Understanding the Progressive Mind
William L. Anderson
by William L. Anderson: Progressives,
Guns, and the Assault on Truth
With the recent
re-election of Barack Obama and the overall resurgence of the left
wing of the Democratic Party, Progressives must be thinking that
E.J. Dionne was correct when he wrote They
Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political
Era nearly 20 years ago. With the Obama administration about
to force a huge increase in taxes and government spending (the "Fiscal
Cliff" being a sick joke), and with government agencies increasing
their domination of ordinary American life, Progressives are in
the driver’s seat and as Identity Politics is the dominant political
movement, it looks as though we will see a rerun of the 1960s when
Democratic Progressives ratcheted up the Welfare/Warfare State.
As the misnamed
"Fiscal Cliff" approaches, perhaps we need to better understand
the mentality that is driving legislators to this point. On one
side, there are the Democratic Progressives, and on the other side
are the Republican Progressives, and if we are to make sense of
why Congress is at this point, we should know that the people involved
in this sorry affair have a way of thinking that is foreign to most
regular LRC readers.
What I do in
this article is to outline the thinking that Progressives on the
Left have regarding various subjects and explain why Libertarian
solutions to the problem gain no traction whatsoever with them.
Readers won’t feel any better after having read this piece, but
perhaps they will better understand why we are in this situation,
and why the conventional legislative process cannot work. (Space
does not permit me also to take a hard look at Progressives on the
Right, something I will do in a future article.)
Most of us
work and function in a world that is utterly hostile to Libertarian
thinking. For example, I teach at a relatively small state university
(about 5,000 students) and have come to know many students and faculty
members where I work, and like the vast majority of college and
university faculties, ours is almost uniformly Progressive in voting
that point when I took the job and always keep in mind that when
I engage fellow faculty members, I am engaging someone who generally
subscribes to a way of thinking that holds to the primacy of the
State. These people do not regard the State as do I; instead of
seeing government as an entity that abuses people, confiscates their
wealth and then wastes it upon those who are politically-connected,
they see the State as a near-mystical organization that when in
the hands of Democrats performs miracles and creates Good Things.
as they see it, is not limiting the State. No, they believe that
anyone who might want to limit State power is borderline mentally
ill and is driven by evil intentions. They might interact with people
on the "outside" of Progressivism, but they have no respect
for them, nor do they wish even to understand any other point of
view. There IS no other viewpoint, period.
see the constant growth of the State and are alarmed. Progressives,
on the other hand, see growth of government as a triumph, the continuation
of a necessary process that liberates us from the shackles imposed
by private enterprise and by entities like religion, social mores,
and the like. Furthermore, any attempt to limit or to cut back growth
of the State is seen as an assault upon Progress Itself, for only
a strong and unlimited monopoly of State power can save us from
private monopolies that would enslave us.
One can see
that in the response that Progressives of the Right and Left had
toward the Ron Paul candidacy for the Republican nomination for
President of the United States. Whereas conservative Progressives
would say something like, "I like Ron Paul’s domestic ideas
but am against his foreign policy," the Left Progressives I
encountered simply hated Dr. Paul altogether, for he wished to abolish
those very things that Progressives believe to be the hallmark of
in an email exchange I had with Clay Bennett, the Progressive political
cartoonist for the Progressive Chattanooga Times, he was
adamant that Ron was evil because he wanted to limit government
spending for domestic purposes. In fact, Bennett intoned, he
even is against the Federal Reserve System. To a Progressive
like Bennett, the very existence of the Fed (created during the
Progressive Era of the early 20th Century) was proof
of its importance, and Bennett would not permit any other viewpoint
to cloud his thinking.
Like most Progressives
I know, Bennett believes that when the State regulates economic
exchanges, transfers wealth from those who do not "need"
it to those who do, it is doing good. If it were not for State Power,
he and others believe, no one but the rich would be able to read
and write, no one but the rich would have access to medical care,
and no one but the rich would be able to live anything outside of
a grim, menial existence. The State and only the State protects
us from Capitalist Predators that seek to alter our climate, deprive
us of life, and oppress us in every fasion.
