• Jim Kelly

The problem with progressives

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

Here in San Francisco, critiquing progressivism will come across like asking if we should keep breathing oxygen. It's something one internalizes, not something one analyzes or questions.

Progressivism is the idea that caught on in the the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that government activism can--and therefore should--make the world a better place. We entrust government with extraordinary powers to compel citizens' behavior, and with power comes responsibility. Look at all the social problems like poverty or unaffordable housing or disease or student debt; a night watchman government that prosecutes crimes but stands aside of these larger social problems shirks its responsibility. Shouldn't we at least try to put a chicken in every pot and make the world safe for democracy?

Progressivism didn't end in 1921 with the Wilson administration. Although progressives may imagine Reagan reversed the tide, government's progressive mission has continued to advance over the past century. Government has expanded decade by decade, taking on more jobs in more areas of citizens' lives, and directing more and more of the economy. Rolling back the government's budget to what it was in 2010 would be considered horrifying, inhumane austerity.

Astroturf forever

If you study the progressive movement historically or today, it's hard not to notice that it's mostly rubes. Millions of people would sincerely like to help the poor yet are too busy to get into the details, so they're suckers for any candidate or measure promising to do so.

This exploit never gets patched. If you're looking to get into office, or if you have a law you want to get past the voters, your marketing plan to the progressive voter writes itself. "Help the poor!" "Save the environment!" "Senator X wants your grandma to die!" "Rescue needy teachers!" "Struggling union workers need your help!"

So although progressives fashion themselves anti-corporate, the movement has always been defined and funded by corporate interests seeking government favor. The first federal regulation of American railroads in 1885 was ostensibly to protect the little guy from "too high" rail fares. But the "little guys" lobbying for it were often smaller oil companies trying to gain advantage over Standard Oil's (ie, Rockefeller's) economies of scale, and large railroads seeking to neuter their smaller competitors by forcing them into a cartel.

How little things change. 2010's Affordable Care Act promised to deliver Americans from "too high" medical bills by mandating everyone buy private insurance policies, at disproportionate premiums for the young and healthy. By contrast participation in Obamacare was optional for insurers, who were offered a taxpayer-backed guarantee of profits.

Congress just passed a $900 billion COVID relief measure promising $600 for each of the US's 130 million taxpayers. $900 billion divided by 130 million is $6,923, so 90% of the money will go to various agencies which will disburse it in contract awards to corporate entities.

No matter what your cause, you can always find a frame to stroke the progressive's sensitivities. Want to give bailouts to America's corporations? Call it the "paycheck protection program." Want to give car dealerships a bump? Make taxpayers fund a "cash for clunkers" program. Want to bail out bankers? Run a "troubled asset relief" program, which paints a mortgage-backed security like a street orphan in a Dickens novel. Want to boost gun sales? Pass "common sense" gun legislation.

Unintended consequences

No one talks about unintended consequences of personal decisions. We will all make a thousand decisions today, and we live with the consequences of a thousand decisions yesterday. We can't plead which were intended and which weren't, because there usually isn't a clear line between actions and consequences, and in any case there's no one to plead to for partial credit.

Yet the phrase appears constantly in discussions of public policy, as if bad consequences someone suffers are somehow worse if they were intended by the people imposing the policy and not so bad if they were unintended.

It is well known, both from economic theory and observed practice, that imposing rent control lowers the availability and quality of apartments. Demands for "affordable" (ie, subsidized) housing drive off housing developers. Minimum wage laws shift jobs away from lower-skilled workers to higher-skilled workers who can earn the higher wage. The more generous the government is with unemployment checks, the less zealously the unemployed will find new jobs.

I can't figure out if progressives don't know basic economics, if they pretend not to, or if they just can't bring themselves to believe it. They keep advocating policies whose bad effects are entirely foreseeable. When their policies are implemented, they will not just be uncurious about the effects, they will actively reject reports of bad effects. After Seattle passed its $15 minimum wage in 2014 and the city's own researchers concluded it had reduced hours, progressives rushed for plausible deniability. The study didn't account for labor shifts outside the city proper, they said. It looked at only 60% of workers, they said. What a curious position to take, from someone who claims to be on the side of the worker whether he's among the 40% or the 60%.

The Beseeching

Okay, you supported mandatory $15 per hour because you thought it would help the poor. Maybe you were duped by corporate astroturfers, and maybe you don't understand enough economics to foresee the effects it would have on the labor market. But your intentions were good, and you sincerely feel great compassion for these struggling workers.

If you feel a moral responsibility to actively help the poor, which you fulfill by delegating it to politicians and bureaucrats, surely you have a duty to follow up with them, right? You owe it to the poor to make sure your trustees are actually helping, rather than boosting a few winners while punishing a lot of losers, or simply lining their own pockets. Don't you? It's your moral code, so you tell me.

Progressives could get the economics wrong, and they could be deceived by astroturfers, and they would still be able to course correct if they paid attention to results. They would recognize that by whatever metrics of success they set out, the programs they scream for usually make problems worse. After the third, or fifth, or 20th failure, and after centuries of campaign finance reforms and other measures to make government perform better, progressives' concern for the poor would ultimately force them to change course.

Unfortunately not much of this seems to happen. Progressives are oddly uncurious about people they claim to care a lot about, so they tend not to follow the consequences of the programs they favor.

Worse, when a failure comes to light, the progressive is unable to attribute it to government as an institution, just as the Christian is unable to hold God responsible for the miseries of the world. God is love, you see, and any evidence to the contrary must be attributed to our own failings.

The progressive talks about government in similar terms. Government isn't the thing we see--the bloated, corrupt organization that optimizes toward political optics and delivers failures and cover-ups at every turn. It's something behind the government we see, some pure Platonic form waiting to be unlocked if we just pass the right campaign finance law. A particular politician may behave badly in office, and the progressive may be quick to say so, but that doesn't reflect on the government as an institution, since it could run better if we just had the right people in charge. All we have to do is beseech the government harder for "reform" on a thousand different fronts.

But capitalism and the private corporations operating within it, the progressive will tell you, are structurally corrupt. Every corporate misdeed confirms not just a bad apple but the rot embedded deep in the barrel's timber. If the capitalist manages a good deed once in a while, well, it's tainted by his motives, because he's just in it for himself. Solving people's problems for profit is not nearly as noble as doing so out of a sense of compassion, or--what's much the same thing--at the point of a government gun. On the other hand if you made people's problems worse but your intentions were good, you come out ahead in the progressive moral calculus.

It's this moral calculus--or the lack of it--at the core of progressive dysfunction. They call it "compassion" and pride themselves on it. But it's a self-centered compassion that keeps the recipients at arm's length while it smugly takes their options off the table. We oppose this factory, the progressive says, because we deem its working conditions inadequate. We denounce people selling needed goods in a disaster zone at high prices, because we fancy the alternative is other people selling them at lower prices because they have more compassion. The price signals are screaming at them that isn't the alternative, that the real alternative is needed goods unavailable at any price, but those signals get shunted off to voicemail, because the progressive is due at her yoga studio.

140 years into America's progressive experiment, is it working? I'd answer a resounding no. Poverty hasn't budged in half a century. Government and income inequality have swelled, and those are not unrelated. Economic growth has flatlined. 2020 and the four years leading up to it have uncovered institutional corruption, dysfunction and decadence at a terrifying scale. Can bigger government really be the answer?

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