Arnold Kling  

Progressivism--My Most Generous Interpretation

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Inspired by Tyler Cowen, let me offer my most generous characterization of progressivism:

Progressives are the proud heirs to a tradition of experiments in public policy that brought about significant social improvements. Its antecedents go back before the Civil War to the anti-slavery, temperance, and women's movements. They continue forward with a focus on civil rights, women's rights, birth control, public health, anti-trust, economic justice, central banking, business cycle management, and ecology. Society today is much better because of the policies that progressives promoted in these areas.

All along the way, progressives met opposition from conservatives and libertarians. Yet few would now step forward to try to reverse progressive policy successes. The arguments against civil rights legislation made by Barry Goldwater and Milton Friedman in the 1960's clearly put them on the wrong side of history as well as the wrong side of today's generally accepted morality.

We need to continue to drive government policy in the direction of social improvement. The progressive agenda on health care, energy, and income inequality will turn out to be another success story, once progressives overcome the opposition.

[Note: I continue to believe that progressivism entails this. And I believe that the current progressive agenda is going to end up working out closer to such failed past progressive ideas as Prohibition, the National Recovery Administration, and public housing projects.]

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (33 to date)
fundamentalist writes:

It will be interesting to see if Kling and Cowen get recip responses from regressives, but I will be surprised if they do. My personal experience with regressives is that they are highly emotionally charged and need that emotional high to keep people motivated. They get that high by seeing themselves as Joan of Arcs fighting against the barbarian invaders. Non-regressives must be portrayed as people with evil motives, motive being the only measure of morality. You can murder people and lie about everything and still be a good person if you had pure motives for doing so.

roversaurus writes:

I agree. That is probably how Progressives would
positively define themselves.

But it lists no principles at all.

If this is how they truly think it is more shameful
than your last description because this statement
boils down to "Progressives are responsible for
all the good changes in American history; therefore,
we will be responsible for all the good in the future."

The shameful part is that there is not much thinking
going on. There is no principle I can discern.
It is feel good statement.

Mike Moffatt writes:

As someone with some progressive-ish leanings, I think that's fair.

The one quibble I have is with 'prohibition'. It isn't progressives that are fighting to keep the current prohibition on marijuana.

Mike Moffatt writes:

I'm playing Devil's Advocate here a little - while progressives do have to take responsibility for, say, National Recovery Administration, conservatives needs to take responsibility for, say, World War I (or at least American involvement in). I'm not sure progressives come out looking worse when considering the mistakes made by each side.

Mike Moffatt writes:

I admit that's a devil's advocate position, because it depends on where you place Woodrow Wilson and, say, Eugene Debs on the progressive-conservative axis.

Kurbla writes:

Hm ... I can live with that. Actually, I'm pleasantly surprised.

Kurbla writes:

Arnold, you wrote about your mother earlier. Is she still alive? What she thinks/ thought about your current position? That you're on the wrong side or that you're just too soft?

El Presidente writes:


Very charitable, and a little bit moving given the context. I still quarrel with your previous statements, but this is a demonstration of good will that should be well received. I don't know what to tell you if others can't accept an olive branch graciously.


With their emphasis on the primacy of individual sovereignty, they help to defend the very foundation of democracy in the modern era. They staunchly support the right of individuals to act in accord with their own coonscience, to pursue the maximum realization of their own potential, to contract freely with others thereby making relationships truly meaningful, and so on. Without a firm notion of individuals, societies lose their purpose, their humanity, and their dignity. Libertarians help us all to value these things.


With their emphasis on creating stability and social temperance, they endeavor to give people a sense of place and time such that they can clearly see history as it was, society as it is, and their future as they choose to make it given the circumstances of their existence. They help to keep the meandering dogooders at bay and caution them to be always thoughtful and to have reverence for the notion that government which governs best governs least . . . but governs nonetheless. They help people to feel as though they have an enduring place in society, that they are members of a proud tradition, and that they do well to honor it, build on it, and pass it on.

8 writes:

WW1 was a progressive enterprise, as were the U.S. colonies. Progressivism was nationalistic at the outset.

Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism has many faults, but one positive is the clearing of history's lies. Progressives even favored big companies over small business, the opposite of the general story line.

Progressives should read the book not as a tarring of today's progressives, but an untarring of today's (and yesterday's) conservatives and libertarians.

RL writes:


I find your introduction to this post very confusing. You begin, "Inspired by Tyler Cowen, let me offer my most generous characterization of progressivism..."

I take it you are not really offering your most generous statement of what you believe truly characterizes progressivism. Instead, I assume you are offering your most generous characterization of how progressives see themselves. If you were offering the former, it would be grossly incorrect as a matter of historical fact. If you are offering the latter, it is quite possibly true, but only on the assumption today's progressives have little knowledge about the early 20th century.

spencer writes:

Yes, the NRA was a failed social experiment.

