An Interesting Comment

A longtime Civil Horizon subscriber named Vivian Wadlin left a comment a few days ago in reaction to Reality Checks that spurred me to further thoughts regarding the deep-seated basis of opposing political tendencies, including my own. She wrote:

“I just read this after lying awake last night pondering the improbability of me. All the past generations of DNA that had to survive and intermix, the fact that my parents met, that I survived childhood, that I was born in the USA, that I have (so far) survived three deadly diseases–my universe may or may not be expanding. I, however, stay small, inconsequential, and entirely grateful.”

My initial response was to write that none of us really knows how consequential or inconsequential our acts might be. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is famously made to appreciate the enormity of the follow-on effects of his seemingly long-forgotten kind acts. The movie thus stands as a powerful reminder of what we do not, and usually cannot, know about the longer-term, indirect results of the things we do. 

Thinking about this exchange later, I also considered its relevance to experiences I’ve had as a parent and to my broadly libertarian political outlook.  

I remembered trying to teach my children what I’d learned from some mistake or other that I’d made earlier in life, and only getting a sense many years later of whether the child had come away from my intended lesson with the nugget of wisdom I had tried to impart. Often as not, it had been forgotten or misunderstood, perhaps because the child had been more focused at the time on, say, what he or she perceived as the emotional context of my words; or maybe while I was talking he or she had been thinking about something entirely outside my knowing.

Over time, such parenting experiences convinced me that we all learn far more from our own mistakes than from lessons taught with the best of intentions by others. Likely my children’s most important takeaway from my efforts to teach them such lessons was a more general knowledge that I cared. 

Our frequent inability to fully understand how our words or actions are taken, or what ultimate effects they are likely to have, also sheds light on my strongly-held, broadly libertarian political perspective.  

***

Progressives want to order society according to their ideas of social justice. They look for ways to address a perceived problem or injustice, and seek to implement their ideas for planned solutions through government action. They always favor the use of government power to implement their policy prescriptions – that’s the very definition of progressivism.

It (almost) goes without saying that governments always act through coercion: we must obey their laws or face punishment; progressives are broadly comfortable with such coercion in the name of what they see as the greater good.

But here’s the first problem with the progressives’ approach: they virtually always ignore the law of unintended consequences.

For example, they instituted a so-called War on Poverty to alleviate want, taxing and spending trillions along the way, and in the process created a permanent, dependent underclass that lives with radically different (governmentally-created-and-enforced) incentives regarding marriage and work than had been the norm beforehand, or are even now the norm in the rest of society.

Those who have been disincentivized from marrying or from doing on-the-books work have responded rationally to their new circumstances; consequently, much of the underclass has changed its mores, not for the better. Nearly fifty years and many trillions later, the poor are still miserable – and now, more so than ever before, they constitute a truly and semi-permanently separate society.  

Progressives punished work and savings through the tax code, promised unfunded entitlements like Medicare and Social Security to all and … were surprised when our nation turned from its tradition of thrift and became the world’s biggest debtor nation.

I could go on and on: progressives’ habit of addressing perceived problems through direct, governmental action often has two effects: the initial one of taking from Peter (or borrowing!) to pay Paul, and the secondary one of changing the subsequent behaviors of both. 

At a more fundamental level even than ignoring the natural long-term behavioral (and ultimately culture-changing) consequences of the perverse incentives created by progressive governance is the conceptual issue with Socialism (to which present-day American progressivism bears a close kinship), described by Friedrich Hayek as The Fatal Conceit in his book of that name.

In brief, Hayek holds (per Wikipedia’s overview) that “statist (e.g., “socialist”) economies cannot be efficient because dispersed knowledge is required in a modern economy.” (I’m pretty sure that Hayek would characterize disbursed knowledge as a fact – with important ramifications – rather than as a requirement). The conceit is that central planners know what is good for people better than they know it themselves. (For a recent example: see the frustrated intent of Obamacare’s original mandate that healthy people buy insurance at prices designed to subsidize unhealthy people and the elderly).

In short: progressivism is astonishingly hubristic – an effort to impose top-down solutions to perceived problems, often without reference to the logical consequences of the proposed “solutions” and always with the effect of limiting people from acting on their own knowledge and inclinations about what’s best for them.

That having been said, among the innumerable progressives I know, some of whom I love, I don’t know any who are interested in going the distance to full-on Maoist coercion as a means of enforcing their policy prescriptions, though some environmental extremists come pretty close.

***

Smaller-government advocates like me are more inclined to let people solve their own problems, profit from their own labors or suffer from their own mistakes. This approach leaves the natural (and healthy) incentives to more productive behaviors in place at the social expense of not as aggressively addressing current suffering or past injustices. 

But I also don’t know any libertarian purists – and am not one myself – who would like to simply do away with our social safety net: Americans, Antifa, dimwit celebrities and some of the liberal arts professoriate excepted, are generally far more moderate in person than the media would have us believe.

***

A final comment about Ms. Wadlin’s comment: its ending notes of personal modesty and gratitude for this world’s – and our society’s – many blessings, are entirely consistent with – indeed, conducive of – a conservative (or libertarian: whatever), individualist perspective. They are the polar opposites of the envy and utopianism that enervate extreme forms of progressivism.    

M.H. Johnston

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