The Progressive Mistake
"A year from now, ten? They'll swing back to the belief that they can make people... better. And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin'. I aim to misbehave." – Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds, in "Serenity"
The Progressive Movement is based on a mistaken view of what the role of government is. If you accept the premise that the proper role of government is to help people to fulfill their potential, and to thereby make people better, then everything that the progressives support makes perfect sense.
If you accept the premise of our founding principles, then you will find what the progressives support abhorrent and antithetical.
(Keep in mind as you read this that the progressive movement began within the Republican Party with "Fighting" Bob Lafollette and Teddy Roosevelt. While the progressive agenda is currently being pushed most virulently through the Democratic Party, it has been promoted strongly through the Republican Party as well.)
Recently I went with my son's Boy Scout troop on a trip to Sacramento. We visited the Capital, where there was a week-long YMCA/YWCA youth leadership group in session. These high school kids were each taking on a role of government - senators, assemblymen, governor ... most of the roles performed by our State elected officials.
We were able to sit in on the mock Senate and Assembly sessions, and what we saw was horrifying – at least to my son and myself.
These kids were engaged in a debate over proposed legislation to outlaw smoking while driving a car. What was telling was the nature of their arguments. Now, to be fair, there were a couple of kids who made the point that such hyper-control should not be the government's job – or their points were close enough so I'll give them credit for bold thinking in such a strange environment.
But with the exception of these two kids, the rest of the "Senators" were arguing over the effectiveness of the law, the importance of getting people to stop smoking and the long-term goal of banning this evil vice of smoking once and for all.
These kids are making the Progressive Mistake. They believe that the role of government is to make people better; that the role of government is to look at the bad habits, the poor choices and the myriad imperfections that are exhibited by people every day of their lives and to correct them; and if possible, to abolish them.
Their vision of government is like a carpenter's sandpaper, rounding off the rough edges, dulling those pesky splinters and smoothing out the unsightly blemishes of humanity.
To be fair to these kids, they are young, and they have been taught by their progressive teachers that such shenanigans are the proper role of government.
What's more, their experience is with groups of people where such micromanaging may actually be feasible – if not desirable.
Within a family, a group, or a small community of people, it is possible to have more complex rules and expectations because the people involved know each other, and the population is small enough that you can see immediately the effects of the rules and respond to feedback when you are off-base.
We do this as parents, as Scout leaders, as coaches and teachers all the time.
In our family, we have specific chores and expectations for our kids that are geared specifically to their strengths and what we think they need to grow and improve on. We can do this because my wife and I know our kids extremely well. Some kids need more external support, encouragement and discipline; others need less. In small groups, where the people involved know each other, we naturally develop rules, guidelines and habits that are often very complicated.
The high school kids who were role-playing our state government in Sacramento live within a world where externally generated expectations and consequences make perfect sense.
But these kids have brought the expectations of a small group to a massive group; and in this mock government situation they were applying that same mindset to a system involving millions of people, most of whom do not know each other at all.
We commonly remember our childhood and teenage years as a special time in human history. One reason for this is that while we were growing up, the weighty problems of the world and the stressful problems of making ends meet, protecting and caring for the family, were largely in the hands of the adults in our lives.
Now when we look around at the world, many people long for the time when all these problems were somehow taken care of. Like these teenagers in the government youth group, it's easy to be seduced by the progressive ideas that if only there were a law, or a regulation, or a great and enlightened leader, then we could manage people; we could direct them toward their higher potential and then people would be better – just like we imagine they were in that golden age.
But this is not a vision that works for large groups of people.
(Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago, in his book, Simple Rules for a Complex World outlines a few basic rules that should guide government policy, and explains why the hyper complexity of today's regulatory state is so out of place. There's a great clip of him explaining this here. It is densely packed and he speaks quickly, so relax and take it in over a couple of listens.)
Whereas these budding young progressive legislators would believe – as do their equally zealous elders who actually hold elected office in California – that the more complex the system, the more complex the rules that are needed to bring out the best in people, the exact opposite is true.
A central body such as a government cannot know the people that it governs well enough to wisely and effectively plan out complicated and detailed guidelines for everything and everybody. Government can do a few things but making people better is not among them.
Above all, government does not have the ability to do magic – and it cannot bring into being the magical thinking of wishful dreamers, longing for a golden age where everybody is equal, well-educated, peaceful, wise, cool, enlightened, moral, dependable... you name it and somebody in a position of power at some time has imagined that they can make it happen – through force.
In the words of Captain Mal: I do not hold to that.
Posted by DwightJohnson on 03/29/12 02:22 PM
What you are talking about is the natural law principle of subsidiarity, where a higher level should not presume to do what a lower level of society is capable of doing. No where is this more important than in the case of someone in need of help. Certainly people are in need of assistance every day, and should be aided by those closest to them. If more is needed, the circle should expand, but incrementally. There is a danger in a level too high providing aid, as it may encourage dependency, as the infamous War on Poverty did. When aid comes from a level that is too high, the natural inducements to improve are weakened or become non-existent, leaving the person in need in even worse shape.
