Understanding the Progressive Mind

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by William L. Anderson

Recently by William L. Anderson: Progressives, Guns, and the Assault onTruth

     

With the recent re-election of Barack Obama and the overall resurgence of the left wing of the Democratic Party, Progressives must be thinking that E.J. Dionne was correct when he wrote They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era nearly 20 years ago. With the Obama administration about to force a huge increase in taxes and government spending (the "Fiscal Cliff" being a sick joke), and with government agencies increasing their domination of ordinary American life, Progressives are in the driver's seat and as Identity Politics is the dominant political movement, it looks as though we will see a rerun of the 1960s when Democratic Progressives ratcheted up the Welfare/Warfare State.

As the misnamed "Fiscal Cliff" approaches, perhaps we need to better understand the mentality that is driving legislators to this point. On one side, there are the Democratic Progressives, and on the other side are the Republican Progressives, and if we are to make sense of why Congress is at this point, we should know that the people involved in this sorry affair have a way of thinking that is foreign to most regular LRC readers.

What I do in this article is to outline the thinking that Progressives on the Left have regarding various subjects and explain why Libertarian solutions to the problem gain no traction whatsoever with them. Readers won't feel any better after having read this piece, but perhaps they will better understand why we are in this situation, and why the conventional legislative process cannot work. (Space does not permit me also to take a hard look at Progressives on the Right, something I will do in a future article.)

Most of us work and function in a world that is utterly hostile to Libertarian thinking. For example, I teach at a relatively small state university (about 5,000 students) and have come to know many students and faculty members where I work, and like the vast majority of college and university faculties, ours is almost uniformly Progressive in voting patterns.

I understood that point when I took the job and always keep in mind that when I engage fellow faculty members, I am engaging someone who generally subscribes to a way of thinking that holds to the primacy of the State. These people do not regard the State as do I; instead of seeing government as an entity that abuses people, confiscates their wealth and then wastes it upon those who are politically-connected, they see the State as a near-mystical organization that when in the hands of Democrats performs miracles and creates Good Things.

The problem, as they see it, is not limiting the State. No, they believe that anyone who might want to limit State power is borderline mentally ill and is driven by evil intentions. They might interact with people on the "outside" of Progressivism, but they have no respect for them, nor do they wish even to understand any other point of view. There IS no other viewpoint, period.

Libertarians see the constant growth of the State and are alarmed. Progressives, on the other hand, see growth of government as a triumph, the continuation of a necessary process that liberates us from the shackles imposed by private enterprise and by entities like religion, social mores, and the like. Furthermore, any attempt to limit or to cut back growth of the State is seen as an assault upon Progress Itself, for only a strong and unlimited monopoly of State power can save us from private monopolies that would enslave us.

One can see that in the response that Progressives of the Right and Left had toward the Ron Paul candidacy for the Republican nomination for President of the United States. Whereas conservative Progressives would say something like, "I like Ron Paul's domestic ideas but am against his foreign policy," the Left Progressives I encountered simply hated Dr. Paul altogether, for he wished to abolish those very things that Progressives believe to be the hallmark of progress.

For example, in an email exchange I had with Clay Bennett, the Progressive political cartoonist for the Progressive Chattanooga Times, he was adamant that Ron was evil because he wanted to limit government spending for domestic purposes. In fact, Bennett intoned, he even is against the Federal Reserve System. To a Progressive like Bennett, the very existence of the Fed (created during the Progressive Era of the early 20th Century) was proof of its importance, and Bennett would not permit any other viewpoint to cloud his thinking.

Like most Progressives I know, Bennett believes that when the State regulates economic exchanges, transfers wealth from those who do not "need" it to those who do, it is doing good. If it were not for State Power, he and others believe, no one but the rich would be able to read and write, no one but the rich would have access to medical care, and no one but the rich would be able to live anything outside of a grim, menial existence. The State and only the State protects us from Capitalist Predators that seek to alter our climate, deprive us of life, and oppress us in every fasion.

(In a cartoon in 2012, Bennett drew a picture of the "Libertarian Lifeguard" who was sitting on his chair and gazing out over all of the drowned people. The message was clear: Libertarians want everyone to die and would refuse even to lend a helping finger to a drowning person, much less a helping hand to anyone in need.)

Progressives and the Supernatural Powers of Government

Now, I am not trying to engage in armchair psychoanalysis but rather am explaining the state of Progressivist thinking, and perhaps the best example I can give is a recent conversation I had with a fellow faculty member where I teach. He and I were talking about the Bush-Gore campaign and he said, quite seriously, "If Gore had won, we would not have had Hurricane Katrina because he would have stopped global warming."

