Arnold Kling  

Are Progressives Totalitarian?

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In comments on this post, SydB argues that I have created a straw-man characterization of Progressivism when I suggest that the Progressive mindset sees a technocratic solution to every problem. He writes,


In Mr Kling's analysis, L's are associated with freedom and the power of markets, C's with wisdom, and P's are totalitarian. That's the starting point for his discussion.

I actually think that there is a continuum between a free society and a totalitarian society. The more brutal and unforgiving the forms of repression against dissenters, the more totalitarian the system. If regulations are enacted with the intent of stopping global warming, that is not totalitarian. If those who question the consensus on global warming get thrown into prison, then that is totalitarian. In principle, you could have technocratic rule with free elections and basic political rights--or so I thought Progressives believed.

But if as a Progressive you think that technocratic rule implies totalitarianism, then far be it from me to argue otherwise.



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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (43 to date)
Relyt writes:

There are 3 chief difference between Left-Liberals and Progressives - Progressives are much more favorably disposed towards collective and coercive solutions, and for demonizing opponents.

Les writes:

Arnold:

I follow your argument. But it seems to me that there is another continuum:

Libertarians believe in minimal government;

Conservatives may accept more government, but strictly within constitutional limits;

Progressives welcome large government.

Transactions in the private sector are voluntary, but transactions with government are often not. So it seems to me that Progressives are at the totalitarian end of a totalitarianism continuum, and Libertarians are at the opposite end.

E. Barandiaran writes:

This is just one step in the direction you're pointing to:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9bWqcZnrDg

Ned Baker writes:

totalitarian [Merriam-Webster]:


"of or relating to a political regime based on subordination of the individual to the state and strict control of all aspects of the life and productive capacity of the nation especially by coercive measures"

Your words:


Progressives "are comfortable with throwing out tradition and markets in order to cede power to experts" in "every situation."

Oh right, SydB completely mischaracterized your position.

Saying progressivism is closer to totalitarianism than libertarianism/conservatism is like saying that wearing your seatbelt is more similar to wearing a straitjacket than driving unrestrained. Not a very useful or enlightening statement. Anyhow I know neither of these posts were really intended to add anything of value to the public dialog, so I'm not sure why I'm wasting my time.

SydB writes:

I was about to say exactly what Ned Baker said. Except he already said it.

My primary point is that progressives, according to Kling's definition, seem like totalitarians. Experts decide everything.

The poles that Mr Kling presents are not wrong. What I take issue with is his description of these three poles in a way that makes Cs and Ls sound oh-so-wholesome while Ps sound oh so controlling and totalitarian. That's all.

ps: Brad Delong says to use blue toothpaste. It's mandatory. (Gel. Not paste.)

Bryan Pick writes:

Again, SydB and Ned, Arnold didn't say that everyone falls firmly in one corner of the ideological triangle.

It's entirely possible that you can consider yourself a Progressive without taking a pure P position on everything, just as someone can self-identify as a libertarian without falling right on point L.

Ned, you took "every situation" out of context. That quote referred to people to the left of center in the economics profession, who he says really do include a technocratic "policy implications" section in every paper. He didn't say the same of every person who self-identifies as a Progressive.

El Presidente writes:

Les,

Progressives welcome large government.

No, not really. I will reiterate what I said on Arnold's other post: I am not particularly attached to the label "progressive". That said, this is again an oversimplification and a misunderstanding of the motivations and preferences of progressives. They seek to satisfy particular objectives and are not opposed to using government when they cannot satisfy them with nongovernmental means. Progressive don't welcome large government, they simply think that government should be the right size to do the job WELL, and no bigger. The debate is more over the purpose, that is, the job of government and the outcome that is expected.

A conservative may likewise be very comfortable using government but more minimally and generally without as high regard to quality except in circumstances where the service is to businesses, more or less, or in matters such as national defense. In most other spheres, they see government service as needing to be constrained to minimal sufficiency and minimal cost. The "aluminum standard" as opposed to the "gold standard" of service. This leaves room for firms to make money from quality and innovation while avoiding competition from the government. Then, of course, they like to complain that government can't do anything well and should therefore be reduced to allow for tax cuts. We're all pretty quirky and I think we would have a good laugh if we just looked in the mirror every so often.