(In a cartoon
in 2012, Bennett drew a picture of the "Libertarian Lifeguard"
who was sitting on his chair and gazing out over all of the drowned
people. The message was clear: Libertarians want everyone to die
and would refuse even to lend a helping finger to a drowning person,
much less a helping hand to anyone in need.)
and the Supernatural Powers of Government
Now, I am not
trying to engage in armchair psychoanalysis but rather am explaining
the state of Progressivist thinking, and perhaps the best example
I can give is a recent conversation I had with a fellow faculty
member where I teach. He and I were talking about the Bush-Gore
campaign and he said, quite seriously, "If Gore had won, we
would not have had Hurricane Katrina because he would have stopped
Yes, the guy
was serious, dead serious. He believed that government authority
given to the Environmental Protection Agency from an environmentalist
president would have immediately changed the entire weather patterns
of the Western Hemisphere and ended hurricanes.
to being stunned by this naiveté, but nonetheless it helps
provide a very useful example that I have been able to use in better
examining the Progressive mind. One must remember that this person
was and is an intelligent man, a Ph.D., and a very good teacher.
He hardly is a zombie and I like him and have a high opinion of
him, so I am not writing this to belittle a friend in any way. I’m
just stating what he believes.
A lot of Progressives
are like this. They really believe in the power of the state.
They really believe that the application of state power,
complete with coercion, threats, and even killing can work major
miracles, including giving us better weather. And if there is killing
or imprisonment or imposing financial ruin, well, it was deserved
because the people to whom these things were done were not willing
to share their bounty with others or were too selfish to give up
their precious possessions.
On the Left,
Progressives believe that the government can create a vast, confiscatory
regime that punishes productive people and rewards politically-connected
people, and yet this will have no adverse effect at all upon the
overall productivity of an economy. When I was in college 40 years
ago, many of my Progressive professors really believed that Mao
had worked an "economic miracle" in China (I guess Mao
did manage the "miracle" of making the blind man
lame), and that all it took was the murder of countless millions,
people thrown into the maw as collateral damage or simple "broken
eggs" to be made into a magnificent omelet.
When Rep. Claude
Pepper died years ago, I recall hearing a National Public Radio
story on him, with the reporter breathlessly praising Pepper because
he had "faith in government." Hubert Humphrey before him
also had that great faith in the power of the state, and both Pepper
and Humphrey were lionized by the Progressive Media. And no wonder.
These men presented the picture of government taking from people
property and possessions for which they had no "need"
and then supposedly transferring themselves to the "needy."
The faith of
the Progressive Left in the creative and healing powers of the State
is real; no, I cannot understand it because I am an unbeliever when
it comes to the State. Like Paul Krugman, who cannot fathom why
anyone would believe in something as silly as God creating the world
or Jesus rising from the dead, I cannot understand why anyone would
believe that government has sacred, supernatural powers. To me,
such a proposition is utterly laughable; to someone like Krugman,
when I belittle the State I am committing blasphemy.
But if we are
to understand Progressives, we have to understand that they are
True Believers in the power of the State to make all of society
whole simply by passing and administrating laws that are created
"in the public interest." This religious belief is non-negotiable.
E.J. Dionne believes ultimately that the State is God. So does Jim
Wallis, and both men believe that Barack Obama is the very epitome
of the Holy State and that Obama
"is going to save us."
For all of
the talk from the Progressive Left that their God is science and
that religion is unscientific, in reality, their beliefs ultimately
are religious. Like the former Soviets who had billboards exclaiming,
"Lenin is more alive than the living!", Progressive leftists
truly believe that the State can reorder the entire world into a
happy, productive, prosperous and peaceful condition, provided that
government have enough coercive powers, including the power to kill
dissenters. This is their religion and anyone who contradicts it
is speaking damnable heresy.
and the Economy
When it comes
to economics, the Progressive Left almost to the person believes
that the only successful economy is one that is administered
via state control. I have spoken to many Progressives and never
once have I heard one deviate from that view. One Progressive, a
Democratic Party activist from Chattanooga, insisted to me that
because government has a legal monopoly over money, then government
is totally responsible for everything good that comes out of an
economy. When I asked the person about why the economy of the U.S.S.R.
(this was in 1985) was so backward, he replied (seriously), "It
is because the Soviet Union has not been a country as long as the
United States." He could not recognize his non sequitur
for what it was.
Even when Progressives
give lip service to markets, they always add the caveat that without
government control, markets would run amok and that immediately
scores of people would be thrown into poverty at the expense of
a few people becoming wealthy. Because markets are self-sabotaging,
according to Progressive thinking, massive transfer payments are
necessary to keep an economy on its feet.
One must absolutely
comprehend this last point in order to understand Progressive thinking:
transfer payments are not an economic burden; they are the
key to prosperity and without them, the economy would sink into
permanent depression. Therefore, to criticize transfers not only
is to be "against the poor," but also to demonstrate economic
ignorance. (Keep in mind that most Progressives view the economy
as a big circle that is internally unstable, and government action
keeps the circle moving.)
ago, one of our English professors circulated an email that received
many favorable responses. In it, he went off on a screed against
the "savage marketplace" that spreads only violence and
misery. To him – and to most of my colleagues – there is no such
thing as "peaceful economic exchange." No, to him every
exchange within a market system reflects violence, exploitation,
and useless, dangerous products, and the only way to properly
"reform" the system is for the State to have total control
of the process. Anything less is unacceptable.
