What is the meaning of the label: “Progressive”

‘”Progressive” is a good word don”t you think? Someone who is progressive is forward-looking, on-the-move, open-minded. Who would mind being thought of and labeled a “progressive”? No one.

Somehow (well, I know how but I”ll leave that for now) American liberals managed to turn the noble term “liberal” into an epithet, so they have adopted the term progressive to describe themselves. So far the term works, for all of the reasons suggested in my opening paragraph. I think it also works because the term implies opposition to the term “conservative” which conservatives have managed to turn into an epithet just as “liberal” has been.

Interestingly that aptly named party of oxymorons, the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada dropped the “Progressive” label when it merged with the Canadian Alliance to form the Conservative Party. The new party promptly installed a leader widely considered moderately libertarian but has, ever since, has been spending money hand over fist to show that they are really more “progressive” and less “conservative” than either of their predecessor parties ever were.

So how does one claim the term “progressive”? What does it actually mean? I suggest that the best definition is a modified version of one proposed by Janet Ajzenstat as related in this article by Link Byfield. She says that “progressivism . . . is the ideology that the state must grow ever stronger.” The corollary, Byfield points out, is that “everything and everyone else (must) get (comparatively) weaker ââ‚“ individuals, families, churches, local communities, businesses and markets.

My modification of the definition is to replace the word “ever” with “progressively”:

A progressive is one who believes that the state must grow progressively stronger at the expense of the individual, the family and all other voluntary institutions and relationships.

A progressive believes in state power, that the careful and democratic selection of good, honest, decent people to positions of civil leadership is the good citizen”s first duty, followed by obedience as his or her second. A progressive believes that well-intended initiatives undertaken by such leaders would inevitably yield favourable results if we would all just get behind such initiatives.

A progressive is thus a well-intentioned, civic-minded optimist. He or she does support worth-while voluntary organizations but reserves his or her greatest faith and hope for the initiatives of the well-led state. At heart, a progressive is a genuinely good person. But there is a poison pill, a cancer in the core of progressivism and for that reason it must be opposed.

A progressive thinks, “I am a good person. I will set things right if you will just entrust me with whatever power I need to do so.” Since not all have the capacity or desire to lead this becomes “Obama is a good person. He will set things right if we will all just entrust him with whatever power he needs to do so.”

Where is the flaw in this? Where is the poison pill, the cancer?

Is Obama not a good person? Do progressives and their leaders harbour evil intent? Not at all. But nevertheless they continue to pave the road to hell.

The flaw, the poison, the cancer, are the two truths which progressivism either ignores or rejects. First, determining the best solution to a problem is best done by the person, or persons closest to the problem. Second, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton). Thus, progressivism, as a result of the first, is impotent and, as a result of the second, is dangerous.

The first truth fatal to progressivism is rooted in human epistemology – understanding how we know what we know. The progressive”s fatal hubris (or fatal conceit as Hayek called it) is best brought to mind by thinking of the proverbial difficulty of drafting a letter by committee. The problem lies in the fact that words are only imperfect (imprecise) symbols by which we can only ever hope to convey a portion, by no means all, of what we are actually thinking.

Think of the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning. The latter is an exercise in the very precise logical articulation of the law of identity. It”s not hard to articulate the steps that lead inexorably from premises to conclusion. “Some cats are black. All cats are animals. Therefore, some animals are black.” Pretty boring stuff. Easy to articulate though.

However, with inductive reasoning it is much harder to precisely articulate the mental process. For example: “all the ice I have ever touched is cold; therefore all ice is cold,” is a poorly described process of inductive reasoning. Why “poorly described?” Because I have left out so much critically important information which I actually used to arrive at my conclusion. I failed to recite the countless times I have actually touched ice throughout my life. Surely that fact is important. What about all the experience I have had in relying on my sense of touch and ow this informs my confidence in my sense of touch? This too is important. I could go on. The point is that with inductive reasoning we use much more information, in fact to some degree we use every experience we have ever had, than we can possibly convey in words. But words (written or spoken) are the only means we have to convey the basis of our conclusions to others – and the only means we have to learn from others.

Thus the well-intentioned leader in whom the progressives have placed so much confidence suffers under a terrible epistemological handicap as he attempts to live up to his promise. The knowledge that he (including his cabinet, his advisers, etc.) has about a problem and how to fix it is nowhere near as much as the knowledge disbursed in the minds of all the people who live, and deal with the problems each and every day of their lives. How can one person (or small group), with strictly limited relevant knowledge hope to come up with a better solution to a problem than a larger number, all of whom are free to think and act, individually or collectively, on a solution? This is the value of markets, free markets, over state management.

The second truth is perhaps best illustrated by even a casual glance at modern history. The past century is said, with good cause, to have been the bloodiest in human history. It is also marked as the one which witnessed the greatest concentration of state power. In their day progressives who were not yet prepared to go as far, nevertheless greeted the rise of communism as as a bold and well-intentioned experiment. Fascists and National Socialists advocated the concentration of all power in the machinery of state for the betterment of society. Coincident with the rise of totalitarianism was the outbreak of war, between nations, races, and any other identifiable social groups.

But anything can be taken to an extreme and progressives do not favour the total concentration of power in the state. True enough, but just as communist regimes illustrate Lord Acton”s point about absolute power, the progressive”s welfare state illustrates his point about power per se.

