Progressives and Capitalism

My Forbes post this week is on progressives and capitalism:

Progressives are often as overwhelmed by the world economy as primitive man was by his natural environment.  Just as the primitive man was confused by and fearful of storms and earthquakes and drought and disease, progressives are befuddled by the rise and fall of industries, booms and recessions, wealth and poverty.  And just as primitive men invented gods and myths to help bring order and a sense of controllability to events they didn't understand, progressives create governments in the hopes of imposing top-down order on a chaotic economy....

The children of the 1960's had a number of catch phrases, among them "power to the people."  The irony is that no system in history has ever empowered individuals as much as has capitalism.  Capitalism is the only way to organize economic activity without the use of force, the only approach that does not require that a few human beings be given power over us to guide our activity from above.  This results in an order that is emergent and bottom-up, as beautiful in its complexity as anything in nature.  And, and order that is as terrifying to progressives as nature was to primitive man.  As a result, progressives would trade it all away, would accept a master, would accept impoverishment and stagnation, in order to attain predictability.

I am sure, if asked, most  progressives would profess to desire iPod's and cures for cancer.  But they want these without the incentives that drive men to invent them, and the disruption to current markets and competitors and employees that their introduction entails.  They want to end poverty without wealth creation, they want jobs without employers, they want cars without unemployment for buggy whip makers.  When it comes to actual, real-world legislation, progressives will nearly always embrace predictability and egalitarianism over innovation and growth.

  • davidcobb

    You, like many people, confuse Capitalism with free enterprise. Capitalism is only a componet of free enterprise. In a purly Capitalist society, the man who invented something everybody wants and worked long hours to bring it to market would make a million dollars and the banker who was lucky enough to be the one he blew for seed money would make a billion. Leaving the inventor few resources to pay the people who build the thing. This is the boogeyman the progressives use to enslave the people.

  • Mary Ritenour

    Beautifully written piece. It clearly identifies the miasma of fear that so many young adults have in their often heated discussions with me. These are young adults that prefer political action to market action because they "feel powerless" in the market; to quote one of them: "Limiting the power of government won't make anything better, it will just empower the market to screw you more. At least with government I have some say in what goes on." Fear, indeed, of facing the reality of the market and of not measuring up.

    Many gold stars for you on this one!

  • IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society

    More annoying still is the progressive/liberal certainty that THEY, and THEY ALONE are the holders of the CORRECT answers, failing utterly to grasp that they have NONE of the answers.

    "Fools say that they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by other's experience."
    - Bismarck -

    Wisdom is what you learn from experience, as opposed to "book learning". It is a distinctly different type of intelligence, and it's easy to have one or both or neither.

    I put it to you that prog/libs, were there a "Wisdom Quotient" test to compare to "Intelligence Quotient", would probably often rank in the top half of the IQ curve, but in the sub-2 standard deviations of the WQ curve -- prog/libs NEVER learn from their mistakes. Hence their endless support for communism and socialism, despite it having probably the MOST abysmal track record of ANY governmental system -- it virtually ALWAYS devolves to repression, diktat, and/or poverty.

    The arrogance of the unwise in their total lack of wisdom knows no bounds.

    Truman himself saw it:

    "Professional liberals are too arrogant to compromise. In my experience,
    they were also very unpleasant people on a personal level. Behind their
    slogans about saving the world and sharing the wealth with the common man
    lurked a nasty hunger for power. They'd double-cross their own mothers
    to get it or keep it."

    - Harry S Truman, pp. 55, American Heritage 7/8 1992, from a 1970 interview --

  • Hrmmmm...

    More annoying still is the progressive/liberal certainty that THEY, and THEY ALONE are the holders of the CORRECT answers, failing utterly to grasp that they have NONE of the answers.

    "Fools say that they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by other's experience."
    - Bismarck -

    Wisdom is what you learn from experience, as opposed to "book learning". It is a distinctly different type of intelligence, and it's easy to have one or both or neither.

    I put it to you that prog/libs, were there a "Wisdom Quotient" test to compare to "Intelligence Quotient", would probably often rank in the top half of the IQ curve, but in the sub-2 standard deviations of the WQ curve -- prog/libs NEVER learn from their mistakes. Hence their endless support for communism and socialism, despite it having probably the MOST abysmal track record of ANY governmental system -- it virtually ALWAYS devolves to repression, diktat, and/or poverty.

    The arrogance of the unwise in their total lack of wisdom knows no bounds.

    Truman himself saw it:

    "Professional liberals are too arrogant to compromise. In my experience,
    they were also very unpleasant people on a personal level. Behind their
    slogans about saving the world and sharing the wealth with the common man
    lurked a nasty hunger for power. They'd double-cross their own mothers
    to get it or keep it."

    - Harry S Truman, pp. 55, American Heritage 7/8 1992, from a 1970 interview --

  • alanstorm

    "Capitalism is the only way to organize economic activity without the use of force, the only approach that does not require that a few human beings be given power over us to guide our activity from above. This results in an order that is emergent and bottom-up, as beautiful in its complexity as anything in nature."