If we constrain government's scale and then allow it to find it's own purpose, it might be just as risky as if we constrain government's purpose and allow it to find it's own scale. Obviously, a good policymaker will keep an eye on both concerns simultaneously, and for good reason. Progressives are not government-happy. They simply want specific things and are persuaded that the market will not provide them in the manner they desire. So, more to Arnold's point, progressive are not abashed about using the power of government to direct and compel behavior; to frame the market. However, that is far different in our society than directing and compelling thought and/or speech. It is not, per se, totalitarian. Arnold is rightly characterizing that term and it's place within this discussion now. He slipped up a little before.

SydB writes:

I agree with Bryan Pick. But I still think that the description of Ps such as

"Brad DeLong and others on the left of center in the economics profession are examples of point P. They seem to have no doubts that expert technocrats can outperform markets in every situation"

is exaggerated. I've read Delong's blog--and this one--for years and I'm not sure this is a fair characterization. Mr Delong knows a lot about a lot of things (particularly toothpaste, blue gel, got it), but I'm not sure he'd say that technocrats can outperform markets in every situation. I'd think him more likely to say there are opportunities to regulate markets--and he'd make proposals to do as such through the democratic process--to the degree that it exists.

Sonic Charmer writes:

By my reading Arnold's original 'point P' is extreme technoracy, not "totalitarianism". Surely there is a difference (or isn't there? You tell me).

Todd writes:

SydB, doesn't the perception of "an opportunity to regulate" imply the belief that the outcomes obtained under the operation of the free-market can be improved upon by the proposed regulator?

Marcus writes:

I don't see the distinction that SydB and Ned Baker are attempting to make. They seem to be taking Arnold's comments as saying progressives support totalitarian technocratic rule, but I don't take him to be saying that at all.

SydB, is there any market, any market at all, in which Brad Delong wouldn't support some amount of regulation to counter some perceived market failure?

In other words, if you believe markets can be made to work better with a little regulation from technocrats then you might be a progressive.

If you believe that markets find their own solutions to their own failures then you might be a libertarian.

Lee Kelly writes:

Totalitarianism with a smile.

Mercure writes:

The difference between left-wing and right-wing economist is all about market imperfections.
(monopoly, externalities, information asymmetry, moral hazard, adverse selection, imperfect information, public good,...)

Right-wing economist:
1) seldom acknowledge that there is a market inperfection
2) When they admit there's one, they think that the possible government intervention is wort than the imperfect market;

Left-wing economist:
1) See a lot of market imperfections;
2) tend to judge that the imperfect government solution is better than the result of the imperfect market.

That is why peoples who read the same textbooks are still politicaly divided.

But to say that Krugman, Delong and the like-minded progressive economist:

"believe that expert technocrats should be in charge. You are comfortable with throwing out tradition and markets in order to cede power to experts"

that's obvously false. Mainstream progressive economist are capitalist. That favor the market system first and for the greater part of the economy. The quote above should apply to marxist/communist.

As for the difference between Libertarian and conservative, I see it mostly about social issue (abortion, gay rights, regulation of porn/Alcohol/gambling/...).

Calling progressive "Totalitarian" because of a the existence of a few communist on the fringe is no more justified than calling conservative "totalitarian" because of guantanamo, wiretap, torture,...

Sonic Charmer writes:

Calling progressive "Totalitarian" because of a the existence of a few communist on the fringe

Interesting. Arnold Kling did not do this. Who did?

SydB writes:

When Kling says progressives " believe that expert technocrats should be in charge. You are comfortable with throwing out tradition and markets in order to cede power to experts" his language seems intended to portray a slippery slope from the progressive ideology to totalitarianism. But progressives would not necessarily cede power to experts, though they might--through the democratic and regulative process-considered the proposals put forth by experts. I don’t think that progressive should be portrayed as believing experts can always improve on markets. But if a building falls because of a particular construction technique, the progressive would look to public policy to ensure lessons learned are implemented broadly.

