Progressives and the Bloody 20th Century

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As one who
has written on the Progressive movement that began in the late 1800s
and still continues today, I am struck by the way that people have
institutionalized the "reforms" and creations of Progressives
to the point where they become something even beyond articles of
faith. There can be no discussion on anything Progressive governments
enacted, not matter how much damage these "reforms" have
caused, and even to suggest that these "reforms" are not
essential to our very existence is want to repeal life itself.

The latest
hysterical "They Want to Repeal the 20th Century"
screed comes from Steven Pearlstein, an economics columnist for
the Washington
Post
, who lays out an interesting line of thought and in
the end seems to claim that the mass of government programs and
agencies created during the last century carries the same aura of
truth as does the Law of Gravity. He writes:

These folks
are actually talking about repealing the Clean Air Act, the Clean
Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, created in
1970s.

They're talking
about abolishing Medicare and Medicaid, which passed in the 1960s,
and Social Security, created in the 1930s.

They reject
as thoroughly discredited all of Keynesian economics, including
the efficacy of fiscal stimulus, preferring the budget-balancing
economic policies that turned the 1929 stock market crash into
the Great Depression.

They also
reject the efficacy of monetary stimulus to fight recession, and
give the strong impression they wouldn't mind abolishing the Federal
Reserve and putting the country back on the gold standard.

They refuse
to embrace Darwin's theory of evolution, which has been widely
accepted since the Scopes Trial of the 1920s.

One of them
is even talking about repealing the 16th and 17th amendments to
the Constitution, allowing for a federal income tax and the direct
election of senators — landmarks of the Progressive Era.

What's
next — repeal of quantum physics? (Emphasis mine)

As I read through
this litany, I realize that his line of argument is terribly fallacious,
but to Progressives, all their talk of science and logic does not
apply to their own methods of reasoning. Pearlstein is claiming
that the very creation and continued existence of agencies
like the EPA and the provisions of the Clean Air Acts and Clean
Water Acts, along with the Income Tax and direct election of U.S.
Senators, Medicare and Social Security are proof of their truth.

Furthermore,
he equates these legislative acts, along with the Keynesian theories
and accompanying policies as having the same legitimacy as laws
of quantum physics. Just as one cannot debate the existence
of gravity, so one cannot even debate anything that fits within
the Progressive agenda.

As I read through
the article, I come to the conclusion that Progressivism at its
heart is a religion, one in which the State is God and Abraham Lincoln,
Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson are its Holy Prophets.
John Maynard Keynes is the savior. To question anything that they
said or did is to require banishment not only from polite society,
but from the very universe altogether.

If there is
a Golden Era of Progressivism, it is the 20th Century,
and while many decent people are repulsed at the government-initiated
slaughter of innocent people that characterized those 100 years,
Progressives see, well, progress. Where some see the butchering
of 10 million men in the execrable trenches of World War I and ask
who could have ordered this needless destruction of lives, Progressives
see "progress" in the destruction of the European monarchies
and the establishment of the U.S.S.R. (Yes, the U.S.S.R. during
the 1920s and 1930s was a darling of U.S. Progressives, and their
effusive praise of the regime, and especially of Josef Stalin, is
well documented in Paul Hollander's Political
Pilgrims
.)

Furthermore,
World War I in the USA led to military conscription, high income
tax rates, destruction of the classical gold standard (and replacement
with fiat paper money), Prohibition, and government takeover of
the railroads and government control of business, all of which were
highly-sought by Progressives for years before World War I brought
their goals to fruition, which was aptly noted by Murray N. Rothbard
in his classic essay, "World
War I as Fulfillment
." Thus, to Progressives, the bloody
human sacrifice that characterized that conflict was "worth
it" because the postwar world was much more to their liking.

It is hard
to understand why anyone would prefer the bloodshed and social turmoil
that was World War I and its aftermath to the relatively peaceful
western world that existed before Europe stumbled into massive warfare
in August 1914, yet Progressives believed (and still believe) that
the destruction of ancient institutions and replacing them with
edicts from the state was a good thing. And when people pointed
out that the Russian Revolution was bringing death and destruction,
the typical Progressive response was, "If you want to make
an omelet, you have to break some eggs."

