Sunday, June 28, 2009

Peak Column #5: Progressivism through the ages

Welcome to week 5 of Rules for Radicals. If you’re just now tuning in, I would suggest you first acquaint yourself with previous installments, starting here. Regular clientele, welcome back for another exciting round of anti-Progressive demagoguery. Today we’ll be looking at Progressivism through the ages. As we’ll see, she was quite attractive in her early years – but the toll of age is steep.

A century ago, the world was full of people who believed in free markets, individual liberty and personal responsibility. We would call them “Libertarians” if they were re-animated today, Jurassic Park-style. We would also keep them in tropical preserves surrounded by electric fences, so out of fashion and practice are their ideals in the 21st century.

Oddly enough, these ancient people called themselves “Liberals.” This raises a few questions, since the 21st century definition of a Liberal is pretty much the polar opposite of what 19th century Liberals such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill meant when they used the label on themselves. Back in their day, Liberals were defined by their support of laissez-faire economics and limited government. Modern Liberals, in contrast, advocate the opposite set of policies: Central planning; state ownership of the means of production; high taxes and lavish social spending. What’s up with that? Have we found a glitch in the English language?

As neat as that would be, no we have not. It may seem unlikely, but the word “Liberal” has been true to itself all this time. There is a clear and direct line of descent between 19th century Liberals like Adam Smith, and 21st century Liberals like, say, Hilary Clinton. This is hard to swallow, since you couldn’t get a 19th-century Liberal to spend 5 minutes discussing policy with Ms. Clinton without them coming to blows, but the common lineage is there, if you know where to look.

Here at Rules for Radicals, we’ve previously defined modern Liberalism (under its synonym, Progressivism) as a preference for centralized government authority over individual liberty. Astute readers may have noticed that this definition is full of holes. In several areas – military power and policing, in particular – Progressives favor a decrease in the power held by centralized governments. Statism is apparently a symptom of Progressivism, and a selective one at that, rather than its defining feature. Clearly we need a new definition of Liberalism, Progressivism, and the Left.

Fortunately, I have just such a definition. I find it simplifies the world, answers questions, and generally matches up quite nicely with reality. Your mileage may vary, of course, but here it is: Liberalism is the political ideology concerned with redistributing power away from those who currently possess it.

Consider the problem of conflicting definitions of the word “Liberal” in the 19th and 21st centuries. 150 years ago the chief proponents of mercantilist (i.e., un-libertarian) economic policies were business and land owners who benefited from tariffs, protectionism and political favoritism. Liberals of the era advocated for free-market reforms at least partially on the grounds that such policies would dilute the power of the wealthy and benefit the working classes. (Google “Corn Laws” for a good example.) Other historical Liberal causes – the abolition of slavery, civil rights, first-wave feminism, replacing monarchal governments with democracies – all can be understood as Liberal attempts to change an existing distribution of power.

I am not a Liberal, according to the word’s modern definition, but I have to admit, their track record is good. Had I been born 50 to 300 years earlier, I would be the era-appropriate equivalent of a Prius-driving, SFPIRG-attending, New York Times-reading, capital-P Progressive. But in the world today, when I look for undeserved power, unearned privilege and unjust authority, I don’t see it in the Corporations, IMF, or whatever other enemy-of-the-week Progressives are decrying with chanting and sign-waving. I see it in the modern Progressive movement.

Certainly, Progressivism has achieved great things in the past. But the men and women who today seek to nationalize our economy, ban dissent through Human Rights Commissions and strangle our public schools with corrupt unions that prevent the firing of incompetent teachers – these are not the same Progressives who created the free, open, and prosperous civilization that we live in, and they don’t deserve the political power they’ve inherited.