Maybe I haven't read enough Delong. I'm not sure that characterizing him as wanting to regulate all markets is correct.

And at this point, we've probably thrashed this topic enough.

Mercure writes:

@Sonic Chamber:

In the previous related post, Arnold Kling gave a definition of is point "P" (presumably for Progressive) that is much more applicable to totalitarians than to progressives. And he named Brad DeLong as an exemple of "P".

So while he did not directly call progressives "totalitarians", he gave a definition of progressives that makes them look like "totalitarians".

Some corrections:
"intervention is wort" should be "intervention is worst"
"That favor the market" should be "They favor the market"
And I know I did other mistakes, english is my second language.

Mercure writes:

I would replace Mr Kling triangle by a Square:
L C
P T

L=libertarian
T=totalitarian
C=conservative
P=Progressive

It's still simplistic, but a little bit less.

Mr Kling:
"I actually think that there is a continuum between a free society and a totalitarian society."

If you insist to see the world that way, I just wanted to say that Brad Delong is no more on the totalitarian side than, say, George Bush.

JPIrving writes:

What is is all the fuss about? Professor Kling simply gives us the facts.

People Like Delong, Bush, or Obama propose that power be extended to specialists to give specific goods to specific groups.

Why can't most progressives admit that their vision of the world, when stripped of its smoke and mirrors, revolves around the specialist and the use of violence?

Is it because such visions have also allowed for putting unpopular groups onto cattle cars, or carpet bombing rice farmers? Fascist and militarist visions are inherently the same as progressive or socialist visions. The specific focus of the movements is all that differs. One version of the vision uses violence to bring about low carbon output, livable wages, local food and free health care. The other version uses violence to build socialism, or racial cults. I will go with local food at bayonet point, but I would rather be my own master.

This is the essential fact that all non libertarians must confront, that their dreams require violence.

Thank you for the triangle of ideology prof Kling, I think it is helpful.

Monte writes:

I think totalitarianism is an unintended consequence of the means by which most progressives seek to accomplish their objectives, which are periodically at odds with their quest for democracy. For example, a key tenet of progressivism is improved efficiency through centralization of the decision-making process. This requires that power be removed from elected officials and concentrated into the hands of technocrats, effectively isolating government from the people it supposedly serves. This strikes me as naïve.

The brand of progressive of which Arnold speaks, however, is the one who argues that an elite class of professionals (i.e. totalitarians) is better equipped to make decisions for us by virtue of some alleged expertise.

Troy Camplin writes:

I have a slightly different formulation:

Conservatives believe in top-down organization for the universe, including life and the human mind (soul), but bottom-up organization for society and the economy. They do tend toward top-down theories for culture and morals, though.

Progressives believe in bottom-up organization for the universe, including life, but top-down organization for society, the economy, culture, morals, etc. -- including the human mind (blank slate formed through progressive education). Greens believe one can even engage in top-down organization of the ecosystem.

Libertarians believe in bottom-up organization for all natural systems, including the universe, living organisms, the ecosystem economy, society, culture, morals, etc.

Earthly top-down organizations have always tended toward totalitarianism.

SydB writes:

"Fascist and militarist visions are inherently the same as progressive or socialist visions."

Yup. Building codes and nuclear regulatory regimes are absolutely fascistic. And don't get me started on that socialist fire department down the street from my house. I'd call 'em brown shirts but I think they wear something more like blue (same color as Delong's most awesome toothpaste requirement).

Sonic Charmer writes:

his language seems intended to portray a slippery slope from the progressive ideology to totalitarianism.

Again, technocracy is not the same thing as totalitarianism. Still puzzled as to why you're protesting so much.

