Well, it worked for Johnny Carson, why not for me? Instead of
leaving you with dead air (photons?) while I am knocking the rust off
my beer pong skills back at Princeton, I will share with you a few of
my favorite posts from my early days of blogging. Since most of these
posts were viewed by about 5 people, there is a certain temptation to
just recycle them without attribution, given the unlikelihood of
getting caught. Instead, though, I will share them as my best of
post was also from early December, and was my first step in writing about the roots of modern statism. The post is called "progressives are too conservative to like capitalism".
Many in the left to far-left eschew the liberal title nowadays
(since they consider liberals now to be wimps and too moderate, like
that Clinton guy) in favor of the term "progressive". This term has
gone in and out of favor for over a century, from the populists of the
early 1900's to the socialists of the more modern era.
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
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. And, Progressives who support the right of third
worlders to strap on a backpack of TNT and explode themselves in the
public market don't trust these same third worlders to make the right
decision in choosing to work in the local Nike shoe plant.
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
In fact, here is a sure fire test for a progressive. If given a choice between two worlds:
- 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
- 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
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
More recently, progressives have turned their economic attention to
lesser developed nations. Progressives go nuts on the topic of
Globalization. Without tight security, G7 and IMF conferences have and
would devolve into riots and destruction at the hands of progressives,
as happened famously in Seattle. Analyzing the Globalization movement
is a bit hard, as rational discourse is not always a huge part of the
"scene", and what is said is not always logical or internally
consistent. The one thing I can make of this is that progressives
intensely dislike the change that is occurring rapidly in
third world economies, particularly since these changes are often
driven by commerce and capitalists.
Progressives do not like American factories appearing in third world
countries, paying locals wages progressives feel are too low, and
disrupting agrarian economies with which progressives were more
comfortable. But these changes are all the sum of actions by
individuals, so it is illustrative to think about what is going on in
these countries at the individual level.
One morning, a rice farmer in southeast Asia might faces a choice.
He can continue a life of brutal, back-breaking labor from dawn to dusk
for what is essentially subsistence earnings. He can continue to see a
large number of his children die young from malnutrition and disease.
He can continue a lifestyle so static, so devoid of opportunity for
advancement, that it is nearly identical to the life led by his
ancestors in the same spot a thousand years ago.
Or, he can go to the local Nike factory, work long hours (but
certainly no longer than he worked in the field) for low pay (but
certainly more than he was making subsistence farming) and take a shot
at changing his life. And you know what, many men (and women) in his
position choose the Nike factory. And progressives hate this. They
distrust this choice. They distrust the change. And, at its heart,
that is what globalization is all about - a deep seated conservatism
that distrusts the decision-making of individuals and fears change,
change that ironically might finally pull people out of untold
generations of utter poverty.
In fact, over the last 20 or so years, progressives have become
surprisingly mute on repression and totalitarianism the world over. In
the 1970's, progressives criticized the US (rightly, I think) for not
doing more to challenge the totalitarian impulses of its allies (the
Shah of Iran comes to mind in particular) and not doing enough to end
totalitarianism and repression in other nations (e.g. South Africa,
Guatemala, El Salvador, etc etc)
Today, progressives have become oddly conservative about challenging
totalitarian nations. By embracing the "peace at any cost" mantra,
they have essentially said that they can live with anything, reconcile
anything, as long as things remain nominally peaceful (ie, no battles
show up on the network news). Beyond just a strong anti-Americanism,
the peace movement today reflects a strong conservatism -- they want to
just leave everyone alone, no matter how horrible or repressive, and
hope that they will in turn leave us alone. They fear any change that
would stir things up.
There are any number of other examples of the strong conservative
streak in the progressive movement. Here are a few more that come to
- Despite at least 40 years of failure in the public schools,
progressives vociferously oppose any radical changes to the public
education system. In particular, they resist any program involving
school choice, as they are totally condescending in their utter lack of
faith in the average parent's ability to make the right choice for
- Progressives refuse to even consider the possibility that
individuals should be trusted to make their own decisions regarding
some portion of their Social Security retirement funds. They can couch
their opposition in a lot of fear talk about benefit cuts, but at the
end of the day (and take this from someone who has had this argument
with numerous liberals and progressives) the argument always boils
down to "we don't trust people to make investment decisions that are as
good as the ones we would make for them".
Well, I have again written too long, and I'm tired. If you are not
ready to rush to defend the barricades of capitalism, you might read my
post from last week called "60 Second Refutation of Socialism, while Sitting at the Beach". Most of what I have written here has been said far more eloquently by others. Of recent writers, Virginia Postrel, in the Future and its Enemies,
has written a whole book on not just capitalism but dynamism and
progress in general, and why people of all political persuasions tend
to be scared by it. Brink Lindsey addressed many of these same issues
as well in his book Against the Dead Hand. Of course, the Godfather of individual choice and societal dynamism is Friedrich Hayek.
As a final note, my ultimate statement on this topic is here, called Respecting Individual Decision-Making.