What’s Left For Regressives?

Flush from the gay rights victory at the Supreme Court, “progressives” are now wondering what’s left for the progressive movement. Writing in Slate magazine, for example, Barry Friedman and Dahlia Lithwick offer up a laundry list of progressive causes that they be-lieve all good progressives should pursue, now that the gay rights battle is over.

The list includes free child care for all, more spending on education, more immigration (i.e., creation of more Democratic voters), less security to combat terrorism, fewer prisons, greater economic equality, a war on carbon, freedom to smoke dope, more affirmative action (perhaps to continue forever), women’s rights (but only in the U.S  – not for women in regions controlled by real misogynists), and continued central control over voting.

F&L see progressivism as part of a forward-thinking agenda that attracts sensible people across party lines. For them, progressivism is:

just the idea that working together, often with and through government, we can make the world a better place.

It all sounds so simple and wonderful – who could possibly disagree? Yet if we unpack this definition, we find that it’s deceptive on several levels:  it not only misrepresents those who disagree with the progressive agenda, but also progressivism itself. F&L’s definition helps us see what’s wrong with the progressive movement and liberal thinking.

First, the phrase “often with and through government” implies that progressives don’t necessarily see government as the solution for everything. This is patently false. For progressives, it’s not a matter of often with respect to government – it’s a matter of always. And it’s not just government in general that mesmerizes progressives, but rather centralized government that places 315 million citizens firmly under the thumb of a single authority.

Second, F&L imply that only progressives are open to “working together” to make the world a better place. This is hardly novel – the implication recycles the same straw man that Elizabeth Warren and President Obama knocked down (“you didn’t build that”) last year to misrepresent and mock those who believe in individual initiative and success. In the real world, everybody knows that we act collectively all the time (that’s what it means to live in a society) and that we accomplish great things through collective action.

Third, F&L misrepresents those who oppose their big government agenda in yet another way:  by implying that only progressives seek to make “the world a better place.” And just as everybody understands that we act collectively all the time, everybody also wants to see a better world. Which is to say a society and economy that generates the greatest prosperity for the greatest number of people.

The real difference between progressives and their opponents is the question of how best to organize collective activity to achieve widespread prosperity. And history, not to mention economic theory, has proven that societies in which power is decentralized, e.g., based on markets, competition, and federalism, always outperform societies that concentrate power in a central authority. This is one of the most fundamental facts of social life.

Genuine progress would mean reform that creates more competitive markets (e.g., in healthcare) and encourages self-government by restricting the power of the central authority to issues that are truly national in scope, leaving local matters to the states. Unfortunately, F&L’s laundry list leans toward greater centralization of government (except in the case of smoking dope – perhaps because local rule would give them their desired result faster) and more government spending.

F&L’s call for more centralized government control and spending is effectively a call for stagnation and decline. By rejecting policies to increase competition and federalism, they are not working to make the world a “better place” that they claim progressivism is about. Because F&L are really looking backward, maybe the question should be:  what’s left for regressives?

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