Daniil Gorbatenko writes:

Those who defend progressivism may wish to look at the history of Germany under the progressive Kaizer regime prior to 1918. Yes, the regime was progressive. It was the first to experinment with a welfare state. And it was not totalitarian.

But it undoubtedly sowed the seeds of the ensuing totalitarian regime that followed the short-lived Weirmar Republic. And you should know that many progressives were sympathetic to many (if not all, of course) aspects of the totalitarian regimes. Just read the Keynes's introduction to the German edition of his General Theory.

Also, if you look at the record of government expansion in the US following the Progressive Era, you will see that it has been growing all the time with slight stops but without real reversals. It is a self-generating process when there is a huge bureaucracy, a growing number of beneficiary constituencies and, most importantly an overarching supporting ideology (progressivism).

Unless the trend is somehow reversed the Mises's observation that the middle road leads to socialism may turn out to be closer to the truth than progressives would want you to know.

Brandon Berg writes:

Dr. Kling:
Why do you refer to leftists as "progressives?" Given that their agenda, if implemented, would most likely impede progress, it seems to me that playing along with this rhetorical sleight-of-hand concedes too much.

Randy writes:

Of course the Progressives are Totalitarian, and they don't really try to hide it. Afterall, the perfect society cannot be achieved without total control. At present they are constrained by what remains of liberal tradition, but they work constantly to remove the constraint, and this is what they mean by Progress.

Les writes:

I think Randy just nailed it!

JPIrving writes:

@ SydB

The municipal services you cite are public goods, so even pure Ls aren't likely to rant against them too much. 95% of the progressive agenda involves much more than public goods. The progressive abuses most Ls take issue with are war, welfare, paramilitary police, and economic controls well beyond the scope of basic rule of law.


cputter writes:

The most consistent idea that I've always found in the majority of 'progressive' ideology is the concept that "the end justifies the means".

FDR's administration was probably one of the best practical examples of this. If the 'end' was to save poor people from starvation it didn't really matter that the 'means' was ploughing under crops and burning piglets. Progressives applauded this since their greatest minds came up with such harebrained schemes. Of course that clearly wasn't totalitarian (never mind that many New Deal programs were eventually found unconstitutional) since the farmers weren't forced at gun point to destroy their produce and were in fact paid to do so. That merely falls under the banner of progressive technocracy. One of course has to wonder how the gov' got the money to pay the farmers...

Totalitarianism is not so much defined through an excessive use of force by the ruling class but rather through their arbitrary rule, even if enforcing their rule does not require ANY force. A clear sign of this is always a break down of the rule of law. Note FDR's unconstitutional programs. Also note all the unconstitutional wars fought by both parties during the previous decades. Also note all the various bailout programs at the moment, even simple things like the FDIC not closing down banks that have been bankrupt for months (which is clearly required by law).

Of course these clearly arbitrary actions by the government are not called such by progressives, rather they are refered to as 'pragmatic'. Read any article written by a progressive comparing Obama to FDR and I promise that you'll find both are praised for their pragmatism. Again, the end justifies the means...

If I were to distinguish between the Ps, Cs and Ls in terms of their preference for the rule of law (instead of their views on society and economics) it would be:

P: arbitrary / statuary law
C: statuary / common law
L: common / natural law

Viewed in this light Republicans gave up conservatism a long time ago. Though one would be hard put to find an administration anywhere in the world that actually bothers to follow the law.

Interestingly it also enforces Arnold's idea of a continuum between a free and a totalitarian society.

Dan writes:

For the liberals reading these comments, here are some examples of the current (liberal/progressive) administration ceding power to technocrats:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/01/business/01deese.html

http://www.usbudgetwatch.org/budgetblog/2009/administration-urges-creation-independent-medicare-advisory-council-control-costs-68

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124908505587098285.html


These actions are not totalitarian, of course. They do reflect, I believe, the knee-jerk preference of progressives to solve any perceived problem with more government. I have a non-rhetorical question. Is there any current problem in society that progressives think the market can solve with ZERO government intervention?

[Comment edited--Econlib Ed.]

