What Progressives Can't Admit About Government
Updated: Apr 19
Progressivism is the idea that government activism can make a better society--that governments can and should engage with social problems, guide the economy, and promote equal opportunities for everyone.
Although Americans often use progressive and liberal interchangeably, progressivism is in important ways the opposite of classical liberalism. The classical liberal maintains government should be limited to keeping the peace, for some important reasons.
What is Government?
“The government is us; we are the government, you and I.” - Teddy Roosevelt
“Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us.” - Franklin Roosevelt
“Government is just the people, acting together.” - Bill Clinton
“Our government is us.” - Barack Obama
Government is certainly “us” in the sense that its employees are hired from among the population, and “we” influence it by how we vote. But both of those are true of Walmart as well.
To equate the government with “society” is a common sentiment among progressives, but it’s not a useful definition.
In fact it’s demonstrably wrong. Society is an amorphous group of people who share a culture. Government is a corporate entity--a formal organization with an authorized personnel, of which the average citizen is not a member. Its employees enjoy privileges which the rest of us do not.
To confuse government with society is not benign poetic license, it’s demagoguery--a thick smoke of propaganda obscuring responsibility and encouraging us to disengage our common-sense ethics.
Murray Rothbard put it trenchantly in Anatomy of the State:
If "we are the government," then anything a government does to an individual is not only just and untyrannical but also "voluntary" on the part of the individual concerned. If the government has incurred a huge public debt which must be paid by taxing one group for the benefit of another, this reality of burden is obscured by saying that "we owe it to ourselves"; if the government conscripts a man, or throws him into jail for dissident opinion, then he is "doing it to himself" and, therefore, nothing untoward has occurred. Under this reasoning, any Jews murdered by the Nazi government were not murdered; instead, they must have "committed suicide," since they were the government (which was democratically chosen), and, therefore, anything the government did to them was voluntary on their part.
So what, then, is government? What distinguishes it from other organizations like the March of Dimes or Walmart?
The main difference is how they operate. Walmart wants $20 from you, so it offers you plastic hangers and crayons and instant coffee, works tirelessly to keep prices down, and attempts to talk you into buying. If you choose not to, it has to do without your money. If enough people do the same, it goes out of business.
What Walmart can’t do is threaten you or imprison you to get you to buy. This is what separates it from a government, and makes the defining trait of government clear:
A government is an organization that has achieved a monopoly on the use of violence within a geographic area.
What makes government special is its ability to threaten citizens with violence. Virtually every action it takes is backed by the implicit threat of a violent escalation.
The government wants your $20, so it enacts a $20 tax and demands you pay it. If you don't comply, it adds a fine. If you don't pay the fine, it sends men with guns to arrest you. If you refuse their demands, they attack you. If you defend yourself capably, they shoot you.
At no point will it back down in that escalation. It will never decide $20 isn't worth shooting you over and do without the money. It can't afford the precedent. Without the threat of attack, few people would go along with an arrest. Without the threat of arrest, no one would pay the fine. And without the threat of the fine, hardly anyone would pay the $20 tax. The entire operating model hinges on the government's ability and willingness to use overwhelming violence against you.
For virtually every problem the government takes on, its solution relies on violence. How do we make sure kids get an education? Threaten citizens with prison unless they fund public schools, then threaten parents unless they send their kids. How do we keep oceans clean? Threaten waitresses with jail for offering plastic straws.
When we say “X shouldn’t be allowed,” in the customary passive voice, we’re saying “the government should lock up anyone doing X.”
The Violence Paradox
So where, you might ask, is the violence? Murder rates are at historic lows, and most people comply with laws without the guns coming out.
That doesn't show it's peaceful. On the contrary, that shows its violence is so overwhelming that no sensible person would resist.
Imagine a woman who said "We have a wonderfully peaceful marriage. I'm very careful to do what my husband says, because he put his previous wife in the hospital when she crossed him. But he hasn't had to do anything like that to me. Usually he just has to give me that look, and I quickly get back in line, because I don't really want to think about what might happen. After all, he protects me from all the violent people out there."
Is that really a peaceful marriage, or a desperately abusive one?
Everyone is so used to bowing to the government's threats that it rarely needs to bring out the guns or even refer to them explicitly. People have forgotten that guns are involved.
In fact the public has become so dissociated from how laws work that when we see the violent escalation actually happen, we're shocked and horrified. Yes, we want government to protect the borders, but we can't stand by while children get put in cages!
Break out the emergency rationalizations
Government is institutionalized violence. Most people would agree violence is sometimes necessary, but only in limited circumstances--in self-defense, in response to violence someone else initiated.
