Progressives don't really get progress, but the American people do
Progressives claim to have a monopoly on progress – designed by intellectuals who 'know better' and brought about by a big, beneficent government. But Americans voted in last week's elections that this brand of progress actually impoverishes, and that a free market is much smarter
By Donald J. Boudreaux
President Obama and other progressives attribute the Democrats’ electoral shellacking last week to their failure to communicate with ordinary Americans. The implication is that most Americans are too slow to appreciate the noble and courageous government programs that progressives enacted for the public good. Another implication is that progressives are unusually smart and visionary.
The very label “progressive” suggests a forward-looking intelligence – a desire to progress past present superstitions and misinformation into a future enlightened by ideas rather than benighted by ignorance.
And because, for progressives, progress is believed always to involve a larger role for the state, the hallmark of progressive thinking is the outpouring of ideas about what government can do. Anyone objecting to the implementation of these ideas is, therefore, a nonprogressive – someone content to allow past habits and irrational notions to interfere with big, bold, collectively imposed ideas for improving society.
Trouble is, progressives’ understanding of the source of progress is regressive. It reflects an outmoded belief that society advances only if it is consciously designed by well-meaning and smart intellectuals and steered by a beneficent and powerful government.
Free markets regulate themselves
No one more famously exposed the wrong-headedness of this belief than did Adam Smith way back in 1776. Leave individuals free to pursue their own goals as they each see fit, said Smith in effect, and the result will be an orderly, prosperous, and growing – a progressing! – economy that no one did or could design.
Since Smith, generations of economists have refined our understanding that a decentralized, free-market economy is far smarter than is even the best set of ideas concocted by the world’s most brilliant intellectuals.
When markets are free – when individuals are prohibited only from violating the property rights of others and from breaking their contractual promises – the economy swarms with countless ideas. Countless entrepreneurs generate creative ideas for supplying new goods and services that consumers will value; legions of engineers work to develop techniques for producing outputs more efficiently; armies of attorneys devise new ways for contracting parties to better reduce and share risks; bankers around the globe each work to improve methods of getting liquidity into the hands of borrowers who can use it most effectively.
These ideas, constantly bubbling up from millions of different minds, compete with each other. Each of these ideas is tested in the real world, but without being forced on anyone. Also, the feedback on these ideas’ usefulness comes not from seminar participants, but from millions of actual producers and consumers putting their own money on the line. Ideas that actually work survive. Ideas that don’t, don’t.
One size doesn't fit all
Here’s an even better part. In markets, one size does not fit all. Ideas that work for, say, consumers with traditional tastes will survive for the benefit of those consumers, but will not crowd out very different ideas that work for consumers with tastes that are avant-garde. A billion flowers bloom. And as Matt Ridley points out in his book “The Rational Optimist,” these many different ideas will often cross-pollinate with each other, giving birth to yet another generation of ideas – a generation that exists only because of the large and diverse number of ideas that preceded them.
Contrast the multitude of different market-generated and voluntarily adopted ideas with the ideas of progressives – for example, progressives’ idea that government must regulate the fat content of foods.
Each of us can decide how much we value, say, juicy burgers and double-dark chocolate ice cream compared to how much we value a trim waistline and longer life expectancy. And each of us values these benefits differently. The dietary choices that I make for myself are right for me, but I cannot know if they are right for anyone else. Progressives, in contrast, falsely assume there’s a single correct metric, for the whole country, that determines for everyone how to trade off the satisfaction of eating tasty but fatty foods for the benefit of being healthier.
It’s in this way that progressives’ ideas are indeed big and bold – for these ideas are about how millions of other individuals should live their lives. In practice, these are ideas about how one group of people (the politically successful) should engineer everyone else’s contracts, social relations, diets, and even moral sentiments.
