November 6, 2004

On the Word "Progressive"

Whenever I hear the word "progressive" in today's political discource, it makes me grind my teeth.

I have a dim memory of the 1948 Presidential campaign in the U.S. The Communist Party and various innocents and fellow travelers ran former Vice President Henry Wallace for President. The segregationists ran Strom Thurmond in the same campaign, which Harry Truman surprised the pundits by winning.

The CP christened their puppet party the "Progressive Party." It survived a couple of elections. I remember one of the Hallinans from San Francisco running one year.

The term "Progressive" had two connotations. The first was a spurious identification with an earlier "Progressive" movement of Bob LaFollette, to make the puppet party seem to come out of an indigenous American tradition. The second was a view, part of Marxism and other social theories, that there was an upward movement in history, from savagery to barbarism to slave empires to feudalism to capitalism, culminating in a socialist revolution and communist utopia. Others, not Marxists, also believed that on one measurement or another, there was an upward progress to history.

By some measures, mostly material, there has been upward movement. Vaccination, clean water, and electricity make life easier for millions compared even to 150 years ago. Technology, of course, has also made possible the realization of mass oppression and murder on an unprecedented scale, and arguably has led to the destruction of community, folk traditions, and other good things in the name of a commerciial mess of over-salted, aritificially-flavored pottage.

The concept of progress in human institutions thus is open to question. There are more slaves today than 100 years ago. Piracy has been revived, especially in Southeast Asia. Despite the vows of "Never again!" genocidal episodes break out with alarming frequency. Proving Bertrand Russell's point that suffering does not improve character, the grandchildren of the Holocaust, however great the provocation, have made no "progress" in their dealings with the Palestinians, who are even more enamored of futile violence against the innocent.

In my youth, I became acquainted with the work of Russell Kirk, the conservative scholar. Kirk reasoned that there were certain constants in human nature, one of which was a perversity and inclination to evil that Christians call "Original Sin." Once we recognize this black hole in the heart of man, we realize that the notion of human perfectibiity through better legislation or education or nutrition will inevitably be tainted by the evil at the heart of man, and come a cropper. Better, therefore, to stick with institutions and habits that have grown up over time, recognizing that they need to change over time, but an effort to change them radically based on ideas born of human reason is almost doomed to tragedy.

Hayek, the libertarian Austrian economist, came to a similar conclusion through economic reasoning. The information necessary to plan a modern economy effectively does not exist, and control from the top leads inevitably to systematic distortion of what information the planners receive. Moreover, even if the techniques of centralized planning existed, the choices to be made would not be self-evident, leading inevitably to a political, and possibly violent struggle over what direction planning is to take.

In short, as Lord Acton put it, "Power corrupts, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely."

The upshot of all this, to me, is that those who claim the title of "progressive" may be disguised sympathizers of revolutionary socialism, or at least of a class-based view of politics. In any of these cases, they are hiding their true beliefs; or at a minimum, they are believers in the possibility of perfecting human society through government policy, which is a dangerous business usually ending in systematic oppression and mass death.

"Progressive" also has a slightly out-of-date feel to it.

"Progressives" think too highly of themselves just to say they are left of center, or advocate certain reforms. No, they have a world view. They march in step with the footfalls of history.

The ranting maniacs who dominate Pacifica Radio, the true believers on the Nation magazine, the wearers of Birkenstocks, the shrillest of the feminists. These are the "progressives," and so shall they remain, as history, with its unpredictable rises and falls, twists and turns, leaves them by some roadside, ranting and shaking their fists at a world deaf to their wisdom and blind to the beauty of their ideals.

Or so it seems to me.

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