But during the little over a year that it was in place real GDP growth was over 10% and the unemployment rate plunged.

So maybe we need a few more failed experiment like this.

But seriously, it obviously did not do the serious damage that opponents of the New Deal claim.

Tim of Angle writes:

Progressivism is a movement characterized by a belief that progress is inevitable and that therefore change, which is necessary for progress, must be encouraged without any consideration of the nature of the change, since progress is inevitable and therefore all change will ultimately lead to progress.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Conservatives are not against any of these social improvements, only against the pace of change demanded by Progressives. Since constitutions limit government action, it may be that progressive government is not compatible with constitutional government.

While Progressives are very happy at experimenting with public policy, they are very bad at undoing bad policy, and tend to address the side-effects of bad policy rather than the cause.

Without strong constitutional limits, electorates are easily bamboozled into voting unsustainable benefits for themselves. The forthcoming social security disaster is so overwhelming as to be described in an econlib paper as "the end of the Social Democratic state". The social safety net is the Progressive capstone, but if it kills its host, what then for civil rights, women's rights, slavery and justice?

Taxes and regulations have increased the off-shoring of capital and industry. It may be that progressive government reduces economic growth, especially where there is a better investment climate overseas. The forthcoming carbon tax will accelerate this process.

There are any number of disasters and unintended consequences of progressive action, such as the DDT ban, regulation-provoked energy shortage, out-of-control IRS agents (and government agents in general), the progressive tax poverty trap, wildfires aggravated by wildfire bans, unemployment caused by minimum wage regulations, mortgage delinquency aggravated by "equal opportunity" regulations, abysmal public schools, abysmal rent-controlled slums.

This is really a problem of narrative. In my narrative, these consequences are worse and getting much worse, whereas in a progressive narrative they did not happen, or are fixable, or are caused by conservative foot-dragging. In my narrative, I am acutely aware of the limitations and problems of conservatism, but believe government action is much worse.

Todd writes:

I second RL's confusion. I just don't find this characterization particularly enlightening, or even overly generous: most people think the positions they support are correct, that their past successes are well appreciated, and that if everyone would just listen to them, things would go much smoother. Tell me about the unique aspects of the progressive mindset.

lordzorgon writes:

I agree with Roversaurus that "There is no principle I can discern. It is feel good statement."

Overall, this entire exercise has left me all the more confused about what progressives' guiding principles are. And every time I see progressives try to define those principles, I find myself lost in a sea of particulars.

At the risk of putting words in folks' mouths, I think the guiding principle is a certain conception of "human dignity." Human dignity, in turn, is defined by a long and growing list of positive rights. Once upon a time human dignity only required food to eat and a roof over your head; now it requires a lot of other things.

But what progressives see as basic requirements of "human dignity", I often see as fundamentally misguided enterprises.

Take democracy, specifically "one person one vote." What a bizarre concept! Why should everyone get the same number of votes? Why should an educated 20-something like me get the same number of votes as my 92-year-old grandfather who (due to several strokes) cannot any longer compose a coherent sentence? Why should a crackwhore citizen get a vote while a brilliant immigrant software engineer doesn't? I would propose that we might want to give people different numbers of votes based on:

- Amount of taxes paid (over the last year, over their lifetime)
- Age (you start getting votes at age 16, your vote maxes out at 25, stays constant to 55, then gradually declines)
- IQ or the results of some other standardized test
- Education
- Medical status (the able-bodied get more votes than the invalid)
- Wealth/income
- Amount of welfare benefits received (decreases your vote)
- Gender (I'm less than fully enthusiastic about women voting)

At this point I'm sure progressives will be inclined to call me one massively *evil* SOB.

I, on the other hand, would say that all of this "rights" and "equality" and "democracy" stuff is a big faith-based enterprise. In this country we are indoctrinated from birth in these ideas. Well, oops, equality turns out to be false (except in the meaningless sense of "equality under God"), and democracy turns out to be dangerous (the Founders recognized that; somehow most people have forgotten).

It's not at all clear to me why "one person one vote" leads to better outcomes than "certain people more votes."

I'm sure some will object that the outcomes aren't what are relevant; it's just plain evil because it violates concepts of "equality" and "human dignity." My response: if respecting "human dignity" results in worse outcomes, then what good is it? I'll take better outcomes, please.

(Oddly enough, despite all the equality/democracy/dignity talk, we *already* don't give everyone the same vote. People under 18 can't vote, non-citizens can't vote, and felons often can't vote. Historically there were other criteria for voting. I'm just extending the concept.)

roversaurus writes:

El Presidente wrote a reasonable and short and
useful description of Libs and Cons.