'Big Ideas' are big mistakes
Progressives’ ideas, then, are about replacing the market’s unimaginably large multitude of diverse and competing ideas – each one individually chosen, practiced, assessed, and modified in light of what Austrian economist and free-market philosopher F.A. Hayek called “the particular circumstances of time and place” – with a relatively paltry set of Big Ideas. These Big Ideas are politically selected and centrally imposed. And they are enforced not by the natural give and take of the everyday interactions of millions of people but, rather, by political authority.
What’s worse, this political authority rests with those whose overriding “idea” is among the most simple-minded and antediluvian notions in history – namely, that those with the power of the sword are anointed to lord it over the rest of us.
In this respect, progressive attitudes aren’t limited to Democrats. Republicans have fallen prey to the notion that Americans would be better off if only the power of the big, federal government could be marshalled for conservative purposes. How else to explain Republican support for such policies as No Child Left Behind or government funding to promote “healthy marriage” and “responsible fatherhood”?
Far from paving a path to prosperity and progress, progressives’ ideas are a recipe for impoverishment and regression.
The good news is that voters in America seem to get that. As pollster Scott Rasmussen noted last week, “voters don’t want to be governed from the left, the right, or even the center. They want someone in Washington who understands that the American people want to govern themselves.”
Zogby Interactive: Obama Approval Slips to 42%: "President Barack Obama's approval rating among likely voters has slipped after the mid-term elections, and is now at 42% compared to the 45% approval a Zogby Interactive poll found on the day before elections. The President's approval rating held steady at 38% among independent voters, but fell six percentage points from Nov. 1 among Democrats, 87% to 81%. The poll conducted from Nov. 8-10, 2010 also found the percentage of voters saying the nation was on the wrong track increasing to 63%, compared to the 58% found on Nov. 1."
Iraq: Christians fear they could be wiped out: "In the flickering candlelight of Our Lady of Salvation Church, Nagam Riyadh sits against a pillar singing Ave Maria, her voice rising to the shrapnel-marked rafters. ‘We are singing the hymns we couldn’t finish on Sunday,’ says Ms. Riyadh, who was in the choir on Oct. 31 when gunmen stormed the church in an attack that has traumatized the Christian community here and raised questions about its future. On the first Sunday mass after the attack, Nov. 7, she’s one of hundred of survivors and mourners who have gathered here. They light candles in the shape of a cross on the marble floor next to the names of more than 50 dead. At the top are photographs of the two slain priests. ”
The injustice of domestic violence policies: "October was Domestic Violence (DV) Awareness month, but the flurry of articles, speeches, and calls for increased funding omitted crucial data. Current DV arrest policies are blatantly unjust and need to be reinvented. Every year, an estimated one million Americans are arrested on DV charges. Typically they spend several days in jail. According to the Criminal Justice Review, only 30.5 percent of those arrested are convicted.”
The 2010 union pension bailout bills: "Get ready to give some of your hard-earned cash — again — to the cronies of Congress who are pushing for yet another bailout. Two bills in Congress propose using taxpayer dollars to bailout private union pension funds. If either one becomes law Congress for the first time will allow the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) to use public funds — the money you earn and pay to the government — to shore up horribly mismanaged union pension plans. Estimates for the current shortfall go as high as $165 billion.”
Deficit panel offers “painful” program for US politicians: "The chairmen of President Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission on Wednesday outlined stark recommendations they say are necessary to secure the nation’s fiscal standing, including reforms of the tax code and entitlement programs that would likely spark opposition from lawmakers and interest groups. … Proposed changes to Social Security — the so-called ‘third rail’ of American politics — may be particularly challenging to enact. The draft proposal suggests raising the retirement age, altering the formula for cost-of-living increases, and raising the payroll tax threshold.”
