The Conservatism of Progressives

Despite having a lot of respect for the intellect and the insane eclecticism of its author Tyler Cowen, I have never read the Complacent Class.  The title really did not intrigue me, and frankly from that title probably had the wrong vision of what the book was about.  That is, until I read George Will's recent review, in which he said in part:

In 1800, McCloskey says, the world’s economy was where Bangladesh’s economy now is, with no expectation of change. Today, most of the jobs that existed just a century ago are gone. And we are delighted that this protracted disruption occurred. Now, however, the Great Enrichment is being superseded by the Great Flinch, a recoil against the frictions and uncertainties — the permanent revolution — of economic dynamism. If this continues, the consequences, from increased distributional conflicts to decreased social mobility, are going to be unpleasant.

Although America is said to be — and many Americans are — seething about economic grievances, Tyler Cowen thinks a bigger problem is complacency. In his latest book, “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream,” Cowen, professor of almost everything (economics, law, literature) at George Mason University and co-author of the Marginal Revolution blog, argues that the complacent class, although a minority, is skillful at entrenching itself in ways detrimental to the majority....

For complacent Americans, a less dynamic, growth-oriented nation seems less like an alarming prospect than a soothing promise of restfulness. In a great testimonial to capitalism’s power, “The Communist Manifesto,” Karl Marx wrote: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air.” Complacent, because comfortable, Americans have had enough of that.

Hmm, I suppose I should read it.  I don't want to judge the premise of the book from a few lines of a 3rd party review, but the themes here are strikingly similar to something I wrote 13 years ago (!) on this blog in a post titled "Progressives are too Conservative to Like Capitalism".  I still agree with much, though not all, of what I wrote there so I will pare it down a bit:

Most "progressives" (meaning those on the left to far left who prefer that term) would freak if they were called conservative, but what I mean by conservative in this context is not donate-to-Jesse-Helms capital-C Conservative but fearful of change and uncomfortable with uncertainty conservative.

OK, most of you are looking at this askance - aren't progressives always trying to overthrow the government or something?  Aren't they out starting riots at G7 talks?  The answer is yes, sure, but what motivates many of them, at least where it comes to capitalism, is a deep-seated conservatism.

Before I continue to support this argument, I must say that on a number of issues, particularly related to civil liberties and social issues, I call progressives my allies.  On social issues, progressives, like I do, generally support an individual's right to make decisions for themselves, as long as those decisions don't harm others.

However, when we move to fields such as commerce, progressives stop trusting individual decision-making.  Progressives who support the right to a person making unfettered choices in sexual partners don't trust people to make their own choice on seat belt use.  Progressives who support the right of fifteen year old girls to make decisions about abortion without parental notification do not trust these same girls later in life to make their own investment choices with their Social Security funds.  ... [this would also make a good example:  Progressives oppose school choice because they don't think the poor capable of making good education decisions]

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.

In fact, here is a sure fire test for a progressive.  If given a choice between two worlds:

  1. A capitalist society where the overall levels of wealth and technology continue to increase, though in a pattern that is dynamic, chaotic, generally unpredictable, and whose rewards are unevenly distributed, or...
  2. A "progressive" society where everyone is poorer, but income is generally more evenly distributed.  In this society, jobs and pay and industries change only very slowly, and people have good assurances that they will continue to have what they have today, with little downside but also with very little upside.

Progressives will choose #2.  Even if it means everyone is poorer.  Even if it cuts off any future improvements we might gain in technology or wealth or lifespan or whatever.  They want to take what we have today, divide it up more equally, and then live to eternity with just that.   Progressives want #2 today, and they wanted it just as much in 1900 (just think about if they had been successful -- as just one example, if you are over 44, you would have a 50/50 chance of being dead now).

Don't believe that this is what they would answer?  Well, first, this question has been asked and answered a number of times in surveys, and it always comes out this way.  Second, just look at any policy issue today.  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?

  • me

    Bit boring, as the problem is more with the label - both the left and the right are overwhelmingly conservative (in the sense of desiring to restrict others freedom to make them conform to their respective ideologies).

    There are few true Progressives in American politics, and where you find them, they are typically called Libertarians (or, more colloquially, Nutjobs - I mean, seriously, who in their right mind thinks people ought to be free to make their own decisions?!)

