The Progressives' 100 Years War

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I was born in 1953, and throughout my lifetime, it seems we have been at war in one way or another. A few months before I was born, the Korean War had just ended, World War II was just eight years in the past, and our Vietnam nightmare was just beginning.

Our constant warfare has hardly gone unnoticed. Political leftists attribute this phenomenon to capitalism and especially the military-industrial complex. (In Oliver Stone’s movie JFK, nearly everyone in Washington who had something to do with the armed forces or an armed forces contractor was in on the conspiracy to murder John F. Kennedy. He wants us to believe that not only did the evil capitalists band together to kill JFK, but they also managed to keep it a secret even though thousands of people were involved in the plot.)

Being someone who has much formal education and who also reads the newspapers, I have been informed repeatedly since my high school days that capitalism, free markets, and private property are the main cause of war. From Vladimir Lenin to Ramsey Clark, we hear that wars occur because capitalists are constantly in search of new markets to conquer. (Actually, Lenin held that capitalists are always looking to export capital in order to stave off the inevitable crisis. Clark just hates capitalism, period.)

Yet, such pronouncements make no sense. As demonstrated by the September 11 attacks, all market indicators fell rapidly. Even the pronouncements by Keynesian economists that rebuilding all that was destroyed would bring us a new prosperity would did not revive the markets. If capitalism were based upon violence, as its detractors claim, it would logically follow that the attacks and the U.S. military response would have revived the moribund economy. Instead, we have seen the opposite, as the attacks seem to have speeded up the slide of our economy into recession.

In fact, the very nature of the attacks tells us something about violence, peace, and commerce. Had enemy warplanes of a nation "officially" at war with the United States slammed into the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, we might have been horrified with the results, but not shocked. After all, those who fought the Japanese in World War II had to deal with kamikaze attacks, and armed forces of all sides in that war dropped bombs on civilians.

(For that matter, the U.S. armed forces have dropped bombs and fired missiles at civilian targets in its latest military campaign in Afghanistan. The USA also has done the same in huge numbers against Iraq. The excuse was that things used by civilians like roads and bridges also had military uses, so they were fair game, according to the government and its apologists.)

No, we were shocked because they were commercial jets, full of people traveling for business, pleasure, and to meet loved ones. That depraved individuals would commandeer those jets to use them for murder and mayhem was what shocked all of us. Who would murder people who sat peacefully at their desks, doing the daily tasks of business?

Yet, at the same time, the United States has been on a near constant war footing for more than a century. Beginning with the Spanish-American War of 1898, U.S. armed forces have been engaged almost continuously around the globe. From Manila Bay to Afghanistan, the U.S. Government has been at war on five continents and countless nations. During those wars, millions of people have lost their lives, whole cities have been destroyed, and many societies have been wrecked.

Thus, we have a paradox. The USA has been known for much of its history as a commercial nation, yet it has used much of the wealth its commerce has generated for weapons and armies. Such a situation provides the "evidence" for socialists and their allies who insist that capitalism is the fount of all strife and evil.

However, there is an alternative explanation. For more than a century, the USA has been mostly influenced by the ideology of Progressivism, a way of thinking that has been the lodestar for the political and intellectual classes of this country. While people may delude themselves into thinking the United States is still the constitutional republic of 1787, it has actually been a progressivist democracy since the mid-1800s, and one of the consequences of that shift has been an emphasis upon wars to build and expand the U.S. empire.

While historians like to say the so-called progressivist era lasted from the late 1800s until the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917, in reality, progressivism began much earlier and is still in existence today. Before dealing with its historical boundaries, however, I must first define what I mean by progressivism.

My World Book Encyclopedia (1987) defines progressivism as a movement of economic and political reforms. According to that encyclopedia, private enterprise was oppressing society, creating monopolies, and creating general mayhem, so some farsighted individuals organized themselves to protest these horrible conditions and to create alternative economic and political mechanisms.

If it is true that the winners of wars are the ones who write history, then "progressives" must be considered the political and cultural victors of our society. So-called progressivism is not reform in the sense of making something better, but rather an ideology that looks to expand state power. For all of the talk among "progressives" of civil liberties, progressivism is a decidedly anti-liberty movement.

In a nutshell, progressivist ideology is based upon the idea that the private economy is wasteful, undemocratic, and often operates in an arena that cannot be easily overseen by those who have society’s best interests at heart. Private firms, if not regulated by an aggressive, all-intrusive state, will foist dangerous, unneeded goods and services upon unsuspecting consumers. And while progressives like to think of consumers as hapless victims of private enterprise, they also tend to think of the typical person as someone operating on automatic pilot, engaged in "mindless consumerism" who cannot be trusted to make even the simplest of important decisions regarding their own lives.

During the so-called progressive era, legislation that continues to haunt us came through Congress in spades. First was the 1887 establishment of the now-defunct (thank goodness) Interstate Commerce Commission that was formed ostensibly to "protect" farmers from ruinous transportation charges by railroads. What the commission actually did was to organize railroads, trucking, and passenger airline firms into government-enforced cartels, which meant higher prices and fewer available services for consumers.