DanT writes:

Progressives can support a free society or a totalitarian one.

Free Society Progressives (FSPs) would tend to support open continuous
debate - even on issues thought to be resolved, be inclusive in deciding
WHICH technocrats get to make the decisions, and make the decision
process transparent.

Totalitarian Progressives (TPs) would tend to supress public debate on
issues as counterproductive - especially those which have been solved,
limit the technocrats making decisions in the name of efficiency, and
provide no information on the decision process since non-technocrats
wouldn't understand it anyway.

Niccolo writes:

I honestly don't care what El Presidente or SydB say.


When I press my progressive friends to tell me what they think should be done with people that rebel against their system of governance, they're not afraid to say they would squash it like a bug. When I ask them how much government they think should exist, they describe it as big government. SydB and El Presidente are only telling us why they think government should be so big, but in the end it's irrelevant, the point is they want more government involvement.

I would argue it's similar for conservatives too as far as totalitarianism goes, it's just they tend to be slower on the move towards it.

Then again, however, it isn't like anyone is really immune to the emotive reactionary state of totalitarianism. At times, in my less rational state, I think I'd be perfectly fine to see a Pinochet come in and wipe away the Janeane Garofalos and Alec Baldwins of the world.

jb writes:

SydB said:


But progressives would not necessarily cede power to experts, though they might--through the democratic and regulative process-considered the proposals put forth by experts. I don’t think that progressive should be portrayed as believing experts can always improve on markets.

There are two parts to this. first part - SydB - can you give me an example of where Progressives do not see the need to either strengthen existing regulatory agencies or create new ones to solve problems? That seems to me to be the only way they beleive problems should be solved.

Second part - I agree - progressives don't believe experts can improve on markets, as long as the market is performing in a way that seems correct to the progressive. But once a market deviates from the progressive expectations/goals/agenda, it is considered broken, and we need experts to fix it. In other words - as long as the market is doing what progressives want, it's ok.


Jeremy, Alabama writes:
cputter said:

P: arbitrary / statuary law

C: statuary / common law

L: common / natural law


cputter has the best response so far.

"Totalitarian" is a fair description of extreme P. Instead of complaining about this, Progressives should describe extreme L as "Anarchic", and extreme C as perhaps "Sclerotic".

Prof Kling's triangle says only who sets the rules:

- extreme L, rules set mostly by the market
- extreme C, rules set mostly by dead white guys
- extreme P, rules set mostly by technocratic elite

I don't understand why this is so contentious.

DaveF writes:

A look at the 4 biggest items on the 2010 budget (59% of spending) is interesting:

# $695 billion (+4.9%) - Social Security
# $663.7 billion (+12.7%) - Department of Defense
# $453 billion (+6.6%) - Medicare
# $290 billion (+12.0%) - Medicaid

Support a great deal/somewhat ratings from a 2009 Harris poll show Medicare at (63%/90%), SS at (60%/88%), Medicaid at (45%/80%), DOD at (53%/85%).

http://www.harrisinteractive.org/harris_poll/pubs/Harris_Poll_2009_01_13.pdf

Coercion?

aretae writes:

While Arnold has nailed the libertarian and conservative positions, I think his analysis of the progressive position falls short because he is not a progressive. And the progressive/liberal position is not, at a very fundamental level, about the same things that the conservative/libertarian position is about.

I respond here by suggesting that the progressive point in the triangle is not actually about how you get a solution, but rather about the urgency of the solution.

Andy writes:

"Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." It is no wonder both P's and C's tend to become T's once elected. P's want to regulate business and the economy, naively believing one man or one agency is capable of such a task without unseen consequences. C's transfer power to the executive branch in the name of national defense and stomp on individual liberties along the way.

El Presidente writes:

Niccolo,

SydB and El Presidente are only telling us why they think government should be so big, but in the end it's irrelevant, the point is they want more government involvement.

I never prescribed a size for government. Did I? Why don't you enlighten us. How big should government be? That is, why is whatever size you imagine I prefer 'big'? How big is 'big'? Are you embracing the Armey curve referenced here? Or do you really mean to say "intrusive"?

