like me killed.
Number 3) might provide funding, but then firefighters would have to spend a lot of their time in fund raising and looking for sponsorship.
To me, these methods do not seem as effective as having a government agency that provides a steady stream of funding for a well-trained group of firefighters.
Don’t take the general to the specific or vice-versa. There are places where government is the appropriate place to look for the solution. I just don’t believe so much is to be placed in that category.
I’ve said it before. I guess I’ll have to say it again.
The artistry of government is determining where to draw the line. I personally believe that the line should be drawn a lot more towards the libertarian side than where we draw it today. But believe me when I say that I believe it should be drawn a lot more on this side than some others believe.
As far as option #1: We’re supposed to pray as if everything depended on the Lord, then DO as if everything depended on us. Don’t take this letter for letter litterally. But the point is clear and still valid — even if there is a fire.
This is an excellent exposition on the dangers of buying into a label or “movement” so much that you end up abandoning rationality, pragmatism, and likely the principles that attracted you to the “movement” in the first place.
And yeah, I totally agree with your assessment of what Progressivism degenerates into amongst many of its more zealous acolytes.
But though you correctly skewer those who would take those willing to self-label as “progressive [period]” and then use them to promote the kind of unwise, self-defeating, mob-rule that the U.S. Founders warned against, I happen to know — through other comments you’ve made on your site — that you’re aware that “conservatives”, “libertarians”, and all the other group-think political groups skew towards the same types of mistakes.
The game that our citizens so often get caught up in when we try to deal with politics wherein we try to embrace and absolutely defend certain deeply flawed secular movements against certain other deeply flawed secular movements reminds me of things President Kimball warned against in his “The False Gods that We Worship” message.
Personallly, I think we would do well to promote the truth and goodness that exists in each political party and culture and ecschew the evil, idolate, and unwise ideals that also crop up amongst “conservatives” as often as “progressives”.
As for me I’m finally becoming comfortable admitting that I’m “conservative” on certain issues, “progressive” on certain issues, “libertarian” on certain issues, and heck, probably even classically “anarchist” on some issues (maybe).
I don’t believe it serves any useful purpose trying to espouse *all* the particular views of any secular mediator (like Sean Hannity or Barack Obama or Stephen Covey or Ron Paul or ‘the Green Party’ or whatever) without putting each to Paul’s Thessalonian admonition “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”
I believe that to truly fulfill my Christian values and the promise of my American citizenship, I need to take issues one at a time on their merits and weigh them against the principles I currently have faith in. At the current time I don’t see any party or movement that does that perfectly. For me it’s kinda that age-old conundrum “Was Jesus liberal or conservative?” (by current conventional wisdom, I’d answer it really depends on the issue) or “What party would Jesus join?” (I’m convinced that the answer to that would be “none of ’em” just like during his mortal ministry when it was so odd and disappointing to some that he called both a publican and a zealot to be Apostles but didn’t lead or join such movements)
I’ve been thinking more about options #2 & #3.
Option 2: was what the colonial Americans had. And it worked. People weren’t dying any more than current fire-fighters do. Today’s technology helps more, but overall when the average person is expected to do more, he generally will.
Option 3: Don’t make wide generalizations just because you believe it is common sense. It is not.
When I worked at an oil refinery, a nearby pharmacutical plant caught fire. Because of the nature of drugs being produced, it was a massive oil fire. When the refinery learned about it, they offered to send their own fire-fighting crew –trained in oil fire abatement to the site to take care of it.
Whatever the politics were I don’t know. But the fire department told them to shove it because they were government trained and therefore much more capable of extinguishing the fire.
I don’t remember how many hours passed (it was over 24) but the fire departement had lost many lives and many civilians had burned up or were injured as well. They finally asked for help.
The refinery people had the fire out in 2 hours. No more lives were lost.
Let me be clear that in the case of firefighting, I do believe it is a valid government function, especially when it is locally administrated with some state backup. But even with something as widely accepted as firefighting, there are times when the problem is better served by the private sector.
Which of these reforms do you object to?