Yes, the guy was serious, dead serious. He believed that government authority given to the Environmental Protection Agency from an environmentalist president would have immediately changed the entire weather patterns of the Western Hemisphere and ended hurricanes.

I'll admit to being stunned by this naiveté, but nonetheless it helps provide a very useful example that I have been able to use in better examining the Progressive mind. One must remember that this person was and is an intelligent man, a Ph.D., and a very good teacher. He hardly is a zombie and I like him and have a high opinion of him, so I am not writing this to belittle a friend in any way. I'm just stating what he believes.

A lot of Progressives are like this. They really believe in the power of the state. They really believe that the application of state power, complete with coercion, threats, and even killing can work major miracles, including giving us better weather. And if there is killing or imprisonment or imposing financial ruin, well, it was deserved because the people to whom these things were done were not willing to share their bounty with others or were too selfish to give up their precious possessions.

On the Left, Progressives believe that the government can create a vast, confiscatory regime that punishes productive people and rewards politically-connected people, and yet this will have no adverse effect at all upon the overall productivity of an economy. When I was in college 40 years ago, many of my Progressive professors really believed that Mao had worked an "economic miracle" in China (I guess Mao did manage the "miracle" of making the blind man lame), and that all it took was the murder of countless millions, people thrown into the maw as collateral damage or simple "broken eggs" to be made into a magnificent omelet.

When Rep. Claude Pepper died years ago, I recall hearing a National Public Radio story on him, with the reporter breathlessly praising Pepper because he had "faith in government." Hubert Humphrey before him also had that great faith in the power of the state, and both Pepper and Humphrey were lionized by the Progressive Media. And no wonder. These men presented the picture of government taking from people property and possessions for which they had no "need" and then supposedly transferring themselves to the "needy."

The faith of the Progressive Left in the creative and healing powers of the State is real; no, I cannot understand it because I am an unbeliever when it comes to the State. Like Paul Krugman, who cannot fathom why anyone would believe in something as silly as God creating the world or Jesus rising from the dead, I cannot understand why anyone would believe that government has sacred, supernatural powers. To me, such a proposition is utterly laughable; to someone like Krugman, when I belittle the State I am committing blasphemy.

But if we are to understand Progressives, we have to understand that they are True Believers in the power of the State to make all of society whole simply by passing and administrating laws that are created "in the public interest." This religious belief is non-negotiable. E.J. Dionne believes ultimately that the State is God. So does Jim Wallis, and both men believe that Barack Obama is the very epitome of the Holy State and that Obama "is going to save us."

For all of the talk from the Progressive Left that their God is science and that religion is unscientific, in reality, their beliefs ultimately are religious. Like the former Soviets who had billboards exclaiming, "Lenin is more alive than the living!", Progressive leftists truly believe that the State can reorder the entire world into a happy, productive, prosperous and peaceful condition, provided that government have enough coercive powers, including the power to kill dissenters. This is their religion and anyone who contradicts it is speaking damnable heresy.

Progressives and the Economy

When it comes to economics, the Progressive Left almost to the person believes that the only successful economy is one that is administered via state control. I have spoken to many Progressives and never once have I heard one deviate from that view. One Progressive, a Democratic Party activist from Chattanooga, insisted to me that because government has a legal monopoly over money, then government is totally responsible for everything good that comes out of an economy. When I asked the person about why the economy of the U.S.S.R. (this was in 1985) was so backward, he replied (seriously), "It is because the Soviet Union has not been a country as long as the United States." He could not recognize his non sequitur for what it was.

Even when Progressives give lip service to markets, they always add the caveat that without government control, markets would run amok and that immediately scores of people would be thrown into poverty at the expense of a few people becoming wealthy. Because markets are self-sabotaging, according to Progressive thinking, massive transfer payments are necessary to keep an economy on its feet.

One must absolutely comprehend this last point in order to understand Progressive thinking: transfer payments are not an economic burden; they are the key to prosperity and without them, the economy would sink into permanent depression. Therefore, to criticize transfers not only is to be "against the poor," but also to demonstrate economic ignorance. (Keep in mind that most Progressives view the economy as a big circle that is internally unstable, and government action keeps the circle moving.)

