Thursday, August 25, 2011

What is Progressivism?

Progressivism- what is it? What was it? And what has it done throughout history?

Progressivism is defined by Wikipedia as follows:

Progressivism is a political attitude favoring or advocating changes or reform through governmental action.

Wikipedia has a fairly good article, though it missed several areas. It does make some acknowledgement of the particular US form of Progressivism- but oddly equates Teddy and FDR.

Progressivism developed in the late 19th Century as a response to what I would describe as an advent of an American aristocracy- and even in some respects feudalism- that was a result of the Westward Expansion and Industrial Revolutions.

Researching Progressivism gets really difficult, as it's very hard to find objective writing. People polarize rapidly and strongly on this subject.

Two important sources to look at are:

The Heritage Foundation paper

A Georgetown course paper on the early history of Progressivism in the US

I'd also suggest looking at the Wikipedia article on Contemporary Progressivism (and follow the link to cosmopolitanism!)

The Heritage Foundation has an obvious bias, but it's a useful one.

Squaring the HF paper with Teddy Roosevelt is difficult at best- Teddy's Progressivism involved, yes, a strong case for the common (citizenry, through the government) ownership of wilderness. He saw government roles in preventing abuses - whether on the job or through anti-competitive means- of American citizens in the business.

This is a sore point all around our current debates, and stems from the idea that a corporation is a person (usually through application of the 14th Amendment.) I will, briefly, digress enough to state that I do not consider regulation of corporations as necessarily progressive, conservative, or classically liberal- it's a fundamental question of what a corporation is, which I'll explore more in depth later. (I touch on it briefly in this post.)

Accepting that corporations have a reason to be regulated- at least in terms of humane treatment of workers and allowance for fair competition in business, let's move on.

There are several major issues with TR - or "Bull Moose" Progressivism, but as it was corrupted nearly from the beginning and it is impossible to describe the pure form, let us look at Progressivism after the Roosevelt years.

In the Georgetown paper, you see Progressivist reform divided into 4 main areas: Democracy, Efficiency, Regulation of large business, and Social Justice.

The idea of more direct democracy is touchy. It sounds good- every vote, instantly, counts on every subject. The ultimate power of the sovereign franchise!


"The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature
for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. …May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a
pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?"

--Thomas Jefferson

"...All men are Created Equal...."

-- Thomas Jefferson

These wonderfully contrasting phrases are key to the problems inherent in moving away from our founding documents and ideas and towards the Progressive ideal of direct democracy (in some things, not all!) ---- the idea of a natural aristocracy, of a purpose in representation.

An aristocracy based on wealth, birth, and nepotism, according to Jefferson, is different from the natural aristoi. The government by the ideal persons of Jefferson- government by elected representatives- is different because:

1: The people- the common man- get to recognize and elect the leaders.

2: The difference, in Jefferson's philosophy, between the natural aristoi and the common man is a difference in degree, not a difference of type.

Thus, in a representative system, persons who have the patriotic, service, duty, and ability- the "elective spark"- serve, and the common man votes for or against and communicates with, the representatives of government.

In an aristocratic system, the difference of type is predominant- it is assumed that the aristocrat is better, different, born to rule. That a given man, by birth, is inherently different and greater than another man whose circumstances of birth are different.

Thus, the elective leadership, coming from the whole of the sovereign citzenry and not from a specific class.

The direct democracy of the progressive is highly susceptible to the voters limiting their view to immediate (and selfish) interests. It is also, demonstrably, susceptible to corruption (and provably breeds its own artificial aristocracy of professional controllers near instantaneously.)

Now, this isn't all bad- Progressives brought us a broader base of voters- enfranchising ALL citizens. Barring an argument I am philosophically tempted by- the timocracy of military/civil service veterans- I cannot see how a restriction of the franchise is a good thing. Recalls, secret ballots, and direct primaries are also a legacy of early Progressivism.

Yet..... Progressives don't operate on the basis of direct democracy- they push a professional class of persons to take care of real and imagined ills. Politicians, social workers, regulators.... the idea of direct democracy fails when you run into the progressive's non-elected bodies. Social services and the concomitant enforcement, rules, restrictions- the FCC - encroaching federal law enforcement agencies- executive branch councils on numerous industrial and business issues. The list is long, and most of us have been bitten at one time or another by an agency whose authority and management- and regulations- are not voted upon.