Cut more spending!: "A draft from the Congressional Deficit Commission that Obama appointed came out today, and it actually has a lot to like. For instance: — Raising the retirement age …. reducing foreign aid by $4.6 billion — freezing federal salaries for three years — eliminating popular tax breaks, such as mortgage interest deduction — cuts in farm subsidies — cuts in the Pentagon’s budget … That sounds like a lot of spending cuts — and it would be a good start — but it’s still not nearly enough to get around Medicare’s $38 trillion unfunded liability. So the Deficit Commission also proposes tax increases.”
Iraq: PM to stay on as political deadlock ends: "Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will return to power for another four-year term after Iraqi lawmakers working late into the night Wednesday agreed on a tentative deal to form a new government, lawmakers said. The deal breaks an eight-month impasse that paralyzed the government, encouraged insurgent attacks and rattled potential foreign investors.”
Dinner with the militia: "The story of a female grad student who aspires to do refugee work with children in war torn countries, who is a daughter, a girlfriend, a friend, and is also a member of the local militia, might sound strange to most. Once you understand the truth about militias, my life doesn’t seem strange at all. Militia members are normal everyday people. We are just like you, and some of us may be your neighbors, your friends, and your family.”
Market alternatives for food safety: "Most Americans go about their daily lives convinced that the Federal government, through the auspices of the Department of Agriculture, protects them from eating poisoned food. If not for the USDA or the Food and Drug Administration, they imagine, every food item on the store shelf would be suspect. Restaurateurs would unwittingly sell E. coli-infected meat and produce to their customers on a daily basis, and the simple act of eating would become like a game of Russian roulette. But what if that protection was largely an illusion? What if there were other simpler, quicker, and more efficient alternatives to food safety than the USDA?”
Joe Biden’s weak case for government meddling: "Joe Biden believes that government played a large role in the success of railroads in the 19th century. In this video, Don Boudreaux points out that that isn’t actually true. There were four transcontinental railroads. Three of them received subsidies. The fourth was the Great Northern Railway, founded by Canadian immigrant James J. Hill. He alone rejected any special government favors.”
The election’s over, so let’s get back to business: "President Obama recently warned that the current high unemployment could be ‘a new normal’ in the United States. If his administration doesn’t change course on policies, he may be right. Myriad policy options — from deregulating and cutting taxes to slashing the size of the federal government — remain untried. Add to that mix fostering entrepreneurship by letting foreign entrepreneurs come to the U.S.”
Congress should “shellack” the president’s executive orders: "‘Stroke of the pen, law of the land — kinda cool’ — that’s how Paul Begala described rule by executive order back in 1998, as his boss President Clinton prepared a passel of them, the better to bypass an uncooperative Congress. After last Tuesday’s ’shellacking,’ it’s a fair bet President Obama will find rule by decree kinda cool as well."
Besmirch and divert: "If Mr. Obama and his acolytes cannot produce anything that’s better than charges of racism and bigotry against their political or intellectual adversaries, they are in effect admitting that their viewpoint is bankrupt. No one with even a modicum of merit to his or her argument will resort to ad hominems. The arguments being advanced are supposed to carry the weight of the position and there would be no need for trying to discredit with smears those who oppose it.”
Big government’s final frontier: "It is time for conservatives to recognize that Apollo is over. We must recognize that Apollo was a centrally planned monopolistic government program for a few government employees, in the service of Cold War propaganda and was therefore itself an affront to American values. If we want to seriously explore, and potentially exploit space, we need to harness private enterprise, and push the technologies really needed to do so.”
Competitive trash pickup under fire: "It seems that Fountain Hills, AZ had competitive trash pickup, and the city council wanted to bid out trash pickup as a single-provider city service instead. The people of Fountain Hills reacted like a bunch of 1950’s anti-communists, calling it socialism and likening it to Obamacare. John Cole and his comment section went ape-shit, in the original post and follow-ups here and here. Quite a few commenters suggested that if we don’t have municipal trash collection, we’ll look like third-world countries where people just bury, burn, or leave their trash out on their property to rot. Strangely, I hadn’t heard a single report of uncollected trash in Fountain Hills leading to this change.”
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