Posted by R on 03/29/12 11:49 AM
A GREAT follow up to your previous editorial!
I have supporting commentary, but perhaps in another forum.
Sometimes "Less is More".
Posted by the_IRF on 03/28/12 10:44 PM
Do parents and schools direct behavior out of concern (fear) that failing to do so will produce offspring unequipped to deal with life? Do parents and schools teach youth to be non-judgmental? Do parents fear a child running into the road? Are parents and schools judgmental about children "running-into-the-road"? Do parents teach 'good' behavior? Do children model what adults do? Do these children grow up to become adults fearful that their society is running into the road? Is it logical that they become progressives, deeply bent on stopping their society from running into the road?
Are you gratified that your child does't get killed by running into the road? Are you doing power by forcing your child to not run into the road? Do humans like doing power and being judgmental?
The unhappy conclusion would seem to be that if we could have more children running into the road we might have a much smaller global population and smaller governments, all of whom have learned to not be judgmental and who are not fearful about their children (citizen subjects) not being prepared for life and children growing up to model what they see the adults doing.
Why do i keep thinking of Samuel Clements and "Huckleberry Fin" and that character's defiance of adults as he went sailing down the river on a raft that all grown up people feared would get him drowned.
Gosh i hate it when i get logical like this, don't you?
And with that may i once again raise a toast to Mirthful Irreverence Everywhere.
Posted by victorbarney on 03/28/12 04:14 PM
The ONLY Progressive mistake is not believing that We(America) actually are Israel by the seed of Joseph, as MARXIST(ANTI-CHRIST) England during all of the 1900's by the way and, that TRUTH SOON(SEPTEMBER 16, 2012) WILL BE REVEALED AND COMES THE TWO-WITNESSES OF REVELATION, CHAPTER 11 TO SEVERELY PUNISH U.S, FOR 3 1/2 years! WATCH!
Posted by Joelg on 03/28/12 03:53 PM
Letters from America by Alexis de Tocqueville, recently translated and published, paints a picture of an America of bustling commerce and almost no government regulation. And a very different prison system, as Tocqueville came here on the pretense of reporting back to France on the prisons.
A great, thought-provoking article, Mr. Wade. Seems government is the new religion.
Posted by Friend_of_John_Galt on 03/28/12 03:43 PM
The arrogance of politicians (on both sides of the aisle) is that "government can do good." This is an impossibility. Government only takes and harms. The Federal government has certain functions (as enumerated in the constitution), but it has ranged far, far beyond those limits. All in the name of "doing good."
Under the influence of a bunch of dead German philosophers, the progressive movement wanted to create a utopia on earth. It would have to create "supermen" per Nietzsche's philosophy, otherwise the utopia would fail, as mere normal humans are not up to meeting the requirements of living in such a utopia.
Of course, what these "do good" politicians fail to understand is that North Korea is the epitome of social justice. Everyone gets to starve to death. Those who do not meet the standards of being "supermen" get to die even sooner in a punitive work camp or prison. In the end, everyone is equal (except the power elite of that society). They're either impoverished, in prison, or dead.
Welcome to the utopia of progressivism.
Posted by oneman on 03/28/12 10:58 AM
A couple of thoughts came to my mind:
"Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood" - Democracy in America (Volume 2, section 4, "What sort of despotism Democratic nations have to fear".
And something Herbert Spencer said, that the ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of their own folly was to fill the world with fools.
Explains a lot, in MY book!
Posted by rossbcan on 03/28/12 06:55 AM
JW: "Within a family, a group, or a small community of people, it is possible to have more complex rules and expectations because the people involved know each other, and the population is small enough that you can see immediately the effects of the rules and respond to feedback when you are off-base."
FEEDBACK, the key point. We CANNOT KNOW the diverse environments when control is attempted to be asserted over many large, diverse groups. Nor, can the groups KNOW the sociopaths whom are, like moths to fire, drawn to power and control.
Large central control endeavors involving free will, autonomous individuals MUST either be acknowledged as a total failure or trend to tyranny (futile, increasing force) until the failure collapses the entire system, adapting even idiots and sociopaths out of their strategic denial regarding how REAL and utterly powerful freedom and collective will to survive (unseen hand) is when pitted against dissenters.
Central contral and "managing" the lives of others may work with stupid cattle. Like cats, free will, intelligent mankind cannot be "herded". To attempt to do so makes the herder an impediment. Beware:
Click to view link
Attempting to interfere with free choice is both unjust:
Justice Defined: We are all free to profit or suffer and learn (adapt to excellence) by facing the consequences of our OWN choices. Injustice is to be forced to suffer the consequences of choices of unaccountable (irresponsible) others..
... and a direct assault on our ability to individually and collectively survive (which is why those whom attempt control are DOOMED):
Click to view link
... and the rest of us, collateral damage until we "straighten up and fly straight" (acknowlege and comply with proven reality).