Bryan Caplan  

Boudreaux on the Progressive Mentality

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My dear colleague Don Boudreaux comments on my recent questions about the absence of libertarian/progressive cooperation:
As he so frequently does, Bryan here hits on its head an important nail solidly, cleanly, and with impressive force.

I suspect that the single biggest factor that distinguishes "Progressives" from libertarians and free-market conservatives is the simple fact that "Progressives" do not begin to grasp the reality of spontaneous order.  "Progressives" seem unable to appreciate the reality that productive and complex economic and social orders not only can, but do, emerge unplanned from the countless local decisions of individuals each pursuing his or her own individual plans.  Therefore, "Progressives" naturally adopt a creationist view of society and of the economy: without a conscious and visible (and well-intentioned) guiding hand, society and the economy cannot possibly work very well.  Indeed, it seems that for many (most?) "Progressives," the idea that a spontaneously ordered economy can work better than one directed consciously from above - or, indeed, that a spontaneously ordered economy can work at all - is so absurd that when "Progressives" encounter people who oppose "Progressive" schemes for regulating the economy, "Progressives" instantly and with great confidence conclude that their opponents are either stupid or, more often, evil cronies for the rich and the powerful.

Don tells an interesting story, and he's probably true in some cases.  But ultimately, I think resentment of markets has little to do with incomprehension of "spontaneous order."  Key point: As Hayek emphasizes, markets are only one form of spontaneous order.  Others include language, science, fashion, manners, and even informal hiking paths.  In each case, individuals pursue their own plans with no central direction, yet a tolerably well-functioning social order emerges.  And leftists rarely express resentment - or even worries - about the social value of any of these.  So how can spontaneous order be the crux of the issue?

My preferred story is much simpler: Leftists look at the world of business and see greedy people leading and prospering.  This upsets people of almost every ideology if they dwell on it.  On an emotional level, human beings want people with noble intentions in charge.  Who then are leftists?  They're the sub-set of humans who feel these emotions with exceptional intensity and durability - and accept a group identity that reinforces such emotions.  Why is a power-hungry politician who bullies strangers with big plans and pompous speeches more "nobly intentioned" than a greedy businessman who woos strangers with fine wares and low prices?  I don't know, but clearly I'm in the minority here.

Well, at least I'm in good company.

P.S. I've also previously rejected the view that people dislike markets because their benefits are "unseen" rather than "seen."  Quick version:
To sell war, you've got to convince people that its non-obvious, distant consequences are positively fantastic.  Contra Bastiat, though, it's ridiculously easy to convince them of this.  If you tell people that the skies will fall if their country doesn't fight, they believe it - even though the worst case scenario is usually the loss of some territory most people can't even find on a map.

My best explanation is that Bastiat's seen/unseen fallacy is not a general psychological tendency.  Instead, it's an expression of anti-market bias: Since people dislike markets, they're quick to dismiss claims about their hidden benefits.  When people are favorably predisposed to an institution, however, they're quite open to the possibility that it's better than it looks to the naked eye.  Government's a good example, but so are religion, medicine, and education. 

COMMENTS (20 to date)
LD Bottorff writes:

Yes, Progressives do oppose spontaneous order when it doesn’t align with their latest crisis.
Example 1: Transgendered people have, for years, used the bathroom that they could get away with. If no one suspected a man was using the women’s room, it wasn’t an issue. That was the spontaneous order, but it wasn’t good enough. Progressives in local governments, always seeking a way to show how committed they are to equal rights, started passing laws specifically requiring people to allow the transgendered to use the bathroom of their choice. Then, of course, some conservatives pushed back.

Example 2: Gender pronouns.

Example 3: Farm products. Progressives are more likely to be concerned about the how of farming (free-range chickens vs. caged, organic vs. non-organic) and I don’t think it’s because they view farmers as greedy businesspeople.

Tiago writes:

This is a bit off-topic, but I wonder if you have ever studied an anti-services (pro-goods) bias, which is most visible on the left.
I'm thinking of the kind of philosophy behind initiatives such as the "delivery reversed" philantropies, whereby people will come to your house and pick up leftovers and give them to needy people. Why is it that the waste of the food is obvious but not the waste of the time and energy of the person that came to your house to pick up the food and give it to someone else?

Matt C writes:
Why is a power-hungry politician who bullies strangers with big plans and pompous speeches more "nobly intentioned" than a greedy businessman who woos strangers with fine wares and low prices?

Probably because the politician can couch his arguments as a collective benefit, while the public benefits of an entrepreneur are not obvious to anyone but his customers (and even then...)

roversaurus writes:

Progressives don't like intercourse between consenting adults.

Kitty_T writes:

Isn't evolution the classic example of spontaneous order? I've pointed out to a few progressive friends that they're awfully quick to reject spontaneous order in markets, but call anyone rejecting spontaneous order in biology a religious fanatic blind to empirical evidence.

This did not make me popular, I admit.

Matthew Moore writes:

'even though the worst case scenario is usually the loss of some territory most people can't even find on a map.'