Several years ago, one of our English professors circulated an email that received many favorable responses. In it, he went off on a screed against the "savage marketplace" that spreads only violence and misery. To him — and to most of my colleagues — there is no such thing as "peaceful economic exchange." No, to him every exchange within a market system reflects violence, exploitation, and useless, dangerous products, and the only way to properly "reform" the system is for the State to have total control of the process. Anything less is unacceptable.

Things that Libertarians hold to be part of natural law, such as the Law of Scarcity or the Law of Opportunity Cost, have little or no meaning to Progressives. When the late Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson was running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, the self-identified hawk and Democratic Socialist (he was a true Welfare-Warfare State candidate) was told that his ideas could not be economically supported, he declared, "Then we will create a new economics."

Like Franklin Roosevelt, who proclaimed that the laws of economics were nothing more than creations of human beings and could be changed by creating something akin to the "Socialist Man," Progressives really do believe that they can manipulate an economy by printing money or by borrowing or by raising taxes on wealthy people, and there will be no adverse economic effects. As Krugman likes to claim in his NYT columns and blog posts, massive borrowing is no problem because "we owe it to ourselves."

Crime and Punishment

Progressives also have a love affair with federal prosecutors and with the use of incarceration in order to emphasize their "social goals," the main goal being the destruction of anything akin to free markets. Now, few will admit they love prisons and many even will speak of the "scandal" of American incarceration rates — the highest in the world — but I never have seen Progressives call for anything that actually would lower these rates significantly.

A few examples come to mind. When Rudy Giuliani was illegally leaking grand jury material to the NYT during Giuliani's Wall Street prosecutions in the 1980s, the NYT never complained about Giuliani's lawlessness. On the contrary, the paper praised everything he did and became the main Progressive megaphone in the Holy War against Michael Milken and his "junk bonds." It did not matter how lawless state agents were during this time; the only thing that mattered to the NYT was to destroy Milken, not because he was a threat to the economy (in fact, Milken financed much of the investment needed to create the Digital Age), but because he was a threat to the statist quo that Progressives cling to religiously and because his actions allowed investors and entrepreneurs to do an end run around the stultifying regulatory process that had limited investments in new technologies since the New Deal.

That Giuliani was breaking federal laws (and Progressives view federal law to be Holy and Sanctified) was not important because he did it to save us from that Predatory Capitalist Milken. Breaking laws for the common good is something that should be reserved to those who protect the rest of us from the Milkens of our age and nothing should stand in their way, and certainly not Rule of Law.

In a recent editorial, the editors of the Chattanooga Times called for the imprisonment of Wal-Mart executives and the destruction of Wal-Mart stores because the company did what every other company has done when it wants to do business in Mexico: pay some bribes. (The same editors not once have editorialized against the practice of "milker bills" and "fetcher bills" introduced by legislators in order to force companies to hand over campaign contributions. The same Progressive editorialists also have demanded that the government continue to pay billions of dollars in subsidies to "green energy" firms, the same firms that the record demonstrates have paid millions in campaign contributions to the Obama administration. According to these Progressives, a leftist government is incapable of being corrupt.)

But while Progressives call for the jailing of people they don't like while decrying America's incarceration rates, they also stand firmly behind the drug war, the militarization of America's police and state-sponsored brutality toward dissidents like Bradley Manning. (In the case of Manning, one can say that Progressives were against torture before they were for it.)

Yes, there are some Progressive writers like Glenn Greenwald and Naomi Wolf who are desperately trying to inform people as to the murderous violence that Barack Obama and his State apparatus are inflicting upon innocents here and abroad, but for the most part they are ignored. To Progressives where I work — and in Washington, D.C., and Progressive communities in general, Obama really is a savior, a Holy and Sacrosanct god.

For all of the Progressive love affair with science, the NYT demonstrated beyond a doubt that it would jettison real science for metaphysics during the Duke Lacrosse Case. The newspaper actually tried to float a theory that the lacrosse players possessed a towel that could wipe away the DNA of one person but leave the DNA of everyone else touched by that same towel. The idea was so preposterous that attorneys for the accused lacrosse players laughingly referred to it as the "magic towel," but the NYT and many Progressives pushing this case clung to its theory despite its utter implausibility.

Given the various "Occupy" movements that sprang up this past year, one would think that Progressives would oppose the "crony capitalism" that infects our economy. Au contraire, Progressives are True Believers and the vast web of bailouts, subsidies, and market manipulations that have been at the heart of Barack Obama's economic policies demonstrate that point. Whereas Libertarians see the very public financial collapse of Solyndra as being the essence of folly, Progressives believe that if the government subsidizes the "green energy" sectors, and orders increases in the "energy efficiency" of electricity-using goods, that out of that will come a wonderful energy-based Utopia.

