For all of the campaign and inauguration talk about “unity” and moderation, President Joe Biden is governing like a progressive on all fronts, from cultural issues to the armed forces to the economy. Biden’s unprecedented thirty-two executive orders his first week in office provide evidence he and his party intend to expand executive governance well beyond anything this country has seen in its long history. Furthermore, all his political appointments are people who fall well to the left of any kind of recognizable political center and who share the president’s progressive ideology.
So, what do progressives believe, anyway? What do we mean by the term “progressive,” and why is it in the ascendency today? Furthermore, even though its destructive results are well known when we look at its history, progressivism seems to have taken over almost all of our political and social institutions, shutting down all dissent in the process.
In 2014 libertarian attorney and scholar James Ostrowski published a book entitled Progressivism: A Primer on the Idea Destroying America, which is a worthwhile read if you wish to better understand this nebulous ideology. I heartily endorse the book (having read it myself), but will let Ostrowski speak for himself, and in this piece I will attempt to carve out a small niche of my own in writing about progressivism.
While the term “progressivism” sounds like something to describe modern, secular intellectual and political movements, it actually has its roots more than two hundred years ago in the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham. Anyone who has taken a course in history of economic thought is well familiar with Bentham, who influenced the English economists from Thomas Malthus to John Stuart Mill and even beyond that.
The specific aspect of Bentham’s thinking (wide-ranging thinking, I should add) that appeals to the progressive mindset is his belief that there is no natural law, natural rights, natural liberty, and natural and naturally harmonic outcomes, especially in the marketplace. This placed him in opposition to Adam Smith and also to Frédéric Bastiat, whose Economic Harmonies stood in contrast to Bentham’s world view that free market exchanges, unless they were guided by wise people in high places, would have socially harmful results over time.
Bentham’s view was that in order to provide what he called “the greatest good for the greatest number,” governing elites were to ensure that they could guide large numbers of people to act in what progressives today would call “the public interest” by setting structures of incentives—positive and negative—depending upon the situation. We can see this as a precursor of what would culminate in the Communist “experiments” that turned vast stretches of Asia and Europe into mass death zones and in the works of American psychologist B.F. Skinner, who saw people as little more than rats in a box to be properly trained by their intellectual betters.
Understand that this is not an attack on incentives; all of us rely on incentives one way or another, be it the entrepreneur’s pursuit of profit or the rewards (and punishments) we give our children to help them find direction in life. One of the most interesting applications of incentives can be seen in how British economist and social reformer Edwin Chadwick saved countless lives by changing the pay structure of delivering British prisoners to the penal colony in Australia.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, ship captains delivering prisoners from England to Australia were paid up front for each prisoner who boarded their vessels. Having already been compensated, captains had no incentives to care for their captive crew, and about half of the prisoners died during the trips. In 1862, Chadwick convinced policymakers to change the compensation to include only those prisoners who survived the long passage. Not surprisingly, the survival rate rose to 98 percent.
While Bentham’s utilitarianism was a precursor to modern progressivism, one safely can say that progressives today are less interested in laying out structures of incentives to guide human behavior than they are in simply being obeyed. To better understand that point, we need go no further than Biden’s recent cancellation of the Keystone Pipeline in the upper Midwest and his administration’s determination to cripple one of this nation’s most productive industries.
Perhaps there is no greater article of faith among American progressives than that the oil and gas industries are creating a “climate crisis” that supposedly will engulf the planet and make life unlivable. Not surprisingly, the Keystone project has been in the cross hairs of American environmentalists for a long time, since much of the oil to be transported comes from Canadian tar sands. Declares the New Yorker in support of the cancellation:
In the spring of 2011, the NASA climate scientist James Hansen helped orient the pipeline as a climate-related fight, pointing to the massive amounts of carbon contained in the Canadian tar-sand deposits and making the case that, if they were fully exploited, it would be “game over” for the climate.
Hansen’s predictions over the past three decades are reminiscent of those of economists who have predicted ten of the last two recessions, but it is the rare journalist who actually goes beyond being a mouthpiece for the climate change cult, so we are supposed to believe that if the Keystone project were to continue and the Canadian tar sands were further exploited, the result would be rising temperatures that would make the planet unlivable. (Whether or not the tar sands are economically viable, given current energy prices, is another matter, but Biden didn’t nix the pipeline because he believed the project to be uneconomical, but rather because the environmentalist constituency that dominates his government hates any fuels that originate in the ground.)