Unless of course you are one of the citizens that already lives there. See: Falkland Islands

Roger McKinney writes:

For the truth about the left see Jonahtan Haidt’s “Righteous Mind.” Haidt has decades of research to back up his claims. The left only cares about inequality and nothing else.

The left doesn't want to lift the poor. It wants to destroy the rich and that reveals deep seated envy.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"And leftists rarely express resentment - or even worries - about the social value of any of these. So how can spontaneous order be the crux of the issue?"

Hum? Leftists are usually against traditional values and institutions; the whole point of the first conservative-progressive polemic, the French Revolution, was about that - the human reason can rebuild institutions according to a rational design (left)? Or the better institutions are those who emerge by a long succession of accidents, trial-and-error, etc, during the curse of the centuries (right)?

But, attention, don't confuse spontaneous versus planned with voluntary versus coercive - we can have coercive spontaneous orders (like the French Ancien Régime, or slavery, or probably the female genital mutilation in some societies, etc.), and voluntary planned orders (like many internet standards, the language esperanto, or simply when a group of friends combine with each other a dinner together*)

* if, instead of a collective plan, each of them decides to go to a specific restaurant thinking "my friends usually are there", it is a spontaneous voluntary order.

poorlando writes:

I do believe that "people dislike markets because their benefits are unseen rather than seen", and I also think that leftists have such huge blind faith in government in part because a lot of the cost of government is unseen (to them) rather than seen. For example, more evidence is coming out that minimum wage laws lead to reduced employment in the lower rungs, yet the leftist will always retort how thriving the restaurant scenes are in places like Seattle and San Francisco. Heck, when obvious economic facts are basically biting them in the rear (e.g. rent control and below-market set-asides lead to housing shortages and higher housing costs), not only do they still not see it, but they call for even more of the very policies that exacerbated the problem.

James writes:

Progressives do not reject spontaneous order as it pertains to markets. The typical progressive believes that without any coordinating force markets will become increasingly monopolistic and wealth will become increasingly concentrated in the pockets of the wealthiest people.

Progressives favor the state over markets because they believe the state is more accountable to voters than any private corporation is to consumers and workers.

Weir writes:

The typical progressive in New York City believes its schools aren't segregated enough. They believe there is no bigger legislative priority for the Democratic Party than to stop Betsy DeVos from reforming the school system, making any progress with vouchers, opening up school choice to the poor.

Wealth has become increasingly concentrated in a relatively thin sliver of land taking in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Seattle, Malibu. And just like the landed gentry of any other age, they want the state to protect them and their backyards. Even when that yard is still, according to all legal records, a public beach. Or think of the wind turbines that progressives are nominally pro. They were going to be constructed way off in the ocean, and not particularly close to Ted Kennedy's Hyannisport estate. It's just that they would have ruined the Senator's view.

In Roman society, they were the honestiores. The rest of us, humiliores.

In Greek society, the noble Athenian aristocrats depended on and disdained the base, ignoble Phoenician merchants who sullied themselves in trade. The best of us were gentlemen, the aristoi, the statesmen and soldiers. The rest of us were slaves and metics and thetes, compelled to work for a wage.

Marx and a million other Germans grew up with ancient Greece as their ideal. Anyone who was compelled to work was, in the really essential, inner, spiritual sense, un-free. The Greeks would sooner rob and plunder than submit to someone else, someone of inferior station. Greek men weren't submissives. Nor the Germans. Think of the first and second world wars.

So progressives in America belong to a long, long tradition. Whether they're wealthy doctors who like their payments laundered through a complicated political process, or university administrators, collecting extortionate rents by way of the threat of Title IX and "disparate impact" suits, they like their privileges and their locked, iron gates.

Kaleb Holten writes:

I am a left libertarian who used to be a liberal Democrat. I obviously can't speak for everyone. But I think my own earlier market apathy was due to an impression that consumers had little power. My flip was due to my recognition that consumers exert power in concert together and connecting this to the process of natural selection helped as well.

Thaomas writes:

Not being (by my own lights) a "progressive" I'm not sure why Progressives and Libertarians do not for an alliance on issues like immigration, anti-density policies in cities, occupational licensing, etc. As for forming alliances with Liberals, the problem I see is not that Liberals do not recognize the advantages of self-organization, but that Libertarians seem (to us) to believe that the self organized result cannot be improved upon, neither from an income distribution POV nor to correct for market failures, asymmetric information, or provision of public goods. I believe that part of this failure lies with Liberals who do to seem to beware of the difficulties of actually improving on market outcomes, but I think these difficulties could be brought to light and overcome in the process of working out the terms of the alliance issue by issue.

Miguel Madeira writes:

There is a question that should first be asked - what means "alliance"?

If we are talking about single-issue movements, like privacy in internet, civil liberties, anti-war, there are many grassroots exemples where booth progressives and libertarians participate (although the extreme numerical unbalance between progressives and libertarians mean that these alliances quickly becomes "progressive" by default). If we are talking about bills in congress, there are also cases of common bills.