(Please note here, that I'm not labelling a particular party. Both the Democrats and the Republicans have at various times been under the influence of greater or lesser degrees of Progressivism. Hell, TR was a Republican!)

Thus, the representative has- in a working local political system- a set of controls based on his electorate, having his views and actions made public, and in having to be constantly reminded of an oath to care for more than his own selfish interests.

In a direct mass democracy, all things are subject to the whim of a mob- including the very legality of my existence as a member any one of several contentious groups. But because of the very nature of the whimsical structure, a "secret" class of oligarchs is necessary for actual operation of the government.


One of the Progressive ideals is an efficient government. Aside from the never ending battles against corruption in any human affair, these efforts follow the primary platforms of centralisation and creating professional classes of actors in government.

I'm not sure where to start with how wrong this is. A government of, for, and by the people cannot be operated by a class of persons who are removed from- in essence are not- the people.

I would, for example, vastly prefer an inefficient government many of whose members come from rural areas (where I live) than a professional, highly urbanized class who will happily regulate my life without having ever washed an egg, butchered their own meat, nor harvested an orchard.

Of course, the definition of efficiency comes into play. Efficient at what, exactly? Efficient at operating government machinery and growing their authority, or efficient at enhancing and enabling my liberties?

Centralization is just another facet- when you take away the power of my county, or district, in favor of some hopefully more rational and efficient central authority- you remove my access to that authority, my supervision of that authority, and the relevance of the office or agency to my particular life.

And, in the end, it's about me. And you. And all the other individual, sovereign, citizens.

Third - and most laudable- in the Progressive dynamics is the regulation of large business.

Due to the acceptance of the idea of "corporate personhood" and the removal of the restrictions and checks on corporations and larger business- said concerns were able to be very abusive. Child labor laws, woman labor laws, the 40 hour work week, minimum wages; these are all a result, a direct result, of messing up with the idea of businesses as having rights in the first place.

I can't argue with the solutions. While they have obvious flaws, some sort of solutions are needful. Had our governments as a whole kept the necessary restriction on business in the first place, they may not have been.

(Then there's modern progressivism, which seems to think that corporate feudalism is okay as long as it's "nice".)

Fourth, and most dangerous, are the ideas of social justice and temperance.

I have no qualm with full and complete application of freedoms, liberties, and the guarantees of the Bill of Rights to every person- regardless of color, creed, or identity. In fact I think it is necessary.

On area where the Progressive movement seems to go wrong is with the idea of enforcement, creating governmental systems and professionals to enforce the (current) definition of social justice.

The most infamous example of Progressivism in this arena is the 18th Amendment. Production and consumption of alcohol was outlawed for our own good. (Yes, it was an Amendment, but it's instructive to examine how it came about)

Another primary factor in the area of social justice where the Progressives seem to do more damage- to liberties and freedoms certainly, to social cohesion most probably, and to actual social good possibly- is in the idea that social programs should be removed from churches, foundations, lodges and clubs. Entrusted instead into- again- the professional class of administrators and funded by mandatory taxation.

It is difficult to describe the exact methods of harm in this. But harmful it is. It leads to profiteering by way of governmental contracts, inequalities in service since no centralised authority can be familiar with local needs to the necessary level of granularity. It leads to decisions by government officials- non elective and not removable by nor answerable to the citizenry- of who gets what share, when.

In the modern sense, Progressivism has adopted several socialist and cosmopolitan aspects.

On the surface, the idea of cosmopolitanism sounds good- global equality in resources and prosperity under a shared morality.

Wait. Whose morality? I can't tell, and cannot seem to find a concise, clear statement. The UN Rights of Man isn't it- and the UN is too politically corrupt in its application for that to be trusted. So. Well, What is it?

It appears to NOT be a fundamental protection of rights. It appears to NOT be a fundamental increase in liberty. It is obviously NOT a fundamental increase in the ability of persons to operate independently in free associative groups (as regulation of what is and is not permissible is always a first factor in cosmopolitanism.)

What's the basis of the morality? Christian? Muslim? Hindu? Functionalist? "Anything but WASP?"

A shared morality means that you don't get to choose. Someone else is doing the choosing.

It's a reverse of the approach we adopted in the 18th century in America. You could call it top down- someone will determine what is fair, what you deserve, what is right and wrong.

Our nation was founded on the principles that you should be left to make those decisions- insomuch as it is possible within the bounds of a nation of states- on your own. For yourself. With the utmost in liberty and opportunity to try things for yourself.

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