Congress during this era also gave us the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Clayton Antitrust Act, and the Federal Trade Commission, complete with its "Bureau of Competition." Again, these laws were passed in the name of making the U.S. economy more "competitive," but in reality had the opposite effect. (See the numerous articles on the Ludwig von Mises Institute’s web page to better understand this phenomenon.)

When one adds the creation of the Federal Reserve System, Prohibition, and the implementation of the federal income tax, one finds that the progressive era left little of U.S. life untouched. Furthermore, it is a misnomer to say that progressivism began in the late 1800s and ended at World War I. The root causes of the progressive era had their roots in the various reform movements that began in the 1820s, including the various socialist experiments like Brooke Farm and New Harmony, abolitionism (as opposed to earlier anti-slavery movements that existed before 1830), calls for alcohol prohibition, and the Horace Mann-led common school crusades of New England.

In fact, one can argue that the American War Between the States was a "progressivist" war. Abraham Lincoln, who was pretty much responsible for this horrible conflict, supported what can easily be called "progressivist" measures like government public works, high protective tariffs, and central banking. The war’s centralizing effect on the U.S. political system would lay the important groundwork for later massive federal intervention into the economy.

While I have outlined some of the provisions of progressivism and its predecessor movements, I have not made the connection between progressivist ideology and the U.S. wars of intervention for the last century. Most people today who call themselves "progressives" say that they reject much of U.S. military intervention abroad. Progressive socialists like Eugene Debs opposed the entry of the United States into World War I, and most leftist publications today oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

However, opposing some conflicts does not necessarily reflect an anti-war stance. As Murray N. Rothbard so eloquently pointed out in his Journal of Libertarian Studies article on "World War I as Fulfillment," the U.S. entry into the First World War actually was a triumph for most progressivists. First, it provided them with the opportunity to spread U.S. influence throughout Europe just as had been done against Spain and in the campaign to conquer the Philippines during the early 1900s. Woodrow Wilson’s infamous Fourteen Points bears eloquent witness of the progressivist mindset.

Second, the war gave progressivists the opportunity to impose a number of "reforms" upon the domestic population — which was supposed to accept all of these changes in the name of "making the world safe for democracy." Not only did the government impose prohibition of alcohol in the name of "feeding the troops," but also intervened mightily into economic matters. The armed forces took over administration of the railroads, while government commissions imposed "war socialism" over the rest of the economy.

When the states ratified the Sixteenth Amendment, which allowed for a federal income tax, in 1913, its chief defenders in Congress claimed that it would not even take up to 10 percent of anyone’s income. The war changed all of that, as rates went up to more than 60 percent of top incomes. Since then, the top rate has never been below 24 percent.

As Benjamin Anderson wrote in Economics and the Public Welfare, Franklin Roosevelt attempted to use World War II as a vehicle through which to expand and solidify the interventionist New Deal. That war greatly expanded government’s reach into our lives, and ensured that this nation would have a large, permanent standing army. (Before World War II broke out, the USA had only the world’s sixteenth largest army, even behind tiny Portugal. Times have changed.)

Yet, while wars might benefit progressivist movements, how does one make the most important link, that being that progressivism itself leads to war? Why is the warfare state a necessary ally of the welfare state? After all, most self-styled peace activists openly support the welfare state while rejecting the warfare state, yet I am also including them into the mix — albeit without their permission and certainly over their sure objections.

The reason that I do this is that both states require that governments engage in violence, whether it be open like in warfare or whether it be implied, as in welfare. Contrary to popular belief, the welfare state is not based upon sharing, caring, and civilized behavior. If that were so, no coercion would be needed to make the system work.

Instead, we implicitly understand that the welfare state is at its roots a police state, one that depends upon forcible extraction of wealth and property from some in order to give to those who have received favor from political authorities. Furthermore, the ideology of the welfare state — which is basically socialism at the core — is expansionist and messianic, something that encourages that it be spread abroad. Thus, we saw the French Revolution morph into the Napoleonic conquests and the aggressiveness of the communist regimes of the 20th Century.

(This is not an excuse for the U.S. actions that encouraged and prolonged the Cold War. Rather, one needs only to understand just how much of the activity of communist regimes was dedicated to "security" at home and abroad to gain a full picture of what was happening. These regimes, indeed, wishes to spread their "revolutionary ideas" abroad.)

In the USA, progressivism had a uniquely nationalistic flavor. In the name of "progress," we could wipe out the Indians, fight a needless war with Spain, "liberate" and "Christianize" the people of the Philippines, invade Panama, and generally throw around our weight. Furthermore, "progressives" justified U.S. entry into World War I as something needed to help spread "democracy" abroad to people who lived under monarchies. That our European marauding would create chaos, poverty, and ultimately help pave the way for Adolph Hitler and Josef Stalin was of no account to those who believed the USA had a "mission" to fulfill. For that matter, the creation of the Federal Reserve, another product of the progressive movement, would ultimately be the central cause of the Great Depression, another event that helped grow the tyrannical regimes of Europe.

Things are not changed in the new century, either. President Bush wants us to fight the "Axis of Evil" as though the poor, pathetic regime of North Korea threatens our borders. No, the current war is just another confirmation of the continuation of the progressive movement.

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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