The results of progressive campaigns are at times beneficial, though if the vehicle used to attain the results is incorrect or corrupt, I think the positive aspects are not worth glorifying. Certainly in specific cases like securing the right to vote for women we can cheer for this result, though when one looks at the campaigns, collateral damage, and methods used to achieve the result, he is justified in not buying in 100% to the progressive playbook (this is not to say that the opposing side and other political groups are saintly). Progressivism, though, like other political ideologies and affiliations, is not isolated to events and campaigns—its tactics and effects seep into other issues that eventually come to be seen as “progressive” in general. Thus it is hard to define, because it’s always changing based on the specific circumstances at hand. Progressives have no foundation upon which to base their desire for change. They just want change, and the kind they think is right.
This is your sweeping generality, not reality. I suppose progressives feel this way about some traditions and laws. I lean progressive, but I’m not all slash and burn.
I am not implying that every single piece of history is treated as irrelevant by progressives—only that it’s a general observation about progressivism overall, and the attitude that progressives seem to have toward any mention of tradition, the Constitution, and other long-standing societal practices and beliefs.
Progressives in the New Deal Era were simply socialists/communists trying to put a more palatable label on their political agenda.
Exactly. Progressivism is perhaps more dangerous than straight-out socialism (and other -isms) because it sanitizes its actions in the eyes of the public with the word “progress”. After all, who can be against progress, right?
The artistry of government is determining where to draw the line.
And the sophistry of progressivism is finding virtue in any movement of that line, so long as ignorant people love the sound bytes associated with the campaign to change it.
Many “progressive” programs are enacted by legislators without (or in spite of the lack of) widespread support by the people (i.e. they’re never put to a vote).
Ah, but the programs pursued are defended by the legislators as being progressive. So here the tyranny of the majority is swapped out, I suppose, for the tyranny of the legislator, pushing whatever agenda they think best with the information they have. So the majority may not agree with the “progressiveness” of the legislator’s action, while the legislator defends it as being progressive. Perhaps this is why nobody can agree on what being progressive means (this, however, occurs with liberalism, conservatism, and any other label—c.f. “conservative” GOP leaders doing all sorts of things that many others think are anything but conservative).
…you’re aware that “conservatives”, “libertarians”, and all the other group-think political groups skew towards the same types of mistakes.
Indeed. As I just wrote to Clumpy, I think that this is the danger, as you note, of clinging to a label—and nothing more—and trying to apply it to specific circumstances. It doesn’t work.
I tend to agree with Doug’s (shall we say) enlightened eclecticism. Fewer labels, more case-by-case analysis. But this is the conflict for us principled pragmatists, isn’t it? When to use the principles, and when to go pragmatic. With that in mind, I’d say it’s not just clinging to labels that’s dangerous. Clinging to a political philosophy is also dangerous, whether that be constant change or invisible hands or America first or what have you.
Interesting story about the fire, Carb. I like the idea of government agencies calling in experts from the private sector. I’m less thrilled about the opposite: dissolving government into the private sector.
Progressives have no foundation upon which to base their desire for change. They just want change, and the kind they think is right.
Doesn’t everyone want to see the changes they think are right? But I don’t think it’s correct to characterise progressivism as change for the sake of change. I haven’t seen any progressives saying this.
Here’s what I suspect: you’re trying to counter progressivism because you’re worried that Mr Obama (say) will enact progressive reforms like health care, energy policy, electoral reform, and/or education policy (say). You’re afraid that these reforms will be enormously popular, and conservatism will be effectively killed for 40 years.
Am I getting warmer?
But this is the conflict for us principled pragmatists, isn’t it? When to use the principles, and when to go pragmatic.
I don’t think that actions should ever be devoid of a principled approach.
Doesn’t everyone want to see the changes they think are right?
Well, sure, but what I’m arguing here is that progressives lack a moral or rational foundation upon which to base their argument for something being right. It might very well be a good thing, but you can’t argue that something is right without having some philosophic justification explaining why.
You’re afraid that these reforms will be enormously popular, and conservatism will be effectively killed for 40 years.
I already know that these and other reforms are popular; look who got elected. But my arguments against progressivism have nothing to do with current or future politics, and everything to do with my concern that modern political thought is void of any moral and reasonable justifications.