During his campaign, Biden made his displeasure about oil and natural gas known and vowed to “phase out” the industry (read that, cripple one of the most productive industries in our economy and certainly one of the most indispensable industries at that) and replace fuels with electricity that comes primarily through wind power and solar panels. Again, we see the progressive mindset at work.
First, and most important, even if Biden were successful in completely ending all “fossil” fuel use by 2035—a date that seems to be in vogue with progressive politicians and “woke” corporations like General Motors—it is doubtful that such a move would have any significant (or even insignificant) effect upon the world’s climate.
Second, given the realities of so-called renewable energy, one strongly doubts that windmills and solar panels will come even close to meeting the electricity needs of the USA even by 2035—unless those “needs” are scaled well back to current electricity production levels. Understand that progressives want all of the power-generating plants fueled by coal, oil, and natural gas to be shut down in less than fifteen years, and if that is the case, not only will electricity producers have to replace the entire current fueled grid but also add about 40 percent more capacity. That involves a lot more windmills and a lot more solar panels than what currently we see online.
The hard reality of supply and demand here would cause one to pause and ask if it even is possible to replace every natural gas–, oil-, and coal-fueled power plant with windmills and solar panels, but reality does not seem to enter the progressive mind. Progressive politicians speak of goals and what they plan to do, but often lack a coherent and realistic plan for carrying out their directives, other than to say this is what they are going to do.
Whether it involves bullet trains to nowhere in California, freezing windmills in Texas, or the slow and steady destruction of American cities like Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon, one usually can find the fingerprints of progressive governance. Writing about the massive decline of Minneapolis, which now is governed by ultraprogressives, Kevin Williamson says:
Crime, homeless encampments, riots, crime, loopy left-wing government, crime, litter, violent protests, imperious left-wing activists seeing off mainstream liberal Democrats, boarded-up shops downtown, a vicious social-media-driven politics of personal destruction, crime, crime, and crime, to say nothing of the crime—today’s Minneapolis is where Minnesota Nice turns into Minnesota Nasty.
Let’s talk about the crime first. Everybody does.
“We’re moving,” says one longtime resident of downtown Minneapolis. “Prior to COVID, I walked to work every day and walked home. You couldn’t pay me enough to do that now—and it’s only a mile. It’s a changed city.”
That certainly is the experience of the 553 people who were shot in Minneapolis last year, the highest casualty figure in a generation. Robberies, assaults, thefts, carjackings, and the like are up across the city. The city council voted to partly defund the police department—and then promptly hired a private security firm to protect its members.
A three-agency task force trying to combat rampant carjackings in the Twin Cities made 46 arrests in three days, producing 69 felony charges. Most of those arrested were released almost immediately—the jails have been emptied out by COVID-19 precautions.
In normal times and in normal municipalities, the prospect of a once thriving city turning into a war zone would ring alarm bells and prompt calls for political and economic changes to turn things around. Progressives, and especially those on the hard left, are not normal people, and they operate in a world that most of us do not comprehend—or want to understand. Where traditional mayors and council members would like to see their cities become livable places, the radicals governing Minneapolis believe that such sentiments are little more than warmed-over racism:
“If you took Hubert Humphrey and plopped him down in Minneapolis today, he wouldn’t recognize the place,” says Annette Meeks, a former Republican Party leader and head of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, a conservative think tank. “It’s not the social upheaval—it’s just the rank craziness.” At the top of the hit parade of crazy are efforts, well under way, to completely abolish the city’s police department. The city’s charter commission kept a police-abolition measure off the ballot the last time around, ruling that the city charter has to be amended before such an action is taken, but a petition drive has been launched to make that happen. “They need 12,000 signatures to get it on the ballot,” Meeks says, “but they’re going for 20,000, overachievers that they are.”