The corruption brought about by progressivism is not simply that of political patronage, or of politicians who inflate their expense accounts, or of those who bestow largess on supportive constituencies. These are trifles compared to the spiritual corruption progressivism promotes and upon which it feeds. The more power is granted to the state to solve our problems, the more our mindset turns away from that of self reliance, and of cultivating goodwill among those of our neighbours with whom we hope to voluntarily associate to our mutual advantage. Instead it cultivates an attitude of dependency on our part, and of at best apathy, if not hostility towards our neighbour”s plight.

In my community there is a day known as “Cheque Day”. It is the day of the month when all those who depend on the money they receive from the government get their cheques. On Cheque Day a few debts get paid, rent gets paid, groceries are purchased . . . and so does liquor, and lottery tickets. Liquor as people try to forget the fact that they no longer live but just endure a stagnant existence from one Cheque Day to the next. An existence they just as often try to end through suicide as through seeking education or employment. Similarly, buying lottery tickets is a rejection of this pale imitation of life – foregoing food, shelter and clothing just for the slimmest chance that they can escape their reliance on Cheque Day.

Believing that the state will solve our problems relieves us of the need to think and fight and strain and struggle and think some more, and fight some more and to hurt and to fail but also to succeed – in short, to live. The corruption of becoming progressively dependent on the state is to die, slowly, spirit first.

Rather than cultivating goodwill among our neighbours and seeking opportunities to make common cause in tackling a mutual problem, progressivism pits each one of us against the other. It is not by voluntary association that we solve our problems. It is by electing well-intentioned leaders who will then tell us what to do, and by our obeying them. But when our leaders discover that not all of our interests coincide and that choices of which problems to solve and where the resources to solve those problems should come from arise, what happens? Well, we better make sure that our leaders understand that our needs are much more pressing and urgent than those others. Our community deserves a new sewage system more than their community. People my age deserve help with education, or home ownership, or medical care much more than those older/younger than me. My cause deserves more assistance than the rest.

Of course, this is not how the battle of all against all is presented in public – too tactless. Instead advocates for new, or expanding, state programs publicly support each other”s proposals while privately, behind the scenes, lobbying for their own to the detriment of the others. Such advocates are not stupid. They know that resources are not unlimited. And so it is a war of all against all – but not in a Hobbesian state of nature, but within the leviathan of the progressive state. Progressively increasing the power of the state is to corrupt the naturally-occurring goodwill among those whom we would hope to voluntarily attract to our joint enterprises by replacing persuasion with force – the power of the state to make the decision and enforce compliance – and thus corrupt social relations with war.
Because some of the facts stated in support of this argument are well-accepted, the proliferation of warfare in more modern times for example, state power is certainly not universally heralded as a good thing in itself. Therefore, tying the term “progressive” more closely to the term “state power” in my proposed definition of progressivism offers the opportunity to take some of the shine off the term. Even the term “progress” can have an unfavourable connotation. Things can become “progressively worse”. A disease “progresses”. Progressivism even sounds like a disease – a socio-political cancer. Someone advocating progressively increasing state power ought to be referred to, not as a progressive but as a progressivist.

Now what about the opposite – those who wish to diminish the power of the state? “Regressives?” Hardly. May as well call ourselves “reactionaries” as the progressivists would.
“Conservative?” No, it has become an epithet and conservatives, especially many social conservatives, advocate increasing state power over some elements of our lives while other conservatives are too ready to advocate militaristic efforts to increase the power of their state over other states and their citizens.

“Libertarian?” It”s the most accurate but it”s an awful mouthful and is, at best, emotionally unevocative. “Individualist” is even more of a mouthful.

I wish “freedom” had an adjective form (“freedomist”, “freedomite”) or that “liberal” had not already been sullied beyond redemption. Others such as “minarchist”, or “minimalist” are too obscure.

What about “humanism”? This from dictionary.com:

1. any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate. 4. Philosophy. a variety of ethical theory and practice that emphasizes reason, scientific inquiry, and human fulfillment in the natural world . . . .

Interesting. I believe it is favourably evocative. I don”t know it to be used in a political context and yet it seems to me it can be appropriately used, without twisting its meaning, to advocate improving human welfare by reducing state power. It leads naturally into a discussion of human rights. Properly understood these are rights that all humans share and would thus be limited to the rights to life, liberty and property alone.

Anyway, I’ve run out of steam on this subject, at least for now.

1 Comment

  1. Wata says:

    So true, David.Social Conservatives, especially the Evangelical type (the group to which I benlog), hold a very special and sacred place in our hearts and minds for the Jewish people and the nation of Israel.It just blows me away that the Jewish community here in the U.S. are in such lock step with liberal Democrats, who largely only give lip service to Jewish voters. Libbies actually give nothing more than a wink and a nod in their direction.As for the media being a (powerful) weapon of the Left…ABSOLUTELY!We all have reason to be concerned when a Dem-controlled Congress (and Executive branch) will once again attempt to pass FAIRNESS DOCTRINE legistlation in 2009, which they tried to do in 2007.”Fairness Doctrine” legislation would literally kill ALL conservative opposition to the liberal message in public domain transmissions – open-air (not for fee) talk radio and television.Speakers/writers like Hugh Hewitt, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Michael Medved, etc. would all be adversely affected, and there aren’t too many venues for conservative opposition to begin with, as it is.This is another reason why libertarian types and social conservatives need to band together.

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