Libertarians hold to be part of natural law, such as the Law of
Scarcity or the Law of Opportunity Cost, have little or no meaning
to Progressives. When the late Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson
was running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976,
the self-identified hawk and Democratic Socialist (he was a true
Welfare-Warfare State candidate) was told that his ideas could not
be economically supported, he declared, "Then we will create
a new economics."
Roosevelt, who proclaimed that the laws of economics were nothing
more than creations of human beings and could be changed by creating
something akin to the "Socialist Man," Progressives really
do believe that they can manipulate an economy by printing money
or by borrowing or by raising taxes on wealthy people, and there
will be no adverse economic effects. As Krugman likes to claim in
his NYT columns and blog posts, massive borrowing is no problem
because "we owe it to ourselves."
also have a love affair with federal prosecutors and with the use
of incarceration in order to emphasize their "social goals,"
the main goal being the destruction of anything akin to free markets.
Now, few will admit they love prisons and many even will speak of
the "scandal" of American incarceration rates – the highest
in the world – but I never have seen Progressives call for anything
that actually would lower these rates significantly.
A few examples
come to mind. When Rudy Giuliani was illegally leaking grand jury
material to the NYT during Giuliani’s Wall Street prosecutions in
the 1980s, the NYT never complained about Giuliani’s lawlessness.
On the contrary, the paper praised everything he did and became
the main Progressive megaphone in the Holy War against Michael Milken
and his "junk bonds." It did not matter how lawless state
agents were during this time; the only thing that mattered to the
NYT was to destroy Milken, not because he was a threat to the economy
(in fact, Milken financed much of the investment needed to create
the Digital Age), but because he was a threat to the statist
quo that Progressives cling to religiously and because his actions
allowed investors and entrepreneurs to do an end run around the
stultifying regulatory process that had limited investments in new
technologies since the New Deal.
was breaking federal laws (and Progressives view federal law to
be Holy and Sanctified) was not important because he did it to save
us from that Predatory Capitalist Milken. Breaking laws for the
common good is something that should be reserved to those who protect
the rest of us from the Milkens of our age and nothing should stand
in their way, and certainly not Rule of Law.
In a recent
editorial, the editors of the Chattanooga Times called
for the imprisonment of Wal-Mart executives and the destruction
of Wal-Mart stores because the company did what every other company
has done when it wants to do business in Mexico: pay some bribes.
(The same editors not once have editorialized against the practice
of "milker bills" and "fetcher bills" introduced
by legislators in order to force companies to hand over campaign
contributions. The same Progressive editorialists also have demanded
that the government continue to pay billions of dollars in subsidies
to "green energy" firms, the same firms that the record
demonstrates have paid millions in campaign contributions to the
Obama administration. According to these Progressives, a leftist
government is incapable of being corrupt.)
But while Progressives
call for the jailing of people they don’t like while decrying America’s
incarceration rates, they also stand firmly behind the drug war,
the militarization of America’s police and state-sponsored brutality
toward dissidents like Bradley Manning. (In the case of Manning,
one can say that Progressives were against torture before they were
are some Progressive writers like Glenn Greenwald and Naomi Wolf
who are desperately trying to inform people as to the murderous
violence that Barack Obama and his State apparatus are inflicting
upon innocents here and abroad, but for the most part they are ignored.
To Progressives where I work – and in Washington, D.C., and Progressive
communities in general, Obama
really is a savior, a Holy and Sacrosanct god.
For all of
the Progressive love affair with science, the NYT demonstrated beyond
a doubt that it would jettison real science for metaphysics during
the Duke Lacrosse Case. The newspaper
actually tried to float a theory that the lacrosse players possessed
a towel that could wipe away the DNA of one person but leave
the DNA of everyone else touched by that same towel. The idea was
so preposterous that attorneys for the accused lacrosse players
laughingly referred to it as the "magic towel," but the
NYT and many Progressives pushing this case clung to its theory
despite its utter implausibility.