The Great Depression
was the next event that solidified the Progressive hold on U.S.
policies, and like World War I, it provided Progressives the opportunity
to make permanent changes in the nation's political economy, or
at least bring permanent changes to the legal institutions that
set the boundaries for private enterprise. Furthermore, in the name
of "bold action," the government engaged in activities
from cartelizing U.S. industries (the idea that reducing output
would reduce layoffs, which would reduce unemployment) to hiring
vast number of people to do chores from writing propaganda for the
Roosevelt administration to digging drainage ditches in U.S. cities.

That the nation's
unemployment rate still was in double digits in 1940 did not discourage
Progressives from pursuing their various agendas, as they claimed
that unemployment would have been greater had the government done
"nothing." Meanwhile, the Great Depression spread from
the United States to the rest of the world and led to political
and social upheaval that ultimately exploded into World War II.

Because Progressive
policies (laid out in detail in Murray Rothbard's classic America's
Great Depression
) created the economic calamity that created
the rest of the turmoil, one can say that World War II also was
a Progressive's war. Not surprisingly, Progressives jumped at all
of the "opportunities" that war brought, including military
conscription, government control of the economy, further destruction
of sound money, price controls, forced unionization of firms that
did business with the government, military destruction of cities
in Japan and Europe, and the creation of an international monetary
system that would collapse in less than three decades and lead to
the ultimate Progressive goal: worldwide fiat money.

World War II
ended in 1945, but not before more than 50 million lives had been
snuffed out, and the reach of Stalin's Soviet Union extended, along
with the establishment of what would be the Cold War. Unfortunately,
the end of World War II was not the end of the mass murder of which
either Progressives would directly influence or, at least approve.
Wars in Southeast Asia killed millions of people, and the killing
escalated after U.S. Progressives in Congress and the White House
committed millions of conscripted troops to the region to prop up
existing non-communist governments.

It is hard
to know how many innocents died in these Progressive conflicts,
but it is clear that the so-called vision that these We-Want-To-Remake-the-World
that Progressives demanded resulted in slaughter and calamity that
is hard even to describe, and when one thinks of the vast human
displacement, the use of concentration camps, and the state-sponsored
violence that was endemic, the only things that remotely resemble
what happened were the Thirty Years War and the Assyrian and Babylonian
conquests of the ancient world. Yet, when one speaks to Progressives
about World War I and World War II, we are told that the first "made
the world safe for democracy" and the second was "the
good war."

Now,
some Progressives might agree that these wars were bad — although
they will claim that the Progressive Agendas had nothing to do with
them — but then they will point to the "accomplishments"
of the 20th Century, specifically the establishment of
the Welfare State and the expansion of government agencies and programs
that ostensibly were created to save humanity from the alleged horrors
of capitalism. Pearlstein's screed, for example, lists a number
of Progressive "reforms" and creations, from the EPA to
Social Security and the Income Tax.

The idea is
that their very creation proves their necessity, and that
our society would collapse and fall into chaos and death without
them. Not only is the State central to our existence, in the Progressives'
viewpoint, but now that the state is all-pervasive, we cannot survive
unless the state is nurtured and expanded, for "reforms"
always involve the expansion of government, and anything
less is to do away with civilization altogether.

Such thinking
hardly is new. Frederic
Bastiat more than 150 years ago
anticipated Pearlstein when
he wrote:

Socialism,
like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction
between government and society. As a result of this, every time
we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists
conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove
of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed
to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists
say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced
equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on,
and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not
wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise
grain.

Substitute
"Progressive" for "socialist," and you can see
that nothing has changed. (While it is true that many Progressives
do not claim to be socialists, both believe that all improvements
in the human condition come about as the result of the expansion
of the State. There really are no exceptions.)

In the end,
we are supposed to ignore the slaughter and destruction of the world
wars, the exponential growth of the surveillance (read that, domestic
spying) state, the choking taxation, and all of the wars fought
since in the name of "liberation" and "progress."
Furthermore, if any of us would like to repeal all of that, or if
we wish it had not happened, something is wrong with us.

Progressives,
as stated earlier, love to use the "break eggs to make an omelet"
analogy to justify the destruction that has accompanied their Great
Visions. To be honest, I'd rather not eat what they are trying to
force down my throat.

September
16, 2011

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
. He
also is a consultant with American Economic Services. Visit
his blog.

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