I would only quibble with the L description to
make it LESS favorable (in your eyes). It is not
an attempt to defend the "foundation of democracy".
libertarianism has nothing to say about democracy.

But what I would really like from you is a
similar style saying what is "Progressivism"

My statement of Progressive would
have to be: Support of the weak and opposition to
the powerful with no consideration as to the source
of the weakness or the power.

You will notice that this also has nothing to
say about democracy or even a social contract.

Wilmot writes:

And I would positively describe myself as a free individual who enjoys material wealth, openness in relationships, and general promiscuity. I am open to experimentation in all substances and see no reason why people should take safety to be more important than fun even when the fun puts individuals into highly risky situations.

Most others, however, would describe me as a borderline alcoholic and a hedonist who will probably not live past fifty, if that.

I guess the only difference is I don't want to force my values on people and am perfectly content to be called what they wish to call me and leave it at that.

aretae writes:

I am very pleased with this most recent response of Arnold's. At the same time, I am with the commentariat here in that it does not seem to have a core principle, like his early principles statements around libertarians and conservatives.

I would humbly propose my 3-way definition of principles here instead.

El Presidente writes:


Take democracy, specifically "one person one vote." What a bizarre concept! Why should everyone get the same number of votes?

Yeah. Why not say some peope count as, say, three-fifths? Or, if it is demeaning to be less than one, let's say others count as one-and-two-thirds. Same proportion, right?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, . . .

Oh, that's why.

mark writes:

I think many of the policies that this post ascribes to the Progressive camp are not properly attributed to it as a matter of historical accuracy; although "progressives" may support those policies, many others support them who do not subscribe to the economic agenda of the progressives. What the "Progressive" position consistently means historically is one very simple thing: urging the use of state power to change the distribution of wealth, and subordinating all other interests to that goal.

phineas writes:

Arnold shows here he's really what I'd call a liberal. Lamentably in the US the word "liberal" has become associated with statist policies; US conservatives delight in confounding liberalism with socialism. In the book "What It Means to Be a Libertarian" the US author Charles Murray said he'd really prefer to label himself a liberal but is forced to use "libertarian" because of the way the word liberal has evolved in the US. But here in Britain the term liberal still has more of its original, true, and proper meaning, whereas "libertarian" connotes a too doctrinaire, too pure, too simplistic ideology.

phineas writes:

lordzorgon says he's "confused about what progressives' guiding principles are. And every time I see progressives try to define those principles, I find myself lost in a sea of particulars." He's just saw the ultimate guiding principle right there, and didn't notice it.

Rimfax writes:

Progressivism is feudalism turned on it's head. It operates on the moral assumption that all wealth or income comes at the expense of others, so that everyone has an ethical claim on everyone else's wealth and income. The interpretation of this moral assumption is that those with above average wealth or income owe some or all of their deviation from the average to everyone who has less than the average, and payment of this debt may ethically be compelled with the force of law. (What is the distinction between a Leveller and a Progressive?)

Its advocacy of representative democracy extends precisely as far as its confidence in the majority status of its "lower class" and "guilt class" constituencies. It holds no principles against oppression, only principles on who may be oppressed. Solzhenitsyn is the archetype.

Les writes:

One could just as well say that Progressives are the proud heirs to a tradition of experiments in public policy that:
a)favored communism and socialism over free enterprise,
b)favored government over business,
c)favored racial quotas over equal opportunity,
d)favored single payer healthcare over free market healthcare,
e)favored government-run social security over individual retirement choices,
f)favored terrorists over our own U.S. military, and
g)favored the impractical intermittent use of wind and solar power over drilling for oil in Alaska and offshore.

lordzorgon writes:

phineas: I'd *like* to be generous and assume that there is some small set of guiding principles that unites progressive policies. Although, to the extent that progressives are philosophical pragmatists in the line of James and Dewey, it might be unreasonable to expect this.

El Presidente: "All men are created equal" is, on the face of it, a bizarre claim. Hell, I'd even call it a "blatantly false" claim. People are created vastly different from one another, and not just in physical size and appearance. It's odd that such a strange belief is an article of almost universal faith in American society.

No two people are equal. Further, some people are more valuable than others. For example, able-bodied people are worth significantly more than people with severe physical and mental disabilities. If people with severe disabilities find that statement disagreeable, sorry, life isn't fair.

RL writes:

Gee, was the Uber Progressivist Woodrow Wilson that dragged Americans into WWI, progressive corporatist FDR who secretly pushed to get America involved in WWII. Both wars massively expanded the size and power of the US military.