Take, for example, the stimulus package. People plan well in advance what they’re going to use the money on, almost as if they’re getting a bonus at work. Since they personally benefit, they put up less of a fight than when banks and companies are the ones being bailed out. “Fixing the economy” and “helping main street” become bastions of progress, rallying the troops to give a “job well done” to the decider-in-chief. But nowhere during the process do we here a discussion citing the morality, authority, and justification for the progressive action.
Again: progressives lack any cohesive foundation that articulates what type of progress they are generally in favor of. It only serves to cast a shadow over the more subtle and destructive political philosophies used to achieve their goals and aims, much as Carb discussed in comment #4.
I think that Progressivism has several problems (“Progressivism” defined not as the left wing but that aspect of politics that tries to use politics to push society forward rather than operating on a principle of non-interventionalism). Mainly because it’s ostensibly results-based, authoritarian and patronizing rather than based on principles of freedom and civil liberties, and also because proven methods for Making Everything Better Forever don’t yet exist, it seems that a guiding principle of hands-off government brings out better results, generally speaking.
However, this debate wouldn’t make any sense outside of a libertarian perspective or board like this because a guiding philosophy is difficult to find in modern politics. So, libertarians such as myself support Constitutional limits as necessarily for a foundation of freedom, while Constitutionalists support the document itself as an end, (which I suppose is a principle, like freedom, since the Constitution is pretty goal-driven if not a principle in itself) however few groups have a principle at work, or respect the Constitution either pragmatically or canonically.
I believe I have some definitions (rather than labels) that could be useful in discussion. In this post, I will only discuss the economic ideals rather than social ideals.
“From each according to his ability; to each according to his need”.
Progressivism as applied during the New Deal era:
1) Equal pay for equal work.
2) The bigger the company, the greater the corruption.
3) The rich are all corrupt, the poor are all righteous.
4) If the poor just had money, they wouldn’t have any problems.
1) From each according to ability, to each according to what he produces.
2) Equal pay for equal production.
3) The bigger the company, the bigger the benefit to society.
4) Wealthy give more to society by their work than the poor.
1) Neither today’s nor any past system has ever been good enough, so we are
going to throw it all away and do as we see fit as situations arise.
2) Minorities are all impoverished victims.
3) All poor are merely misunderstood.
Yes, I’ve hyperbolized here (except for communism). But it is interesting to note that according to these bullet points (which appear to capture these philosophies) liberalism isn’t communism or progressivism (as I had previously categorized it). However, we do find that Capitalism is at odds with all the others. While the three others can meld together well.
Of course we can argue the validity of these definitions (except for Communism since that was the very definition by Karl Marx). But these are lines that have been spoken as guiding principles by activists, political leaders, and economic experts who were proponents of each of these systems.
Socialism is the idea that we can form an eclectic society which uses the best of each of these. I will agree that even Capitalism has its weaknesses. But I’m not going to bring up that point too often. My question is this: Is this idea (socialism) even valid? Can these four systems merge together into a “best of both worlds” system?
My gut says NO. Given that, I want the system with the fewest flaws in it. I believe that to be Capitalism.
Communism: Government is the solution to all of society’s woes.
If no one owns anything, no one will steal.
Make everyone the same, and there will be no jealousy.
Progressivism: Take from the wealthy, give to the poor.
Capitalism: Production is the solution to all of society’s woes.
Roadblocks to production are the source of all society’s woes.
Liberalism: Throw enough money at it (in the form of grants, government
programs, etc. and we won’t have any problems.
Government is to legislate morality in favor of – not just in allowance
Constitutional: Allow power to be spread out enough to all factions and people will
have to come together to get anything done. The result will most
likely be the proper solution.
Make everyone equal and PEOPLE will solve the problem.
Here we see further differences between Capitalism and other systems. We also note that while Capitalism can exist with Constitutionalism, we don’t necessarily see an endorsement of capitalism, we simply limit how much the other systems can flourish.
Also note my word choice between communism and the Constitution. Make everyone the SAME vs EQUAL.
Disclaimer: This isn’t necessarily the way I see things. But it is a way of looking at these that I believe seems to capture the major differences.
Challenge: Is there a way of looking at these that points out where they are similar?