The Progressive Mindset

I am used to being surrounded and outnumbered. As even the most casual reader of this blog knows, I have libertarian leanings – and I have never lived anywhere but the northeastern corner of the United States.

The northeast is a fantastic place, and it could not be so without its natives, who are among the most competitive, argumentative and interesting people you could ever hope to find. The only thing on which nearly everybody here seems to agree is the one thing about which I dissent: progressive politics.

“Progressivism” is the de facto state religion of the northeast: it is inescapably the dominant culture in our governing bodies, schools, towns, workplaces, churches, synagogues and homes. Those of us who think as I do have learned to meet smug assertions of liberal pieties with silence. Mostly, our interlocutors mean no harm by such comments – they simply assume that, of course, all present agree. There’s a good chance that those with whom we find ourselves speaking think that all Republicans are uncultured, selfish, gun-toting, presumptively racist, religious zealot knuckle-draggers who do, or should, live somewhere else.

So we avoid casual political chatter with those whom we don’t know well. Otherwise, we might find ourselves similarly positing that Democrats must per se be welfare freeloaders, union goons or highly credentialed, egg headed elitists who think they have the right to tell the rest of us how to live our lives. And where would that conversation get us? Not far.

I have, however, had innumerable politically-tinted conversations with Democrats I know well and for whom I have the deepest personal respect and affection, but with whom I vehemently differ on most questions of policy. In these conversations, we tend to dance around the fundamental principles about which we are disagreeing for the simple reason that neither party wishes to offend the other. Even so, enough is said so that I have a pretty good idea of where they’re coming from, and vice versa.

So it’s an understatement to write that I have had opportunities to plumb the minds of those who think differently than I do. They are my neighbors, my former classmates, my colleagues, my fellow congregants and my friends. In spite of those precious bonds, we fundamentally disagree on most of the biggest questions of governance facing our society; why? How would I define the core differences in belief and action that motivate people to be on the left or right?

No simple answer will universally suffice, of course; but I will hazard a few observations:

The reason that progressives tend to think of conservatives as selfish is that progressives associate higher taxes and the provision of more goods to the poor as morally laudable. Generally, progressives do not consider the possibilities that higher taxes may harm all of us or that dependency might particularly harm the poor; and while I have constantly heard progressives argue that government should do more, I have never heard one define when more might become enough, let alone too much. Such thoughts would make them conservatives.

Similarly, liberals tend to reflexively support union “rights” and higher minimum wage laws because they believe that by doing so they are lending a helping hand to those who need one – and clearly, to object to such measures would mean being on the side of oppressors, a.k.a., The Man. Here again, they are unlikely to focus on the negative effects of unionism or high minimum wages on unionized companies, the education system, or those who need a first legitimate job.

Folks on my side of the great ideological divide worry that a toxic combination of welfare/food stamps/payroll taxes/minimum wages/unionized and and incompetent teachers and the heavy weight of innumerable regulations create an environment in which most of the poor cannot escape poverty through legitimate means. It sometimes seems that the only truly unfettered opportunities for the poor to make a buck are through the illegal opportunities of prostitution and drug dealing . Too many legitimate businesses have been priced out of providing the lowest rung of the ladder jobs by our massive structure of regulations and taxes designed to prevent exploitation of the poor; so instead  of being “exploited”, the poor remain dependant.

Obamacare is, as ever, the ultimate example of legislation built on progressive pieties that is having the opposite of its intended effect (assuming, that is, that it was not cynically designed to fail and thereby usher in a fully socialized medical system). The Affordable Care Act is demonstrably driving up healthcare costs, and harming the employment prospects of the unemployed, as small employers struggle to keep their numbers of employees at or below the maximum of 49 that they can have before providing expensive healthcare packages to all. So again: the lower rungs of the ladder have been removed.

I have one particularly close friend/colleague who recently told me he’s fine with Obamacare whatever its problems because he supports an eventual “single payer” system for medicine. He feels that it would be immoral to deny medical care to the poor. Does he realize that a “single payer”, i.e., wholly socialized, system would be devoid of choice, and all about the rationing of a scarce resource? Since the demand for medical care – or any other good – would be infinite if free, any socialized system will rely on centralized choices as to who gets what. Where would we draw the line in terms of costs?

And if “free” medical care is a right, why aren’t housing, clothing, and food? “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” Marx’s pithy statement of his views, can be seen as the ultimate expression of the progressive worldview; that road has been tried, though, and, among humans, it failed rather spectacularly. Not that my progressive friends would go all the way to accepting Marx’s dictum in all matters; none of them would want the government to own or run their businesses.

The progressive tendency is all about centralizing power and the distribution of resources through the government. Progressives want to set the rules by which all of us live. But why do we think that the US government would do any better with such a system than, say, the Politburo? Does the US Postal Service, or, more locally, the Department of Motor Vehicles convince us that we are terrific at managing large governmental organizations? People are the same everywhere; large organizations are always terribly inefficient, and governmental organizations are particularly immune to public feedback.

Libertarians trust people to make good decisions for themselves. We believe that society will thrive if each of us is largely left alone to do business as we see fit, with the national government setting minimal, basic rules, building roads and defending the country. Local governments can experiment with more active approaches – because people can always move from blue states to red, or vice versa. Red states have lower public debts, lower unemployment and lower crime; ever wonder why? And, as it happens, people are moving from blue states to red ones, in droves.

Think of it this way: there is no reason for a grown man to sit out the workforce, if he could offer his efforts to others unburdened by the current maze of taxes, regulations and forfeitable benefits, and be paid for those efforts on simple, agreed terms. In poorer but less regulated societies, everybody finds a way to be useful to others, and a way to be paid for his or her efforts; here, not so much. We have found ways to prevent that.

Unemployment is the product of an overgrown state.


M.H Johnston 7/31/13


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