  • BB-Idaho

    From the progressive standpoint, IMO, the argument that high prices encourage big Pharma research runs afoul of figures that indicate Pharma spends 19 times as much on marketing/advertising as they do on research. Furthermore, figures also show that most drug basic research is by either big Gov (NIH/CDC), academia and start-ups, the latter mostly foreign. And so, new drugs end up being brought to market
    through purchasing either patent rights or small labs outright. Perhaps the most egregious drug pricing example is one Martin Shekreli, who purchased the small Turing company which made the drug Daraprim, then raised its price from $13.50 to $750 a pill. There is a limit to what the market will bear and Shekreli is behind bars. We ponder that the difference between R and L POVs is based on trust of business by the former,
    and government by the latter? Surely the last election will eliminate any trust in government by the progressives..but they won't be flocking to Wells Fargo for warmth....

  • PaulS

    This whole subject is only going to become more problematical with each passing year. The societal "we" have spent the last four centuries exploring new fundamental forces of nature, and "we" have run out of forces that have much application on less than a cosmic scale.

    400 years ago, heat began to be used as a prime mover. Technical development of engines and accessories was assisted by the 17th/18th-century government system called "patents", which created a great class of wealthy rentiers among some of the developers. Said development could often be accomplished in fairly small workshops.

    Around the time of the US Civil War, the time became ripe for electricity in a practical sense. That led to electric motors, vacuum tubes, transistors, integrated circuits, and all that follows from those things. Also, another great rentier class was created. Many devices, especially later on, could only be produced in large, carefully controlled factories.

    In the early 20th century, electricity led (slightly indirectly) to quantum mechanics and nuclear power. Many applications could only be done usefully on a gigantic scale. There are no truly small nuclear power plants, no truly small integrated-circuit fabrication lines, and so on, not in any practical sense. Application is on a huge scale.

    Meanwhile, electrical mechanization caused may other things to be done mostly on an exponentially increasing scale. We don't need hordes of musicians or theatrical players any more, for example. A performance could be mechanically reproduced (to use the copyright-law term of art) on a scale of first thousands, then millions, now billions. Creative proceeds go almost exclusively to a tiny but very rich rentier class.

    It is now the 21st century. There are no new fundamental forces of nature to explore on anything much less than a cosmic scale. Instead, we are mostly down to moving the start button to where the stop button used to be on the screen, and vice versa, and scheduling fancy "events" where that is announced as grand progress. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley never uses a hundred lines of code if the job can be done with a million, so that all that is left to do, maybe, is to make software so vast and complex that it gives the illusion (and maybe eventually the fact in some restrictive sense) of "intelligence".

    Once that happens, said software will simply replace us. There will be no useful economic role for the overwhelming majority, and maybe no such role for anyone at all. Economics as anything to do with the "humanities" will be obsolete.

    That is a rather daunting prospect, and there is no reason why anyone, except for a few grasping members of the Silicon Valley rentier class, needs to be in any hurry whatever to get there. It's a big unknown, but unlike in the past, venturing into it promises little or no useful benefit. Maybe, in the end, we will just plop everyone into an "arcology" out of a Greg Bear science-fiction story - but so what? There's no prospect in that of anything like the human usefulness of four centuries of new, useful, rapid application of freshly revealed forces of nature.

    In other words, we can stick a fork in those last few centuries. They're done. Well-done. That era played itself out starting in the 1980s. It's time for a big and unprecedented rethink. And I have absolutely no idea where said rethink could take "us". Indeed, it might even take us not just into "complacency", but into forceful neo-Luddism, unless someone can figure out some better alternative. But there is no possibility whatsoever that it will take us into a smooth continuation of the technological free-for-all, sometimes called "dynamism", of the last few centuries, because that particular vein has been mined out. There is no way to return to that past. That leaves people pretty much to pursue "security", "safety", "safe spaces", and the like, European style, for lack of attractively "exciting" - or even feasible - alternatives.

  • timworstall

    Well, yes, obviously, there's nothing as conservative a a modern day progressive, we know that. However, this is wrong:

    "In 1800, McCloskey says, the world’s economy was where Bangladesh’s economy now is, with no expectation of change."

    No, Bangladesh is currently at least twice, nearly 3 times where the global economy was in 1800. Something which if we prodded Deidrie she would agree with. 6% growth for two decades does that of course.

    The point being not that anyone *was* wrong, but that the underlying idea is right, economic growth really does make a difference.

    As my edited commentary shows:

    http://suumacroblog.blogspot.pt/2017/03/tim-worstall-visits-bangladesh.html

  • Dan Wendlick

    Shekreli just figured out how to arbitrage the premium people value of being healthy and alive over being sick or dead. Or maybe he was the first to be amoral enough to put the idea into practice. He was, however guilty of violating my Uncle's dictum: "Never do anything the cops can't ignore."