Writers like Robert Bryce have tried to explain that the goals of the Progressives and the actual capability of "green energy" are not compatible, but such good sense is ignored. In my conversations with many Progressives, and in reading their websites and articles in Progressive outlets like the NYT, I can see that Progressives truly believe — truly believe — that there are no contradictions in their energy outlooks. If government directs resources to a "socially desirable" end, and if the spending and the political will follow, then there is no doubt that the desired outcome will occur. After all, they argue, government directed the Manhattan Project, and in the end science gave us the atomic bomb.

Libertarians loathe no federal agency as much as they do the Internal Revenue Service. They view it as an unwarranted expansion of the State into their lives, and they see an agency full of people who have way too much power over the daily lives of others. Progressives, on the other hand, believe that the IRS has too little power. The mission of the IRS — to seize tax revenue — is utterly important for it is the IRS that ultimately allows us to pay for the "Social Contract" that Progressives believe is central to life itself.

Likewise, Progressives also view the growth of the Regulatory State as being absolutely essential to our well-being, and any attempt to cut back on any regulation is seen as a nuclear attack on "progress" itself. For example, in 1995 after a moderate Republican challenge to some Environmental Protection Agency regulations, Anthony Lewis writing from his regular perch on the NYT editorial page shrieked that "they want feces" to wash up on beaches.

To Progressives, expansion of the Regulatory State always is done in the name of "reform," and there is no word more dear to American Progressives than "reform." Libertarians see regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Products Safety Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Transportation Security Administration as being predatory in nature and harmful even at best. These agencies, to Libertarians, do not protect anyone, impose costs upon people who should not have to pay them, and in the case of the TSA are outright oppressive.

That is not how Progressives see them. If it were not for the EPA, our rivers would be sewers, our air purely toxic, capitalist-created goods (and especially toys for young children) would be inherently dangerous, with children being killed by the scores, monopolies springing up everywhere hoarding our wealth, and passenger flights regularly would be hijacked by terrorists and other "gun nuts" who would systematically be forcing flight after flight to crash.

These things are self-evident to Progressives, and the use of facts means nothing to them. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Progressive columnist Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal wrote a column, "Government to the Rescue." I would urge people to read his column, not because of its self-proclaimed wisdom, but rather because it provides a huge window into the mentality of American Progressives.

To Hunt, 9/11 was the Ultimate Market Failure, an example of how private enterprise endangers our very lives, and how Government saves us. Literally. That everything of which Hunt wrote already was heavily regulated by government — including airport security — simply had no bearing on his worldview. There was no government failure because the government, when in "proper" regulatory mode, is incapable of failing.

Likewise, read Paul Krugman and other Progressives on the financial meltdown of 2008, and to them, the only reason it happened was that government did not regulate the economy enough, and that was because a political regime that believed wholeheartedly in "untrammeled" markets was in power. Because Progressives (and especially Progressive economists like Krugman) believe that prices send important signals ONLY when an economy is organized into what "economists" label as a State of Perfect Competition, in the case of Wall Street, prices meant nothing at all.

Because private enterprise creates and sustains monopolies, argue Krugman and others, players in the system cannot and will not respond to prices because prices are administered by the system and are rigged to the advantage of those at the head of the line. Because of that situation, markets (and especially financial markets) will run headlong over a cliff, dragging everyone down, and the only thing that can keep that from happening is strict regulation from the central government. In their view, only regulators trained and employed in federal agencies have the clarity and foresight to understand what will work and what will not; anyone employed in private enterprise has no capability of foresight whatsoever.

When bureaucrats do make that "rare" error, or when the TSA agent does something really stupid, Progressives also have an answer: more training. To Progressives, "training" really is a mantra, and is a solution for all government ills. Because State agents really do have all of the answers, the only thing that is needed is for others employed by the State to receive the benefit of that wisdom through training and more training.

I wish I were just creating "straw men" or fabricating caricatures of Progressives, and that certainly is how some of them will react upon reading these words. My viewpoints, however, come from reading thousands of articles, columns, and editorials and from my many conversations with my colleagues. I am not accusing my colleagues of being evil; many of them are decent people, good teachers, and wonderful mentors to their students. What I am saying is that the things I have written reflect their worldviews.

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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