Progress and Imagination

The “inexorable tide of progress” is a mantra beloved by liberals and progressives, and held as a perpetual positive phenomenon of human civilization. That their contribution to “progress” on society is rigidly narrow-minded in its emphasis on identity politics and social issues is lost on the average well-meaning progressive. The overriding mission of progressive government is to establish policies that facilitate social justice and eradicate income inequality. The vehicle for achieving these ends is always and forever the federal government. On economics though, the progressive worldview is anything but a recipe for “progress.” Modern liberalism represents a truer manifestation of reactionary politics in the United States than anything brought forth by conservatives or the Tea Party.  The Democratic Party’s raison d’etre is the dogged and tireless defense of massive (and unsustainable) government welfare programs conceived between 1932 and 1965.  For a party that identifies with terms like “progress,” “forward” and “move-on,” its economic vision sure looks rooted in the past and betrays a real lack of imagination.

Contrary to the established perception of conservatives and libertarians held by progressives (a perception acutely crafted over many years into a product acceptable to a politically correct culture, media and academia), advocates of free market economics and capitalism have been the true champions of progress. America has maintained the world’s most productive economy primarily by adhering to tenets of competition and the free market. Tenets like risk-reward, entrepreneurship, the invisible hand of the marketplace, free trade, property rights and rule of law. Capitalism in its true form carries three prerequisites: ownership of means of production, control of production, and the bearing of commercial risk by the owner. As governments have expanded their regulatory reach, owners of capital have born less risk as the government has extended its intrusion and compliance demands into more and more private commercial affairs. Regulation crushes the small business and the little guy, whereas large financial institutions are mostly exempt from the burdens of regulation. There is a reason that every multinational staffs a small army of “compliance officers.” Even so, politically-connected behemoth corporations don’t bear proportional risk/reward burdens because they evidently operate not on a quarterly basis, but on the timing of the next taxpayer bailout. The paradox of progressive populism is that they correctly identify the problem with crony capitalism but then get the prescription for fixing the problem all wrong. Their solution to big business-big government collusion is to make big government even bigger. They fail to recognize that it is the very bigness of government in the first place that attracts commercial players and lobbyists to its trough. If government were smaller with fewer federal agencies, businesses would lose the incentives they currently have to get in bed with government. It is the pervasive influence of government in our economy that incentives corporations and politically connected to seek out crony deals with the government. If the feds threw less chum in the water, fewer sharks would show up at the public dispensary. With the introduction of this moral hazard into the equation, capitalism has soldiered on in an imperfect state ever since Woodrow Wilson deemed it quaint and amateurish and agitated for a more robust central authority in American economic life. In its various incarnations from FDR to JFK to Reagan to Clinton, capitalism has provided the country and the planet with the greatest system for reducing poverty and lifting millions of people to better stations in life. It is capitalism that defeated Communism; not military might or diplomacy. The thirty year, largely uninterrupted economic boom fostered by Reagan in the early 1980’s ushered in the age of microchips and material girls, start-ups and Silicon Valley. It is no wonder that the country most dedicated to the capitalist principles of competition, freedom to succeed or fail, and rule of law is also the country responsible for the automobile, television, telephone, radio, aviation, cinema, the internet, iPhone, iPod, iPad and whatever else Apple cooks up next.