  • ErikTheRed

    The irony is that even if you can get your nation to stand still, that would only (very) hypothetically work if every other nation stood still as well - a classic prisoners' dilemma. The nations that don't stand still race ahead and become more wealthy (like the US for most of the 19th and around 2/3 of the 20th century).

    To me the underlying root is the terror of experiencing setbacks and negative outcomes in life. Free markets are essentially evolutionary algorithms run in the natural world, and evolution means that there will be dead ends, failures, and obsolescence. We all run the risk of being hit by these and no matter how good or smart we are, luck (good or bad) will sometimes be a factor. Your best bet is to understand this and go with the flow while doing your best to watch where your flow is going and adjusting when you see rapids (or waterfalls) ahead. You can fight it if you want, but in the end the markets always win because they are what moves humanity forward.

  • ErikTheRed

    You can't trust the government, and you can't necessarily trust business either. Everything will fail. The question is what corrects best and fastest? Generally, free markets do. Most "free market failures" (there really is no such thing) harped on by progressives exist in areas where markets were not free to correct themselves. If a company is making outsized profits on something, or selling cars that stab their passengers to death, or giving crappy customer service, or committing fraud, etc. that attracts competition the way blood in the water attracts sharks. If competition isn't coming, the question is "why?" In this case, it was because the FDA wouldn't allow it. Very simple.

  • Mercury

    "Conservative" and "liberal" are relative terms. It depends on what you want to conserve (Sharia law, the US constitution, the welfare state) or what types of liberties you want to promote. For that matter, what you label as "progressive" depends on what kinds of things you think constitute progress.

    But there a'int much in America left for conservatives to conserve and there a'int much liberty left in the liberal agenda.

  • Sparky Zoner

    "From the progressive standpoint, IMO, the argument that high prices encourage big Pharma research runs afoul of figures that indicate Pharma spends 19 times as much on marketing/advertising as they do on research."

    Where are you getting those numbers? Merck spent about $10b on R&D, Roche:$19b, Novartis $9b R&D and each spent about $2 billion on advertising.

    https://endpts.com/special/top-research-budgets-in-pharma-and-biotech/
    http://www.fiercepharma.com/marketing/pharma-ad-budgets-to-dip-2016-but-j-j-pfizer-roche-and-novartis-should-still-top-2b

  • BB-Idaho

    Equifax lost specific credit data on 143 million of us. The CEO had to resign and walk away
    with only $18 million in payouts. Hard pressed to find that in government

  • Mason

    the argument that high prices encourage big Pharma research runs afoul of figures that indicate Pharma spends 19 times as much on marketing/advertising as they do on research

    I just flat out don't believe this. I don't have any specific knowledge on how much big Pharma spends on one or the other, but I do know what the FDA approval process is like. There's just no way this is accurate.

  • bobby_b

    "Progressives will choose #2."

    I love this lady's retort to just that:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rv5t6rC6yvg

  • StillAnOptimist

    Your analysis is right on - A question I ask myself is why? Why is it that "progressives" fear/dislike/hate "progress"? Tough to answer - but there is visceral hatred towards humanity in general and they do not like to see people happy - particularly when people make their own decisions and are happy with those decisions ... They (regressives) cannot stand the fact that there are people who seemingly do whatever they (people) want without central control ...A somewhat tangential answer is what I found in Atlas Shrugged (and this is my own interpretation) - In the end when Galt is being tortured and the machine breaks down and Galt proposes a fix to the machine that was torturing him, Taggart wanted to use that answer, fix the machine and continue the torture - Taggart wanted Galt to die and could not imagine a person like that existing - but in reality, it was Taggart who really wanted to die (!) ... When I see the almost religious environmentalism, I see regressives stating that what they really want is to go back to when the earth had no humans whatsoever ... (I hate calling them "progressives" - they are anything but progressive (but really want to regress)

  • Todd Ramsey

    I disagree with your argument. I think Progressives believe that economic growth will continue to happen, regardless of the legal and regulatory constraints placed on society. They think the innovators and investors who drive the growth will continue to do so. They either don't understand or don't believe in incentive effects; they believe the capitalists' greed will motivate them to work just as hard as smart as they ever have. For example, CBO use of static scoring of proposed tax legislation, or arguments during the discussions over welfare reform that no mother would have a child to increase her welfare benefits. I've coined the phrase, oversimplified for catchiness, "Liberals don't believe in incentive effects".

  • ErikTheRed

    From the perspective of those affected, his staying or leaving is purely symbolic and the amount of money involved is immaterial ($0.12 per affected person). The main difference is that in government it's unlikely that anyone would lose their job.