    Yes. "progressives" are Newtonian thinkers - they still believe that it is possible to have sufficient information available to the chosen few (themselves, of course) such that they can predict and control events from now to eternity.

    Reality is more quantum-mechanical, but they still haven't grasped this concept.

  • Mesa Econoguy

    And embedded within the progressive delusion is their baseless and inaccurate belief in collective action, versus individual action.

    Progressives paradoxically (and smugly) profess a superior desire for equality and "fairness" whilst driving social institutions to collective tyranny and control, the opposite of what they think they're creating...

  • John Moore

    Outstanding!

  • commieBob

    You're not entirely wrong. You're not entirely right either. In any event, no doctrinaire approach is guaranteed to work in the long term. For any example of one system working, I will easily find a counter-example.

    The only thing that will keep a society working in the long term is the desire of the people to keep it working. A true laissez-faire capitalist society will fail in that regard just as much as a totalitarian communist one will.

    The one thing where most right-wingers err badly is their seemingly religious faith that the only thing that motivates people is monetary incentive. Some economists think that. Almost no expert on human behavior agrees. It is just as much a scam as AGW.

  • http://AReasonableMan.com/ Gil

    Great article.

    But there's a typo ("and" instead of "an"): "And, and order that is as terrifying to progressives as nature was to primitive man."

  • Gil (2)

    "they"

    It's obvious now Libertarian-types are using the "Progressive" as a catch-all word to mean whatever they want it to mean. You could easily complain when someone believe roads being by taxes. "What! How dare you thieve from me when the free market would build roads twice as good and for half the price!"

  • http://commonsenseliberty.com Terry Noel

    OUTSTANDING post. One of the best expressions of the fallacy of magical thinking I have ever seen.

    Terry

  • Mark

    Reminds me of the SNL skit Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.

    I'm just a caveman, your world frightens and confuses me.

    http://video.yahoo.com/watch/3388136/9476695

    This predates the Geico cavemen by over a decade.

  • DJB

    "The only thing that will keep a society working in the long term is the desire of the people to keep it working. A true laissez-faire capitalist society will fail in that regard just as much as a totalitarian communist one will. "

    I reads like you think free-market capitalism wont work because of the the desire of progressives and other totalitarian minded groups wont have a desire to keep it working.

    You’re not entirely wrong. You’re not entirely right either. You are good at circular reasoning though.

  • Jeff Graham

    Virginia Postrel makes much the same argument in "The Future and its Enemies".

    From her website: dynamist.com - In The Future and Its Enemies, Virginia Postrel explodes this myth, embarking on a bold exploration of how progress really occurs. In areas of endeavor ranging from fashion to fisheries, from movies to medicine, from contact lenses to computers, she shows how and why unplanned, open-ended trial and error - not conformity to one central vision - is the key to human betterment. Thus, the true enemies of humanity's future are those who insist on prescribing outcomes in advance, circumventing the process of competition and experiment in favor of their own preconceptions and prejudices.

    Postrel argues that these conflicting views of progress, rather than the traditional left and right, increasingly define our political and cultural debate. On one side, she identifies a collection of strange bedfellows: Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader standing shoulder to shoulder against international trade; "right-wing" nativists and "left-wing" environmentalists opposing immigration; traditionalists and technocrats denouncing Wal-Mart, biotechnology, the Internet, and suburban "sprawl." Some prefer a pre-industrial past, while others envision a bureaucratically engineered future, but all share a devotion to what she calls "stasis," a controlled, uniform society that changes only with permission from some central authority.

    On the other side is an emerging coalition in support of what Postrel calls "dynamism": an open-ended society where creativity and enterprise, operating under predictable rules, generate progress in unpredictable ways. Dynamists are united not by a single political agenda but by an appreciation for such complex evolutionary processes as scientific inquiry, market competition, artistic development, and technological invention. Entrepreneurs and artists, scientists and legal theorists, cultural analysts and computer programmers, dynamists are, says Postrel, "the party of life."

  • commieBob

    DJB:

    Any society can become corrupt and cease to work for the benefit of its citizens. The citizens figure out that they are being screwed and become apathetic. Things fall apart. Empires fall.

    My favorite Polish joke from the communist era: "They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work." Once everyone starts taking that attitude, the economy slowly crumbles.

    I think the Tea Partiers have figured out that we are equally badly served by both the Democrats and the Republicans. I'm hoping they can get some kind of renewal happening because otherwise I fear for the future of America.

  • Greg2213

    commieBob:

    "I think the Tea Partiers have figured out that we are equally badly served by both the Democrats and the Republicans. I’m hoping they can get some kind of renewal happening because otherwise I fear for the future of America."

    Well, the R's have shown themselves to be pretty bad, but the D's have shown themselves to be far worse. As I keep telling my long time Republican wife... kick the Dems out and keep those Tea Party guns trained on the Republicans. Then we have a chance of coming out of this and moving on to better times.

