Dec 15, 2010 8:56 PM GMT
“…what it comes down to is that we can manage to exist as and where we are, but we can’t afford to move! So we’ve got to stand still. We’ve got to stand still. We’ve got to make those bastards stand still!”
- Wesley Mouch, a character in Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”
Many on the Left eschew the “liberal” title nowadays in favor of the term “progressive”. This term has gone in and out of favor for over a century, from the populists of the early 1900′s to the socialists of the more modern era.
My contention is that what drives most progressives, at a very fundamental level, is a deep conservatism. Of course, most “progressives” would freak if they were called conservative, but what I mean by conservative in this context is not donate-to-Jesse-Helms capital-C Conservative but fearful of change and uncomfortable with uncertainty conservative.
Progressives are often as overwhelmed by the world economy as primitive man was by his natural environment. Just as the primitive man was confused by and fearful of storms and earthquakes and drought and disease, progressives are befuddled by the rise and fall of industries, booms and recessions, wealth and poverty. And just as primitive men invented gods and myths to help bring order and a sense of controllability to events they didn’t understand, progressives create governments in the hopes of imposing top-down order on a chaotic economy.
Before I continue to support this argument, I must say that on a number of issues, particularly related to civil liberties and social issues, I call progressives my allies. On social issues, progressives, like I do, generally support an individual’s right to make decisions for themselves, as long as those decisions don’t harm others.
However, when we move to fields such as commerce, progressives stop trusting individual decision-making, probably because they do not understand the world of commerce themselves.
- Progressives who support the right to a person making unfettered choices in sexual partners don’t trust people to make their own choice on seat belt use.
- Progressives who support the right of fifteen year old girls to make decisions about abortion without parental notification do not trust these same girls later in life to make their own investment choices with their Social Security funds.
- Progressives who sympathize with third worlders who deal with poverty by joining radical jihadist groups don’t trust these same third worlders who deal with poverty by choosing to work in the local Nike shoe plant.
Because capitalism is based so completely on individual decision-making, because its operation is inherently chaotic, and because its rewards can’t possibly be divided equally and still be “rewards”, progressives are hugely uncomfortable with it. Ironically, though progressives want to posture at being “dynamic”, it turns out that capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them. Industries rise and fall, jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms.
Progressives want comfort and certainty. They want to lock things down the way they are. They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and next decade, and will always pay at least X amount. Which is why, in the end, progressives are all statists, because only a government with totalitarian powers can bring the order and certainty and control of individual decision-making that they crave, just like the invention of Apollo assured the Greeks that the sun would indeed rise the next day.
Progressive elements in this country have always tried to freeze commerce, to lock this country’s economy down in its then-current patterns. Progressives in the late 19th century were terrified the American economy was shifting from agriculture to industry. They wanted to stop this, to cement in place patterns where 80-90% of Americans worked on farms. I, for one, am glad they failed, since for all of the soft glow we have in this country around our notion of the family farmer, farming was and can still be a brutal, dawn to dusk endeavor that never really rewards the work people put into it.
This story of progressives trying to stop history has continued to repeat itself through the generations. In the seventies and eighties, progressives tried to maintain the traditional dominance of heavy industry like steel and automotive, and to prevent the shift of these industries overseas in favor of more service-oriented industries. Just like the passing of agriculture to industry a century ago inflamed progressives, so too does the current passing of heavy industry to services. Who could have predicted a half century ago that it would be the the Left that would use taxpayer money to prop up the management of General Motors in the face of a changing economic tide?
In fact, here is a sure-fire test for a progressive. If given a choice between two worlds:
1. A capitalist society where the overall levels of wealth and technology continue to increase, though in a pattern that is dynamic, chaotic, generally unpredictable, and whose rewards are unevenly distributed, or…
2. A “progressive” society where everyone is poorer, but income is generally more evenly distributed and where jobs and pay and industries change only very slowly, and people have good assurances that they will continue to have what they have today, with little downside but also with very little upside.
Progressives will choose #2. Even if it means everyone is poorer. Even if it cuts off any future improvements we might gain in technology or new business models or wealth or lifespan. They want to take what we have today, divide it up more equally, and then continue to eternity with just that. Progressives want #2 today, and they wanted it just as much in 1900 (just think what it would mean if they had been successful — as just one example, if you are over 44, you would have a 50/50 chance of being dead now).
How do I know this would be the progressive answer? Well, first, this question has been asked and answered a number of times in surveys, and it always comes out this way.
Second, just look at any policy issue today. Take prescription drugs in the US – isn’t it pretty clear that the progressive position is that they would be willing to pretty much gut incentives for any future drug innovations in trade for having a system in place that guaranteed everyone minimum access to what exists today? Or take the welfare state in Continental Europe — several generations of workers/voters have chosen certainty over growth and improvement. Workers 30 years ago voted themselves jobs for life, but at the cost of tremendous unemployment amongst the succeeding generations.
The children of the 1960’s had a number of catch phrases, among them “power to the people.” The irony is that no system in history has ever empowered individuals as much as has capitalism. Capitalism is the only way to organize economic activity without the use of force, the only approach that does not require that a few human beings be given power over us to guide our activity from above. This results in an order that is emergent and bottom-up, as beautiful in its complexity as anything in nature. And, and order that is as terrifying to progressives as nature was to primitive man. As a result, progressives would trade it all away, would accept a master, would accept impoverishment and stagnation, in order to attain predictability.
I am sure, if asked, most progressives would profess to desire iPod’s and cures for cancer. But they want these without the incentives that drive men to invent them, and the disruption to current markets and competitors and employees that their introd