You have certainly micharacterized what I "want". What I want is for people to solve their own problems as much as possible and to have to rely upon collective action only when it is more efficient or more desirable. And when it is either, I want it to be done WELL, by people who know what they're doing and strive to provide the best possible outcomes at the lowest possible cost allowed by the statutes that govern their behavior. Unfortunately, people have a nasty habit of making their own problem somebody else's problem (i.e. externalities). This begs the intervention of power and authority to protect individuals from each other.

CJ writes:

What was the point of the fancy-shmancy swat degree and MIT doctorate if you're going to be this dense about the nuances of a movement? Even political parties have their own internal disagreements, so that party platforms do not reflect the believes of a party's individual members. It's worse with a movement since nothing like a party platform forces people to rally around some shared principles.

In any case, I dislike your attribution of what some people in the progressive movement might believe to all progressives. It's foolish and it's unlike the high quality discussion and criticism I've come to expect from reading you.

Niccolo writes:

I never prescribed a size for government. Did I? Why don't you enlighten us. How big should government be? That is, why is whatever size you imagine I prefer 'big'? How big is 'big'? Are you embracing the Armey curve referenced here? Or do you really mean to say "intrusive"?

You have certainly micharacterized what I "want". What I want is for people to solve their own problems as much as possible and to have to rely upon collective action only when it is more efficient or more desirable. And when it is either, I want it to be done WELL, by people who know what they're doing and strive to provide the best possible outcomes at the lowest possible cost allowed by the statutes that govern their behavior. Unfortunately, people have a nasty habit of making their own problem somebody else's problem (i.e. externalities). This begs the intervention of power and authority to protect individuals from each other.


No, you didn't, but you did prescribe more government and specifically more government than a typical conservative would.


Further, you said that you would like to see government intervene - by which I assume you meant "collective action" - when you deem it more efficient or more desirable. Now, if you term that you want government to intrude at all past defense, a basic court system, and public goods like roads, then I would deem you to be a progressive who wants big government.


This is what I, and most people, think when they hear of progressives. To paraphrase a quote, I know progressives when I see 'em.

8 writes:

Neo-conservatives defected from the broader Progressive movement once it came to power and they saw what it meant in practice, instead of theory. This led to George Bush the Younger trying to implement the Progressive vision from the center/right. Iraqi democracy fits squarely in the Progressive world view that dominates the post-war era. The 1920s was the end of old school conservatism.

8 writes:

For clarity, I believe there are two dominant political ideologies in power: the older Progressive strain and the newer strain that retained the Progressive name. Two pro-state ideologies.

Reactionaries and classical liberals, formerly the two dominant strains, are both out of power.

El Presidente writes:

Niccolo,

Further, you said that you would like to see government intervene - by which I assume you meant "collective action" - when you deem it more efficient or more desirable.

Sometimes my words are sloppy. This is not one of those times. I was very precise. I don't want government to intervene when I DEEM it more efficient or desirable. I rely on empiricism and democratic proces to determine those. If I am incapable of demonstrating greater efficieny and/or persuading my countrymen, then I submit to the government WE have chosen as it is. I needn't stop trying, but may I never suppose to act outside of those constraints.

Now, if you term that you want government to intrude at all past defense, a basic court system, and public goods like roads, then I would deem you to be a progressive who wants big government.

That's an awfully broad classification for Progressive, as it would include many conservatives too. But, O.K. then, you have a preference for the functions of government. Good. If that is your upper bound, is there a lower bound as well? Are you willing to subject that to a democratic process or do you insist that your view should be enforced no matter what other people think?

lordzorgon writes:

The most consistent idea that I've always found in the majority of 'progressive' ideology is the concept that "the end justifies the means".

I'm inclined to believe that the end justifies the means, and I'm fairly certain I'm not a P. It seems odd to me to link this to being a P.

(If the end doesn't justify the means, what does?)

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