The progressivists love war, as it is the health of the State, and are on record (see John Dewey) as noting only war can bring about the national unity they so crave. So I'm going to have to disagree with your claim that they favor terrorists over the US military. They've been major funders and the original big boosters of the military industrial complex of the 20th century.

lordzorgon writes:

=All men are created equal" is, on the face of it, a bizarre claim. Hell, I'd even call it a "blatantly false" claim. People are created vastly different from one another, and not just in physical size and appearance. It's odd that such a strange belief is an article of almost universal faith in American society.=

You misinterpret the meaning of the words "created equal". These words mean that all men should be treated like equals since the Creator treated them as such, not that they are actually equal or their real equality should be somehow preserved. Of course, I'd prefer the wording to read as "all human beings must be treated as equals by the state", but unfortunately we are not the Framers.

= Further, some people are more valuable than others. For example, able-bodied people are worth significantly more than people with severe physical and mental disabilities. If people with severe disabilities find that statement disagreeable, sorry, life isn't fair.=

You say "more valuable" as if it were objective truth. But any value is subjective. You seem to confuse productivity of a person with his/her value.

agnana writes:

I think some of the confusion over progressive principles is that what is meant by principles differ for the different philosophical traditions.

Progressive principles are aspirational and focussed around issues of fairness and equality. For those of us who are Christians, we base this firmly in the equality of all believers before God- a principle the founding fathers recognized (this incidentally is philosophical root why lordzorgon wculd get classified as "evil"). But the weakness of progressive movements is that they often don't have strong principles of how to implement their goals and so easily fall prey to unintended consequences. I think this is the root of Arnold's argument and it is a formidable one.

Conservative principles are precautionary and focussed around issues of stability and strength. In the West, this is grounded on the Christian anthropology of sinfulness. But I'd argue that when it comes to both ends and means that conservatives often don't pay enough attention.

Libertarian principles are primarily about implementation and focussed around freedom and growth. Again, I would argue that in the Western tradition this centers around the idea of free will. However, one thing that people like myself who base our ideas in Christian ethics find is that libertarians are often careless of ends.

I think that one can find great achievements and failures in American history linked to all three traditions. But when we argue about policy goals, it is important to specify whether we're arguing about presuppositions, ends or means.

El Presidente writes:


No two people are equal. Further, some people are more valuable than others. For example, able-bodied people are worth significantly more than people with severe physical and mental disabilities. If people with severe disabilities find that statement disagreeable, sorry, life isn't fair.

In the context of the Declaration of Independence, the statement that all men are created equal is a declaration with reagrd to justice, not quantitative output. That's why it is followed by the phrase, ". . . , and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, . . ." Might I suggest reading Rawls.

Being "equal" and being "identical" are not necessarily the same. Identical is an extreme case of equal, thus the absence of identity does not preclude the presence of equality. We use market clearing prices and quantities to indicate average prices; the point at which a given amount of currency and a given amount of a good or service may exchange freely as a trade of equal value. Once the trade is made, there is added value in use. There would be no point in exchange if we were merely exchanging identical goods and services, or if the currency was used to repurchase identical goods/services at an identical price. It would be inefficient, requiring our time and effort and providing no added value. If we can understand how that works with widgets, why can't we understand how it works with individuals? Different, but equal.

If all else fails, try telling Stephen Hawking he deserves fewer votes because he can't tie his own shoes. Do you suppose you are more valuable than he is? I'd be elated to be considered his equal. I suppose you'd say I'm aiming low.

roversaurus writes:

El Presidente,

You gave decent favorable descriptions
for L's and C's. Can you write a similar
succinct description for P's?

El Presidente writes:


Since you asked nicely . . .


With their emphasis on interdependence, equal consideration for all, and continuous improvement, they aim to make advancing quality-of-life widespread so that our inability to keep full account of the results of individuals' actions might not diminish our capacity to make all individuals more prosperous. Progressives adopt the aspiration of Pareto efficiency, adapt it for qualitative consideration, and combine it with the best efforts of public policy to keep people from drowning in a rising tide or hitting the rocks beneath when the waters recede. They enhance the craft of governance by working to improve outcomes, and always with reverence for the constraints of process enacted by the People.

Jacob writes:

Having read some of the discussion, and at the risk of sounding reductionist I believe the underlying difference for both mainstream positions can be easily stated (a la Isaiah Berlin) as:

Libertarians = negative liberty; progressives = positive liberty.

It's hard to think of a modern issue where this isn't true for both positions (again only talking about the mainstream). Almost by definition, we need a controlled state to maintain negative liberty and an activist state (with technocrats!) to ensure positive liberty.

For example, libertarians support equal treatment for women so long as policy results in freedom from discrimination. Where they part ways with progressives is when policy attempts to create a quality of life floor (say by mandating pay).

As an added benefit this definition seems fair to both perspectives.

Apologies if someone else commented on this before me.

Vichy writes:

Politics is the mind-killer. Politics is theology.

Most people have absolutely no basis for their political beliefs, and a vehemence inversely proportional to their knowledge.

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