Meeks paints a bleak picture of Minneapolis’s political environment: The Republicans moved out and fell into obscurity decades ago; the caucus system and ranked-choice voting create complexities that favor committed full-time political activists over civic-minded volunteer leaders; boutique radicalism has replaced such old-fashioned livability issues as park maintenance and crime; and the new breed of leaders can win by grandstanding on cultural issues rather than concentrating on the difficult work of seeing to it that the city is run well. On top of all this, Meeks says, is a shocking new viciousness as the manners and style of social media move into the real-world political space.
“It’s survival of the fittest,” she says, “and the radicals won.”
Those of us who cut our academic teeth on public choice and Austrian economics are not used to analyzing people who seem to govern with no limits and no flexibility in mind when it comes to imposing an agenda—no matter how disastrous the results. This is the mentality behind the worst days of the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin and in China during Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and it is something utterly foreign to people who deem themselves to be practical.
That millions of innocent souls perished in the USSR and China under radical thinking was of no concern to Communist leaders, who lived privileged lives and barely had their lives inconvenienced while their so-called social visions doomed others to death through starvation and mass executions. While the radicals now governing Minneapolis are not yet planning on gunning down their opposition and expanding their rule past the city limits, it also is clear that this kind of radical progressive governance is going to be the future of the Democratic Party, which continues to move further to the hard left.
Modern progressives no longer seem capable of moving from abstract to practical thinking. They pursue what Thomas Sowell has called “cosmic justice,” which demands the imposition of certain standards for life no matter the costs. For example, those governing Minneapolis say that it is important to eliminate all racism from society, and at one level that isn’t a bad thing. Racial prejudice when people act on it has created havoc in the lives of people and has been behind violence against innocents.
However, in the quest to eliminate all racism from Minneapolis, those in charge both widen the definition and then seek to impose draconian punishments upon people accused, not to mention using social media to shame and ostracize them. The result is something akin to Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China, something that created upheaval, set people at each other’s throats, all in an effort to make people conform to ever-changing standards of “revolutionary consciousness.” These actions do not increase harmony between the races and make society better, but further divide people, spreading hatred against people whose supposed transgressions did not warrant the treatment they received.
The result is not the elimination of racism but rather the further destruction of social fabric. In the end, one is left not with social harmony, but rather a morass of false accusations bolstered by social media. This is not a world that most people want for themselves, but it is fertile ground for political radicals who employ that system to create social breakdowns.
Thus, it is not hard to see how, to paraphrase F.A. Hayek, “the worst get on top” in places like Minneapolis and Portland and, increasingly, Washington, DC. The sheer ferocity of the political radicals toward an alleged infraction of their view of “justice” is out of proportion to the actual alleged offense. In this atmosphere, most people just want out, leaving the radicals even more firmly entrenched to impose even more damage to others.
This is where progressivism is headed, and we have to understand why that is important. Take the recent declaration by Joe Biden that he wants 100 percent “clean” energy by 2035, for example. The typical public choice response would be that since we know that it would be technologically impossible for a “renewable” system to produce the electricity needed to keep a civilized economy afloat, we can rest assured that the government will have to permit at least some fuel-powered electricity-generating plants to continue to exist.
A government run by old-line Hubert Humphrey liberals would acquiesce, noting that while goals of 100 percent “clean” energy are laudable, we still need to keep the lights burning. Progressive radicals, however, are more likely to just shut off the lights—as long as they and others who are politically connected are first in line to have access to all the power they need. This is the equivalent of the Minneapolis City Council members reducing police funding but using tax dollars to hire private security groups to guard their own homes. For that matter, it is like the Communist Party members in the old Soviet Union having access to Western goods at the infamous “yellow curtain” shops while everyone else faced stores with empty shelves, long lines, and inferior products. The Soviets and their Western apologists excused this system because the Communists were “building something better,” akin to Biden’s campaign slogan, “Build Back Better.”
Think USA instead of just Minneapolis and Portland, and you have an idea where progressive radicals want to take us. To the radicals, they have improved both cities, making them more sensitive to racial justice and their version of economic justice. That hard-working business owners have their livelihoods destroyed by such radical policies is like the proverbial breaking of eggs to make an omelet, as communists during the years of Lenin and Stalin were fond of saying. Burned-out buildings, boarded-up storefronts, potholes, homeless encampments, and refuse in the streets are nothing more than collateral damage that occurs when radicals seek to create a “truly just society.”
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