Arnold Kling  

Markets vs. Government

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Again, this will be the subject of my talk on Thursday evening March 18 at Campbell University. It is also the subject of this podcast featuring Don Boudreaux and Russ Roberts. Boudreaux says that he does not vote, which I am sure will get an adverse reaction. Mostly, the podcast is about taking the romance out of elections and government.

I also downloaded a sample of American Progressivism: a Reader to my Kindle. My guess is that I will not buy the entire book, unless commenters tell me that I have much to learn from it. But my takeaway from the sample is that one hundred years ago progressive thinking was just that--thinking. Today, it is more unconscious.

In the thinking days, apparently there was some explicit argument that the original Constitution was out of step with the times. As the country urbanized and industrialized, as science improved and as economists and others began to call themselves social scientists, progressives argued that limited government was a bad idea. Perhaps government by wise technocrats, unburdened by Constitutional limits, would be better.

Over the past one hundred years, our government has evolved as if this thinking had triumphed. The Constitution does not restrict government the way it was written to do so, and we have a lot of technocratic government. Yet we no longer read of Progressives criticizing the Constitution--perhaps, having gotten their way, they might as well just keep quiet about the Constitution at this point.

Anyway, in the widely-unread Unchecked and Unbalanced, I suggest that there are trends cutting the other way. I argue that concentrated political power is inconsistent with the growth in specialized knowledge. The golden age of central planning was the era of mass industrialization, particularly during the two world wars. Since then, central planning has done poorly. Nonetheless, modern progressives still seem committed to it.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
wintercow20 writes:

I find it moderately ironic that much of the progressive thinking happens on private college campuses - themselves appearing, at least to me, to look like the Proprietary Communities of MacCallum and his modern heirs.

Les Cargill writes:

wintercow20 - nothing ironic about it - Harvard being the bellwether, the ostensibly Congregationalist/Puritan* clerical colleges that are the Ivies went from Puritan to Unitarian in the first decade of the 19th Century. And if you think about it, they're still in the mindset of fighting Puritans. That's what they think everyone who isn't one of them is.

*whatever Increase Mather was.

Isn't Progressivism ultimately the last bastion of Positivist and Social Darwinist thinking? Not to knock Spencer any more than need be, but the entire doctrine of Root Cause public ethics is straight out of Dickens. Spencer simply didn't know that Laplacian determinism wasn't true.

Peter A. Taylor''s website explores rather deeply the problems with *actual* Unitarians in the present day, and is good reading. He's posted on this blog before. I am a total fanboi ::))

http://home.earthlink.net/~flyingdragongoddess/indexa.html#peter

GU writes:
"The Constitution does not restrict government the way it was written to do so, and we have a lot of technocratic government. Yet we no longer read of Progressives criticizing the Constitution--perhaps, having gotten their way, they might as well just keep quiet about the Constitution at this point."

This might be true of progressive intellectuals generally, but it's not true of progressive lawyers, law professors, judges, etc. See, e.g., The American Constitution Society http://www.acslaw.org/about, and The Constitution in 2020 http://www.amazon.com/Constitution-2020-Jack-M-Balkin/dp/0195387961. But this is probably because conservative & libertarian legal interlocutors are much more familiar with the Constitution than the typical intellectual.

Perhaps one of the Progressives' strategies over time has been to stop talking about the Constitution, because many feel uncomfortable about clearly subverting it. It's impossible to ignore the Constitution in law/legal academia, so there the progressives have to make up clever rationales for ignoring the Constitution.

jc writes:

@GU wrote: "It's impossible to ignore the Constitution in law/legal academia, so there the progressives have to make up clever rationales for ignoring the Constitution."

Yes. Gray matter and the reaching of correct, or at least consistent, conclusions may often be orthogonal. Gray matter may, instead, be more like leverage. The more of it one has, the more clever and convincing the rationalizations one can think up to support whatever it is one wants to support.

If someone wants (or doesn't want) to believe (or do) something, they'll find their reasons. And the smarter one is, the more capable they may be in this regard. (Of course, I suppose it's possible that some may actually be true believers.)

Reminds me of Orwell: "There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them."

mulp writes:

Was there ever a time when agreement existed on what the Constitution restricted or allowed?

Was there ever a time when government wasn't influencing "markets" and "markets" influencing government?

Start with Jefferson and argue he didn't engage the Federal government in significant activity for those times to promote commerce by Federal government spending and institutions.

fundamentalist writes:

"Perhaps government by wise technocrats, unburdened by Constitutional limits, would be better."

That was exactly the argument of the founder of socialism, Henri Saint-Simon, about the laws of France and tradition. And they say progressives aren't socialists.

Les writes:

Arnold, you used the term "progressive thinking."

It strikes me that "progressive thinking" is an excellent example of an oxymoron.

Loof writes:

On the topic of markets, governments and constitutional issues, I think Arnold is on the right track, in the right time, barking up one side of the wrong tree of “progressivism”. If he circled around to the other side there'd be as many intellectual conservative monkeys hanging about, as there are liberals on the other side of it. My cognitive bias sees intellectuals, left, right and center in a forest of neo-Hegelian revivalism.

Imo, most relevant to businesses and states visa-vie the Constitution that influenced rent-seeking in markets was the 1886 Supreme Court decision that granted corporations the same rights of people as “persons” under the 14th Amendment. Wanton interests of ever-bigger government and ever-bigger business were joined at the hip constitutionally and contractually with this cornerstone of corporate law.

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