Blast from the Past

I have not reread this little classic article from 9 years ago, until a customer in California found it and complained that it was outrageous that the state would actually allow such a person as its author to operate anything in a state park.  So I suppose it is worth relinking, if just for that reason.  Most of it holds up pretty well, though I regret the jab implying that progressives supported suicide bombers.  Here is an example:

Beyond just the concept of individual decision-making, progressives are hugely uncomfortable with capitalism.  Ironically, though progressives want to posture as being "dynamic", the fact is that capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them.  Industries rise and fall, jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms.  Progressives want comfort and certainty.  They want to lock things down the way they are. They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and next decade, and will always pay at least X amount.  That is why, in the end, progressives are all statists, because, to paraphrase Hayek, only a government with totalitarian powers can bring the order and certainty and control of individual decision-making that they crave.

Progressive elements in this country have always tried to freeze commerce, to lock this country's economy down in its then-current patterns.  Progressives in the late 19th century were terrified the American economy was shifting from agriculture to industry.  They wanted to stop this, to cement in place patterns where 80-90% of Americans worked on farms.  I, for one, am glad they failed, since for all of the soft glow we have in this country around our description of the family farmer, farming was and can still be a brutal, dawn to dusk endeavor that never really rewards the work people put into it.

This story of progressives trying to stop history has continued to repeat itself through the generations.  In the seventies and eighties, progressives tried to maintain the traditional dominance of heavy industry like steel and automotive, and to prevent the shift of these industries overseas in favor of more service-oriented industries.  Just like the passing of agriculture to industry a century ago inflamed progressives, so too does the current passing of heavy industry to services....

Take prescription drugs in the US - isn't it pretty clear that the progressive position is that they would be willing to pretty much gut incentives for any future drug innovations in trade for having a system in place that guaranteed everyone minimum access to what exists today?  Or take the welfare state in Continental Europe -- isn't it clear that a generation of workers/voters chose certainty over growth and improvement?  That workers 30 years ago voted themselves jobs for life, but at the cost of tremendous unemployment amongst the succeeding generations?

  • oneteam

    You could read this 20 years from now and it'll be just as true. The degree to which their statist policies are successful depends on how successful conservatives are in defeating them in the interim.

  • rxc

    And the way that they have been successful is by corrupting the language we use to talk to one another. Starting with their own, self-given name "progressive". It is a word that evokes visions of a better future, but instead really means keeping the status quo, maybe with a little bit of re-distribution to make everything more "equal".

    And, it really is a conspiracy, but one that is conducted in the open. They have captured the educational system, the communications system, much of the bureaucracy, and the medical system, and all of these organs constantly talk about their progressive vision of the future, and what needs to be changed to implement it. If it wasn't for Mr. Gore's invention of the internet, no one would realize what is going on.

    Unfortunately, the majority of the populace does not realize what is happening, and/or doesn't care, as long as they aren't inconvenienced too much. Till it all starts to collapse - eg, California or Detroit or socialist Europe. But the progressives will just figure out how to share the wealth a bit better, to pull California and Detroit and the PIIGS back into the nurturing comfort of the community.

    Moving forward.....

  • Joshua Vanderberg

    This paints things too much as black and white. I agree with the general premise, but I think there is a broad spectrum of resistance to change, in both parties. In the economic realm, progressives will resist change when it hurts people who've made progress and were improving their lives. Conservatives will resist change when it hurts vested industrial/financial interests. Oddly sometimes those interests coincide, like in the post crash bailouts and quantitative easing that continues to this day. We've preserved a system that's horribly broken, progressives because they don't want people to loose their homes, and conservatives because they don't want the financial engine of the current economy to collapse.

    Further, I don't know that progressives are wrong, or that conservatives are right. There is no proof that unfettered economic change will be usher in an economic tide that lifts all boats. And who's to say that our current level of prosperity is not due in part to those who worked to slow down and control the rate of change.

    Looking forward to the future, as technology makes more and more human capabilities redundant, I find it hard to imagine that market forces alone are going to take care of those who've got absolutely no skills not replicated by a computer or machine. I do think that part of the answer is to deregulate small business and allow those who are left out in the cold to come up with new ways of making a living, perhaps ways that we can't even imagine today. But part of the answer as well is to make sure that change happens at a slow enough rate that people can adapt.

  • Sam L.

    I don't know that progressives are wrong, but from what I've seen of them, that's the way I'd bet. And I'm pretty sure they'd want to keep me from betting that way.

  • James

    Joshua said: "But part of the answer as well is to make sure that change happens at a slow enough rate that people can adapt."

    This is not possible, you can try to hold back innovation in the US, but other countries that want to grow faster will not be bound by policies to slow change. I think that trying to slow the rate of change would have the opposite effect, more and more business would shift away from the places that limited change, which would hasten their decline into poverty. Besides, who could really know what the correct rate would be to allow people to adapt? Even if this could be known, why would we believe that anyone with the power to limit the speed of change would do so in a way that benefitted the population rather than their own political careers and goals?

  • Joshua Vanderberg

    I will give you a for-instance. I am lead developer of a software project which is written in a language that's getting long in the tooth. Support is now non-existent, but I've got a lot invested in this particular programming language. Should I drop everything now and spend the next year recoding it in something new? Maybe, but it would be ruinously expensive, and I might have to code it again in a few years because all the alternatives right now are change very very quickly.

    Do I resist the change because I simply don't want to learn something new? Sure. But I also resist the change because it will require me to throw away something that has cost a lot to build. Something that's been honed and debugged by hundreds of thousands of hours of usage and works very, very well. So I consciously limit the speed of change - I might end up going too slow, and some young upstart could eat my lunch in a few years with a much better product based on HTML10. Or I might go too fast and end up spending lots of money on unproven technology that doesn't work and ruin our company putting dozens of people out of work.

    So, might you agree that there is a middle ground, a pace that balances preservation of the investments of the past, with the increased productivity of newer technology?

  • NL7

    Not missing the irony that somebody accused of wanting control reacts with concern that you have not been sufficiently controlled.

    I'm definitely in a profession where libertarianism is valuable to my actual job softening the brunt of government but would rankle some customers. That's why I'm surprised you don't blog anonymously.