Given the various
"Occupy" movements that sprang up this past year, one
would think that Progressives would oppose the "crony capitalism"
that infects our economy. Au contraire, Progressives are
True Believers and the vast web of bailouts, subsidies, and market
manipulations that have been at the heart of Barack Obama’s economic
policies demonstrate that point. Whereas Libertarians see the very
public financial collapse of Solyndra as being the essence of folly,
Progressives believe that if the government subsidizes the "green
energy" sectors, and orders increases in the "energy efficiency"
of electricity-using goods, that out of that will come a wonderful
Robert Bryce have tried to explain that the goals of the Progressives
and the actual capability of "green energy" are
not compatible, but such good sense is ignored. In my conversations
with many Progressives, and in reading their websites and articles
in Progressive outlets like the NYT, I can see that Progressives
truly believe – truly believe – that there are no contradictions
in their energy outlooks. If government directs resources to a "socially
desirable" end, and if the spending and the political will
follow, then there is no doubt that the desired outcome will occur.
After all, they argue, government directed the Manhattan Project,
and in the end science gave us the atomic bomb.
loathe no federal agency as much as they do the Internal Revenue
Service. They view it as an unwarranted expansion of the State into
their lives, and they see an agency full of people who have way
too much power over the daily lives of others. Progressives, on
the other hand, believe that the IRS has too little power.
The mission of the IRS – to seize tax revenue – is utterly important
for it is the IRS that ultimately allows us to pay for the "Social
Contract" that Progressives believe is central to life itself.
also view the growth of the Regulatory State as being absolutely
essential to our well-being, and any attempt to cut back
on any regulation is seen as a nuclear attack on "progress"
itself. For example, in 1995 after a moderate Republican challenge
to some Environmental Protection Agency regulations, Anthony Lewis
writing from his regular perch on the NYT editorial page shrieked
that "they want feces" to wash up on beaches.
expansion of the Regulatory State always is done in the name of
"reform," and there is no word more dear to American Progressives
than "reform." Libertarians see regulatory agencies such
as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Products Safety
Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Transportation
Security Administration as being predatory in nature and harmful
even at best. These agencies, to Libertarians, do not protect anyone,
impose costs upon people who should not have to pay them, and in
the case of the TSA are outright oppressive.
That is not
how Progressives see them. If it were not for the EPA, our rivers
would be sewers, our air purely toxic, capitalist-created goods
(and especially toys for young children) would be inherently dangerous,
with children being killed by the scores, monopolies springing up
everywhere hoarding our wealth, and passenger flights regularly
would be hijacked by terrorists and other "gun nuts" who
would systematically be forcing flight after flight to crash.
are self-evident to Progressives, and the use of facts means
nothing to them. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Progressive
columnist Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal wrote a column,
to the Rescue." I would urge people to read his column,
not because of its self-proclaimed wisdom, but rather because it
provides a huge window into the mentality of American Progressives.
To Hunt, 9/11
was the Ultimate Market Failure, an example of how private enterprise
endangers our very lives, and how Government saves us. Literally.
That everything of which Hunt wrote already was heavily regulated
by government – including airport security – simply had no bearing
on his worldview. There was no government failure because
the government, when in "proper" regulatory mode, is incapable
Paul Krugman and other Progressives on the financial meltdown of
2008, and to them, the only reason it happened was that government
did not regulate the economy enough, and that was because a political
regime that believed wholeheartedly in "untrammeled" markets
was in power. Because Progressives (and especially Progressive economists
like Krugman) believe that prices send important signals ONLY
when an economy is organized into what "economists" label
as a State of Perfect Competition, in the case of Wall Street, prices
meant nothing at all.
enterprise creates and sustains monopolies, argue Krugman and others,
players in the system cannot and will not respond to prices because
prices are administered by the system and are rigged to the advantage
of those at the head of the line. Because of that situation, markets
(and especially financial markets) will run headlong over a cliff,
dragging everyone down, and the only thing that can keep that from
happening is strict regulation from the central government. In their
view, only regulators trained and employed in federal agencies
have the clarity and foresight to understand what will work and
what will not; anyone employed in private enterprise has no capability
of foresight whatsoever.
bureaucrats do make that "rare" error, or when
the TSA agent does something really stupid, Progressives also have
an answer: more training. To Progressives, "training"
really is a mantra, and is a solution for all government ills. Because
State agents really do have all of the answers, the only thing that
is needed is for others employed by the State to receive the benefit
of that wisdom through training and more training.
I wish I were
just creating "straw men" or fabricating caricatures of
Progressives, and that certainly is how some of them will react
upon reading these words. My viewpoints, however, come from reading
thousands of articles, columns, and editorials and from my many
conversations with my colleagues. I am not accusing my colleagues
of being evil; many of them are decent people, good teachers, and
wonderful mentors to their students. What I am saying is that the
things I have written reflect their worldviews.
L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him
mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland,
and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig
von Mises Institute. He
also is a consultant with American Economic Services. Visit
© 2012 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in
part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.
Best of William Anderson