For the average “millennial,” none of the aforementioned fruits of capitalism register as very meaningful. Conventional wisdom in academia holds that Franklin Roosevelt was an unquestionably great president and that the New Deal was unquestionably good. There exists a persistent and remarkable academic paradigm regarding 20th century American history. When a student is taught about Woodrow Wilson or Oliver Wendell Holmes, he learns of these men and their policies only in the context of the results they produced, but rarely is he taught of the collectivist philosophy or statist ambition that guided these men. Wouldn’t it be useful when teaching the League of Nations to include a discussion on Wilson’s 1913 imposition of the federal income tax? Or to chronicle the acrimony toward the Constitution expressed by Wilson, Roosevelt and the bulk of the progressive cohort? Critically, where is the examination of progressivism and the corresponding treatment of competing ideologies in modern academia? If progressives and their academic champions wish to enlist socialism as their reform ethos, is socialism itself not worthy of scrutiny and debate? Is it not the case that the rise of progressivism at the dawn of the 20th century is taught as a historical inevitability? As if the inexorable tide of progress dictates a logical and orderly transition from laissez-faire chaos to enlightened rule by expert knowledge? If not taught overtly, the message in modern academia is clear: the Progressive Era was Good and Noble because it was when humanity stepped into the modern age where humanistic ideals would compliment science and reason while experts were conscripted to meticulously plan society from the top down. Far from the fairly radical conception of the Founders’ that the State would be subordinate to the individual and that free enterprise would reign, the progressive utopia would produce – as if by magic – equal outcomes. Social justice will have finally arrived and the enemies of progress will have been defeated. This is about the extent of progressive intellectual imagination, but it reveals how, in fact, progressives actually want for imagination.

We have G.K. Chesterton to thank for this gem: “The reformer is always right about what’s wrong. However, he’s often wrong about what is right.” For progressives, very little thought goes into their conception of what is right. All of their energy is devoted to what is wrong. Occasionally, as with civil rights and gender equality and the drug war, progressives are right about what is wrong, and in these cases need not offer any prescription for what should happen once the wrong has been righted. But regarding the rest of public policy, which is to say the overwhelming majority of issues, it is not enough to simply highlight what is wrong. You must also know what is right, and be able to offer a clear-eyed prescription for what right looks like. It takes imagination to appreciate the free market and capitalism writ large. To know the invisible hand is at work is to understand the genius of what Hayek called “spontaneous order.” It takes a bit of imagination to agree that millions of individual transactions based on organic price signals and voluntary exchanges occurring in markets free from coercion and regulation is better than a rigidly planned and expertly diagrammed economy. The first scenario seems chaotic and maddening; how is one to make sense of a free economy where prices and costs fluctuate according to the preferences of millions of individuals? The second scenario sounds like it would be easier to manage and monitor; smart planning and ambitious regulation will keep things in order and and maintain stability, right? On issue after issue, progressives go the latter route, opting for policies and sound bytes that play to lowest common denominator thinking: don’t trust the market because it’s unpredictable and unfair; trust the State because it exists to provide for you! The lack of imagination among progressives is willful. Of course progressives have imagination. Most modern artists and cultural elites are liberals and progressives, nearly by default. This is true more broadly with millennials. Most of entertainment, whether music, film, literature, television or the more outre, avant-garde flare is inhabited almost exclusively by progressives. Clearly then, they are capable of imagination. They are just not capable of political imagination. They can’t allow themselves to imagine a free-market success where the poor are lifted by an influx of jobs and commercial activity (what is right) because all they consider is the rising income gap between the capitalist and the worker (what is wrong). Somehow this posture of incessantly highlighting injustices and inequities while never offering even a slight deviation from big government orthodoxy as a solution has succeeded in making progressives owners of the “pragmatic” mantle. They are just here to protect the noble status quo of entitlements and to intercede on behalf of workers whenever the evil bosses put profits before people, or something.

How have conservatives and libertarians allowed the progressives to occupy this outrageous position on the ideological spectrum? For the truth is progressives and liberals have conned society into believing they do not derive their principles from the outer reaches of the left pole, but that they’re merely levitating in the banal, uncontroversial, pragmatic center, where everyone is simply for “what works.”  The “reality-based community” canard is an ingenious trick designed to convince average Americans that liberals are sober and reasonable, while those in opposition to their common sense approach are “extreme” and “crazy.”  We all know the great Kevin Spacey line from The Usual Suspects about the greatest trick the devil ever pulled; contemporary liberalism mastered the even greater trick of convincing the world that its ideology does not exist.

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