    As far as the original topic - I think that Progressives (and a lot of people) are enamored with Theory over the the messy real world. They will say "Real Communism hasn't been tried yet!" In much the same way the CAGW crowd loves their models over the messy and inconvenient real data. Theory is clean and neat and tidy and explains everything. Reality is sloppy, full of "gotchas," and frequently doesn't agree with theory.

    Being able to keep the fruits of one's labor may not be the only motivator, but it's a very big one. It may not be the perfect situation, but to heavily paraphrase Mr. Twain, "Capitalism is the worst economic system ever devised, with the exception of everything else."

  • http://rememberwhattheysaid.com Maurilius

    Excellent piece.

    I'd say the deadly cocktail is this "progressive conservatism" combined with a disbelief in incentives. Probably if you asked, the progressive would say we'd still get iPods because people don't create things just for money, but for the satisfaction of creating a thing, as Obama explained that increasing taxes on charitable donations would not reduce charitable donations.

  • Val

    "The one thing where most right-wingers err badly is their seemingly religious faith that the only thing that motivates people is monetary incentive."

    The only reason you could possibly state that as if it meant something is that you do not understand what 'monetary incentive' is. In fact, whenever I hear that same old saw 'money is the root of all evil', or the meme that greedy capitalists are only after money and therefore they, and by extension money, are evil, I seeing a glaring ignorance of what money is.

    It should be added that the only predictability that is gained in economies centrally planned enough to be truly socialist or communist is that of knowing that no matter what you do, the special interests and political connected types will smash you down. Therefore not doing anything except to live on a life barely worth living, plodding through the mire, and drawing no attention to yourself from the superiors, is the only way you can be certain of (predict) survival for you or your family. Pretty bleak picture and sounds kind of extreme, but history provides us with the view that it inevitably happens that way. Every. Single. Time.

    I always wondered how the progressives think that 'sticking it to the man' really works out in the mid to long run... I can certainly understand and share in the desire to see Madoff and Enron types get their just desserts (not to mention the much smarter and well placed ones that are not being caught), but they believe that by passing more laws and expanding government control, will give them the ability to control those types or at least their behavior. The problem is that those types, super type A highly motivated and intelligent sociopaths, denied the ability to affect their dreams and desires in the market place, will instead move into government and then wield the coercive power of law. In the end, the more central planning, the more raw power you give to them. It's not like we don't see that happening already enough to get the idea. So I say less planning = less ability to gain control = less incentive.

    "The myth of socialism will continue to have power, despite the various failures of socialist experiments, so long as there are revolutionaries who are unwilling to relinquish their great myth."
    -Georges Sorel

  • WhiteSnow

    The children of the '60s grew up & joined the government & also became teachers to poison our children.

    Need to read a new book of those that are ready to take a stand against tyranny. It's a great read & recommend it.
    http://www.booksbyoliver.com

    Good article for Sunday morning! Thanks!

  • rxc

    It is compassion that drives the "progressives". They absolutely hate anything that creates a loser, and the free market system is designed to separate out the winners from the losers. Losers are inevitable, and in the progressive narrative, this is unacceptable - everything must be done to eliminate, if possible, losers, or at least mitigate their loss. These people are suffering, and something must be done about them(both the losers and the progressives).

    Guilt and compassion are the drivers here.

  • LoneSnark

    The free market system does produce losers in the short-term, but in the long-term we are all fat, happy, and cared for winners. Sure, my buggy-whip employer went bust, but I am much preferring my job as a car-salesman.

  • rxc

    I mentioned guilt at the end of my last comment, and I think it is an important but you also need to add the “scientific” angle to get the complete picture. Progressives absolutely hate to see people suffering, for whatever reason. In this regard, they are like Christianity, which teaches that those who suffer will ultimately be rewarded in Heaven, if only they believe now in the power of Christ. Progressivism arose in the 19th century, when many scientific advances were being made, and lots of improvements to human life came from science and engineering (think about sewers and the discovery of the role of bacteria and viruses in disease). The social studies people thought they should get in on this, so we have people like Marx inventing a “scientific” way of ordering society, so as to reduce and ultimately eliminate suffering by having everyone work together for the common good. Progressives take pseudo-scientific “analyses” of social ills, and use them to develop solutions that aim to eliminate or mitigate the suffering of people at the bottom of the social ladder. The prohibitionists argued that demon liquor was the cause of much suffering because of alcohol abuse and its effect on families, and they eventually convinced enough people that the great experiment was tried, and we all know how it turned out. Similar arguments led to the war on drugs, and now the war on obesity and processed, non-organic food. I think that the guilt part is relatively recent, but it is useful, because it allows progressives to push people to stop doing a lot of things that they cannot demonstrate are actually harmful – much of the environmental movement is all about guilt that some people feel for the original sin of technology. They don’t want to think about the positive aspects, only the down-side, and thus we get the argument that carbon, the backbone of life on the planet, is somehow a demon element.

    Compassion, guilt, and pseudo-scientific analyses. Combine them in various proportions and you can find the basis for most, if not all, of the progressive agenda.