    There are two problems that are at the root of most of the major breaches:

    1) The government created the social security ID numbering system with the explicit promise that it would never be used for anything else, and made it illegal to do so. They then ignored their own rules and allowed a nine-digit number to be the de facto security code for every American. Government fail.

    2) When breaches started occurring, government courts set the de facto liability as "free credit monitoring for a year," which at scale costs next to nothing (in Equifax's case, probably less than the $18M their CEO left with). This means that other than some short-term embarrassment, the cost of data breaches is negligible for most big businesses. If the costs were set at a sane and reasonable level then the situation would sort itself out because companies that didn't protect data would become uninsurable, unable to enter meaningful contracts, borrow money, retain shareholders, etc. A reasonable level for credit card information theft would be $250 per card to the individual and $50 per card to the issuing bank in cases where security best practices are followed (PCI standards would be a reasonable minimum here), and triple that when they are not. For PII theft (social security number, driver's license number, etc.), it should be a minimum of $5,000 per person and up to $100,000 + any restitution for money fraudulently borrowed if actual identity theft occurs. Because the government priced identity theft at around a buck or two (when it's caught, if those affected actually do something), then of course it happens all the time. Government fail.

    The other government farce is that when they do actually take action they take nearly all of the money for themselves and leave a mere pittance to those affected. Not a security breach, but when Wells Fargo employees fraudulently signed people up for services they didn't want or need, the government ordered restitution to those people totaling $5M (about $2 and change per person affected).... and kept $185M for themselves. A corporation would get crucified for that behavior, but for progressives is'a triumph of justice.

  • Zachriel

    Coyote: 1. A capitalist society where the overall levels of wealth and technology continue to increase, though in a pattern that is dynamic, chaotic, generally unpredictable, and whose rewards are unevenly distributed, or...

    2. A "progressive" society where everyone is poorer, but income is generally more evenly distributed. In this society, jobs and pay and industries change only very slowly, and people have good assurances that they will continue to have what they have today, with little downside but also with very little upside.

    False dichotomy. Progressives want wealth too, it's just that they don't see unbridled capitalism as the best way to reach the goal of providing equity in wealth.

    Coyote: That workers 30 years ago voted themselves jobs for life, but at the cost of tremendous unemployment amongst the succeeding generations?

    Ending child labor was progressive. The 40-hour workweek was progressive. Requiring banks to insure deposits was progressive. Advocating universal healthcare is progressive. Unionizing workers for better pay was progressive. Providing a modicum of income stability for families is progressive. None of these advocacies are conservative — even with the unforeseen consequences.

    It turns out that putting too many strictures on hiring and firing in an effort to provide income stability can reduce economic growth, especially in the modern economy, but that isn't the progressive goal. On the other hand, history has shown many progressive policies have been very beneficial to society, such as ending child labor, providing education for all children, bank insurance, and so on.

  • Zachriel

    Todd Ramsey: I think Progressives believe that economic growth will continue to
    happen, regardless of the legal and regulatory constraints placed on
    society.

    Certainly, there are those who ignore market incentives in their zeal to reform society, just as there are libertarians who ignore history and human nature in their zeal to unleash the market system. However, most progressives believe markets are essential for economic prosperity, just as most conservatives understand that some regulation is necessary and inevitable.

    Todd Ramsey: "Liberals don't believe in incentive effects".

    That's an oversimplification. It might be appropriate to some, especially on the far left, but certainly not for most liberals.

  • Richard Bell

    Please forgive this nit pick. My brother studied physical anthropology and he often complained about the general misunderstanding what life expectancy means.

    The assertion ". . . if you are over 44, you would have a 50/50 chance of being dead now" is ambiguous. In 1900, at birth, you would only have a 50/50 chance of living more than 44 years. If, in 1900, you were already over 44, you were likely to live the "three score and ten" that Lincoln was referring to. Practically all of the improvement in life expectancy has come not from adults living longer and longer lives, but from the number of children that stopped dying before entering adulthood.

    The turn of the century family portrayed in the TV series "The Walton's" is not unusual for having four living grandparents, but for having none of the children die during the run of the series. When the human life expectancy was only 35 years, anyone who managed to still be alive was as likely to reach the age of 100 as any of us.

    I forget when the tragic situation of most children dying before adolescence came to an end, but the first evidence of a decrease in child mortality came from people naming pre-adolescent children in their wills.

  • Zachriel
  • Noumenon72

    This confirms his point, if you are reading it correctly.

  • Zachriel

    Noumenon72: This confirms his point, if you are reading it correctly.

    Largely so. Most gains, but not all, have been due to a reduction in childhood mortality. However, more recently, gains in older groups are of comparable importance.