Besides that, and with a political system bipartisan, presidentialist AND FPTP, there is no much room for alliances.

Rojellio writes:

I think Don is pretty much spot on, as usual.

My personal term for the bias against spontaneous order and design is "The Big Kahuna" myth. People assume that order and design and complex solutions arise out of intentional design from a rational agent. It is extremely hard for us to grok emergent order caused by the evolving dynamics of countless processes and people with competing interests.

Conservatives tend to substitute God as the Big Kahuna. Progressives tend to substitute the government when run by proper thinking leftists. And yes, both teams have their own version of the devil. And readers of this blog are holding pitch forks according to one of the teams.

It is absolutely amazing that an idea as powerful as emergent order really only came into prominence with the 18th C Scottish philosophers most notably Adam Smith. Darwin, who read Smith, then applied it to order in biology. Classical liberals further applied it revealingly to language, technology, institutions, culture, morals, politics, and open source software.

It isn't that the left is oddly susceptible to this bias. We all are. They are just especially opposed to market spontaneous order because it gets in the way of their efforts to master plan the economy. They are similarly opposed to Buchanan and Public Choice framings of politics, which again profiles government as an emergent dynamic created by self focused individuals.

In summary, we see blind spots in political ideology when the spontaneous order bias gets in the way of what they are trying to accomplish. The thought leaders construct a narrative dismissing the decentralized nature of emergent order when it interferes with their quest for power and control.

And by the way, as a person who does believe in decentralized and emergent order, it is quite possible for this opposition to spontaneous order to itself be a spontaneous order.

Glen writes:

Truth is almost everyone is anti spontaneous order when the result is not preferred by that person. In the 80s, the standard response to poor working people my my conservative friends was that they needed to work harder. Now that they are the ones losing their jobs they scream for socialist measures and couch them with a market oriented veneer.

Seth writes:
Don tells an interesting story, and he's probably true in some cases. But ultimately, I think resentment of markets has little to do with incomprehension of "spontaneous order."

Maybe I missed something. Resenting markets and not understanding them is two different things. I read Don as saying Progressives don't understand markets.

btw...I was once progressive (though that term wasn't used then) and I changed my mind due to the illuminating efforts of folks at this blog, Don's blog and others (Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams).

I think learning about and growing to appreciate spontaneous order was one reason I changed my mind. I also think being helped to see the unseen was also a factor.

As Rojellio said, many folks seem to have Big Kahuna bias. Not surprising since someone is in charge of us most of the time as we grow up and every organization we see, including the Fed Govt, has leaders. We just generalize that organization structure to everything and assume that's how all things work.

I don't believe I was 'indoctrinated' into that view. It just seemed a logical extension of what I saw going on around me.

I've also tried to help others see spontaneous order around them without much success. They don't resent the spontaneous order. They just can't imagine that it's actually there because they are so firmly rooted in their 'someone is in charge' mindset.

Hazel Meade writes:

I have a theory that many people dislike markets because they have a disgust association with them, as in Jonathan Haidt's theories about the disgust mechanism and sanctity/degradation related moral reasoning.

Because money (as in currency) changes hands frequently it would have been associated with disease transmission. In fact, the Black Death spread along trade routes in Europe. It was likely very common for trade and contact with markets to spread disease throughout human history. Thus we get phrases like "filthy lucre" and children are taught not to put that penny in their mouth because you don't know where it's been. And we end up with a deep-seated belief that there is something unclean about money and trade.

Meanwhile sharing exposes other people to your germs, but you don't get exposed to theirs. So sharing is pure, but trade is impure. Gift giving is sanctified, but buying and selling is degrading.

You see this pop up all the time when you listen to leftists talk about "commodification" (probably not an accident that the word commode is in there). It's common to hear leftists make the philosophical complaint that "reducing" relationships to market transactions degrades them. That relationships unmediated by money are better. That offering or demanding money in exchange for something that should be freely given is degrading. I could go on and on about this.

Kenny writes:

I don't think progressives consider science, explicitly and consciously, to be a spontaneous order. They don't seem content to let it develop without significant subsidy and regulation for one. Besides occasional use of phrases like 'marketplace of ideas' – and maybe they don't even really use that phrase! – I suspect that they'd refute the claim that both science and markets are spontaneous orders if surveyed.

As for your other examples, language, fashion, manners, and informal hiking paths, I'd wager that progressives don't generally care about fashion or hiking paths. As for language and manners tho, have you never heard of the progressives known as 'social justice warriors'? They're an extreme and salient example of progressives nearly obsessed about regulating both. They're definitely not content to allow any pre-existing spontaneous orders to evolve without planning and central direction and they're constantly expressing resentment about instances of both to which they object.

Kenny writes:

Hazel Meade, that's a really great and plausible idea about the link between money and trade and disease.

But your offhand remark about the etymology of 'commodification' doesn't seem to be correct tho:

I blogged your comment here. I hope you don't mind.

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