• Jim Kelly

The Meat Death of the Earth and progressivism's evergreen dystopia

"Terrible things will happen" unless we replace a lot of the animals humans eat with something else. Animal-to-human diseases. New superbugs. Forests felled to make room for ranching. Methane emissions warming the atmosphere.

So warns Ezra Klein in a recent NYT op-ed calling for "a moonshot for meatless meat." Washington must wrench billions of dollars' worth of physical resources from whatever other projects citizens might have been working towards and give them to researchers and industrialists developing alternative proteins.

I could criticize this specific cause for a hundred reasons, but what seems more important is the pattern. Another progressive has discovered another crisis about which "we" must "do something." It's never stated, because it's always understood, that "we" is a euphemism for the federal government and that "something" involves more edicts rather than fewer, more money and decisions flowing through Washington, and less room for the rest of us to navigate our own lives.

Weirdly, the "something" we must do is never expected to solve the crisis. JFK's moonshot announcement identified a very specific outcome. It was possible to imagine an "afterward" when we could point back to our success or acknowledge our failure.

Progressive causes never allow even the possibility of success. How will we know when we've achieved meatless meat, or ended poverty, or averted climate change, or subdued racism? We can't, of course, because those all allude to something (usually a very vague something) to move away from rather than something to move toward, much less beyond.

Even stranger, when a crisis threatens to collapse, progressives prop it back up. We used to be worried about greenhouse gases causing global warming, but when the predicted warming didn't arrive, the left restated the problem more vaguely as "climate change." Far from celebrating progress against poverty, the left rebranded the problem "income inequality." Starvation is a thing of the past in the western world, so "food insecurity" had to be conjured up. With the Klansman extinct, the replacement peril is "systemic racism" perpetrated by no one and everyone.

Progressives' need for crisis

We all have no shortage of burdens in our lives. Progressives seem to carry an extra one--a hole in the soul that they fill by catastrophizing about society-wide problems and making gestures toward alleviating them.

Unfortunately, we can't really solve other people's problems, even when the people are close to us and the problems have solutions.

Big social problems are not just beyond our control, they're beyond our understanding. You can maybe reason about why your kid is struggling at math or your friend can't keep a relationship going, but what does the national unemployment rate mean? It's a statistic compiled by the Census Department based on surveys where they ask certain questions of certain people and sum up answers, to try to "know" something about millions of people they don't actually know. All the diversity and complexity of people's unique circumstances is squashed out.

We didn't evolve to relate to each other through statistics. So people interpret statistics about people by conjuring up a person with a story. If you're a progressive, you'll get your head around the unemployment rate by painting yourself a little Dickensian scene with the couple in their drafty shack, faces grimly peering into the stack of bills on the table. The wife can't even bring herself to ask how the job search went today, because ever since the factory laid everyone off and set up a sweat shop in Indonesia, there are no jobs. Everyone in town just shambles around with no money and no plans and no opportunities.

That story probably has elements of overlap with at least a few real people counted in the unemployment rate, but so would a million other stories you might tell. You can be sure any story or few stories you tell yourself are almost entirely wrong, but telling yourself a story is the only way to make any sense of a statistic. If progressives' stories bend toward the hopeless and heartwrenching, well, maybe that just proves what they keep telling us about how compassionate they are.

That compassion quickly becomes a vice. If I've convinced myself millions of such couples in such shacks await my help, obviously I can't help them all personally. In fact I don't know a single one personally. Suppose I went and found such a couple, helped them with bills, found resources they needed, encouraged them and so on...I still probably couldn't really solve their problems. So I won't go knocking at a single shack, I'll just insist that the government demand money from everyone and use it to help unemployed couples in shacks everywhere.

How can a bureaucrat succeed where I can't? Volume, of course. Although a bureaucracy inevitably lacks the ability to adapt to people's specific situations, at least it scales.

At some level I know this plan is self-delusion, and that my gestures are only that. If I had to bet whether my shack couple would be made meaningfully better off--or even located--I'd bet against. So while I'm screaming for a program to help them, I'm also hedging by not identifying any measurable goals. Once the program's been running a while, I probably won't look very hard at its accomplishments, or indeed notice if the problem it was supposed to solve got worse.

Instead I will move on to the next crisis around the next statistic. Perhaps the global temperature anomaly? Or maybe the Gini Coefficient? I really want to make a difference in people's lives, so I'll organize. I'll protest. I'll demand Change...just not any particular one.

Where progressivism leads

Ezra Klein is a smart man who writes well and sounds very thoughtful. Which makes it harder, and more important, to spot the missing substance in his ideas. He's stirring alarm about meat by appealing to fashionable but speculative perils--global warming, superbugs, deforestation, and new pandemics.

Do progressives realize how deep their credibility hole is when they prophesy yet another disaster? We're at this moment trying to claw back our livelihoods from the covid panic of 2020, which evidence suggests was criminally overstated and overreacted to. The media is still embroidering its narrative about January 6th's capitol riot. We're in the midst of a gun violence epidemic. And a racism epidemic. And a Russian misinformation epidemic. And a right-wing extremism epidemic. And a trans murder epidemic. And an Asian hate epidemic. We got "literally Hitler" out of the White House just moments before he completed his subversion of American democracy, whatever that means.

None of these narratives proved to be true, exactly, but never mind. Somehow compassion demands credulity at the next pronouncement from the establishment "experts." You're not anti-science, are you?

If you're not yet exhausted from the doomsday predictions, recognize what he's calling for: billions of dollars being taken by force from...someone, never mind who...and given to the professional class to achieve...nothing in particular. Ezra even praises the advances in meat alternatives coming to the market today. Does the public interest require a tastier veggie burger? How much tastier? By when? According to whom? This is not competent governance.

Worse, in the course of calling for another government program to promote innovation, he cites the patent office as one of the things holding it back. Existing veggie burgers are apparently "locked up in patents," you see. Of course, the patent office was the original government program, enshrined in the Constitution, to encourage innovation by protecting inventors from competition for a time. Rather than sort out the mess intellectual property law has become, he just wants you to pay for another government program to do the opposite. This is not competent governance either.

It may be asking too much for Ezra to dial back his certainty on how human diets and food development and agricultural land use and the earth's climate evolve and interact over the next decades. I would think that government should have definite goals for another few billion to be robbed from citizens, but obviously regards other citizens differently.

For the rest of us who are not Ezra Klein, we're long overdue to stand up to progressives like him. Whether well intentioned or otherwise, they accept forecasts of future catastrophes with too little skepticism, and sacrifice their fellow citizens to allay them with too much eagerness.

We've been giving the progressive movement credence, money and power since the late 19th century. Government at every level has grown massively, to the point where citizens are now locked in the homes waiting for permission from the government to leave, and hoping a check from the government shows up in the mailbox. The economy was stagnant before covid and even before 2008.

Not only has the progressives' utopia not arrived, progressives themselves constantly scream about ever-more-dire problems. To the exent those problems aren't wholly imaginary, progressives nevertheless have no curiosity how they came to be, and whether the government programs they advocate might be making them worse.

Worse than that, to the extent a government agency justifies their budget or a progressive voter her spiritual worth as fighting against a social problem, they have a structural incentive to keep the problem alive. Imagine the crisis the Democratic party would face if poverty disappeared tomorrow, and with it the justification for their entire platform. Would there be cheers of victory, or would Nancy Pelosi be on your screen announcing the new emergency and how the Democrats were saving you from it?

Money sends a strong signal. When you allow progressives, their crises and their programs to take more of your money, you can expect not fewer but more crises and more programs in the future. Not salvation from dystopia, but its guaranteed renewal. Is that wise?

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