But that’s not what progressivism is about. All the real crimes like murder, burglary, or rape--violent acts that rob someone else of their life, liberty or property--have long been illegal. Virtually all laws governments enact these days threaten peaceful people with violence, ostensibly to meet some greater goal.
We're used to thinking of government as “society” or “people working together” or “compassion”--fuzzy, even mystical language. Government isn’t the thing we observe and experience with our senses--the bureaucratic, wasteful, mendacious center of corruption and failure with which we’re all familiar. It’s something standing behind that. Something we can’t quite experience yet, but if we could just get the money out of politics, just get the lobbyists out of Washington, just get the right people elected, its true nature would emerge.
The progressive’s view of government owes much to Plato. The government they envision is a pure form, of which the one we experience is an imperfect copy.
When I say progressives can’t admit government is violence, I mean that literally. When confronted with what the government actually does--how it pursues its mission, what rights it must transgress, what costs it imposes, and what results it achieves--the cognitive dissonance is too much to bear. They retreat, just like any of us would, into rationalizations.
They’ll change the subject back to the glorious benefits they envision. But think of the poor people this law will put back on their feet. Think of all the obese Americans who will slim down because of this soda tax. We need to get serious about stopping gun violence in schools. The benefits are never measurable, and the dots between the law and the benefits usually don’t connect, but never mind.
They’ll argue “last resort.” But we couldn’t have roads or clean water or safe food or education if the government didn’t force people to fund them. They will have no knowledge of the many examples of people achieving all those things without extortion. And if you point out the lousy state of the government-run roads and schools, they will not consider that relevant. The truth isn’t that violence is the last resort, it simply the only resort they’ve ever considered.
They’ll plead good intentions. California legislator Ian Calderon proposed California's straw law forbidding restaurants from offering plastic straws, to be enforced by fines leading to six months in prison. When people pointed out that seemed disproportionate, he suggested throwing waitresses in jail is not as bad as it sounds if you meant well.
They’ll argue that the law somehow isn’t threatening someone with violence. No, we wouldn’t throw anyone in jail, we would just impose a fine. Actually, they already agreed to this when they signed the social contract. The whole government = society formulation is a rationalization along these lines.
They’ll argue away human rights. Your property isn’t really yours, you see, because you took advantage of government services when you came by it. Your business? You didn’t build that. What we’re demanding is merely “fair payment” for the government services you consume. You’re a net beneficiary of government’s largess (they’ll assert without evidence), and now it’s time for you to “give back.”
They’ll demonize the people at the pointy end of the law, to argue that violence against them is justified. They’re rich, you see, which means they must have exploited the rest of us. That Christian baker is filled with hate for gay people, so it’s only right we threaten to take away his livelihood unless he toes our line.
It’s very human, yet so depressing.
The Cruelest Irony
While progressives may convince themselves that the problem-of-the-moment is so urgent as to justify government intervention, and they understand at some level that means threatening their neighbors with guns, usually neither they nor anyone else actually expects the threats to solve the problem.
Although they’ll offer plastic pollution in oceans as justification for the law, no one has seriously suggested threatening restaurant staff will dent pollution levels. Assemblyman Calderon quickly retreated to claiming the law would “create awareness” of the detrimental effects of plastic straws on landfills, waterways and oceans.
Does anyone even expect it to do that? What information are diners expected to retain from not getting a straw? Will anyone survey Californians to validate their heightened awareness? What level of awareness do they have today, and what level does the public interest require? If the law doesn’t deliver the needed awareness, who will be held accountable and what corrective measures taken? The most basic questions of project management are never even asked, much less answered.
It’s the same story with virtually every law progressives scream for. We needed Obamacare to provide health coverage to those who don’t have it. According to the NIH, it delivered statistically significant increases in coverage. Obviously there’s a lot of daylight between solving a problem and a statistically significant improvement, which is why Democratic presidential candidates are now championing Medicare for All.
If I were a progressive, I would be seething that Obamacare failed its central goal. I would be demanding a root-cause analysis to understand where the ACA’s assumptions or implementation went wrong and what steps have been taken to prevent such a failure in the future. I wouldn’t even want to hear anyone peddling Medicare for All until they could assure me that their organization had learned its lesson.
But progressives aren’t asking any such questions. Candidates offering Medicare for All propose no measurable goals, much less anyone accountable for meeting them. Just more laws to threaten more people for more reasons.
Progressives call this “compassion.”
Let’s get more honest. Trying to get things done by threatening people with guns isn’t compassionate, it’s barbaric. And doing it with such little regard for whether those things actually get done? What can one call it but the Great American Tragedy?