The Progressive Mistake
By Joel F. Wade - March 28, 2012

"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.

Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is the author of Mastering Happiness and A Pocket Guide to Mastering Happiness.

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