Giving Progressive Thought a Voice: Role of Government

I can’t claim an extensive understanding of progressive thought, but I am willing to give it a hearing; I’m mostly willing to do so in order to exemplify the ideals I’m always preaching about; namely that ideas need to be heard and debated, not cut down without analysis. So how do I determine what to address or discuss? I will have to use media sources, first, because I am not as intimately involved as I should be in reading and researching progressive thought; second, I won’t use this particular post to critque the ideology in question, merely to spell it out and gain an understanding. I’ll leave the commentary to the comment area (a bit of a confusing phrase?) if any will take place.

First, what role should government play in our lives? What I get from liberal friends and from a basic reading of the news is that many of these individuals are, in general, a passionate group and often place the well‐being of others at the forefront of their philosophy; this is why they do what they do, for the less well‐off. What can be done to ensure that these folks are taken care of, and how best to accomplish this goal?

In general, it is best to support a government that is vast and far reaching in order to help the most people; plus reform doesn’t move fast enough in society and provides a less reliable motivator; for social justice it is best to force change through legislative action; barring that, perhaps judicial activism. This philosophy “holds that the function of the liberal state is to supply individuals with the opportunity to provide for themselves by useful work. The right to work and the right to a living wage are considered as real as the right to person and property, while unemployment and low wages are considered to be a reproach to the justice of society.” 1 So in a sense, the right to work becomes a natural right, which is granted by government, a right which is to be protected at all costs, while inequality indicates how certain segments of society are served poorly by current institutions.

The focus is generally on the good of the community as a whole rather than what is good for individual actors, so that everyone can live an equally good life. “It conceives the rights of the individual as harmonious with those of the community, and defines the first in terms of a common good and the second in terms of the well‐being of individuals. Social liberal policies include government intervention in the economy to provide full employment and social welfare, and protection of human rights.” 1

A small critique of this thought process. While I said I would not offer criticisms, it best to provide a little balance. The state has been described “as the entity that maintains a monopoly over the legitimate use of force in a given territory.” 2 Meaning, the state is the only entity that can manipulate actors in any meaningful, legitimate way. In order to accomplish progressive goals by attempting to provide work and reasonable wages means that the state must force it’s citizenry to comply with any edicts regarding work and wages in order to ensure compliance. 2 I would like to assume that the citizenry wouldn’t normally accept this kind of pressure to conform without a rational reason, though.

In my opinion, what makes progressivism so dangerous is the nobility of its causes. When taken in the abstract, for instance, there are few who would disparage the importance of progressive priorities such as health care and education. The difference between progressives and conservatives, however, is that progressives consider these issues to be matters of “social justice,” thereby necessitating government provision. Politically, we often see progressive policies gain more traction because it is easier to create massive deficit‐financed entitlement programs than to ask people to make spending sacrifices in their own lives. This makes intuitive sense since whatever money the government borrows needs to be paid back by future generations. Therefore, we can almost think of the government as a hidden financing mechanism for American households. Yet, while progressive policies might seem attractive—since they allow Americans to collectively finance social programs via low interest government debt—they ultimately require people to pay a much higher cost: their own freedom. That is, every time we expand the government’s mandate, we effectively socialize private rights, especially those pertaining to property. 2

In short, this is why so many people align themselves with progressive/liberal policies. Because it is noble, and just to do so on it’s face. Thus, one could come to the conclusion that the converse was true of classical liberal thought; that it is merely heartless and self serving–well self serving perhaps is sort of accurate.

What are your thoughts on progressive ideology? What role should government play in society? Why do you subscribe to/not subscribe to progressive ideology? Could you see the opposing sides view in a positive light and would you be willing to try to understand it in order to better understand your own views?

I want to leave you with a thought from F.A. Hayek, brought to my attention by Mr. Hollander: “If we wish to preserve a free society, it is essential that we recognize that the desirability of a particular object is not sufficient justification for the use of coercion.” 2

  1. Social Liberalism. Wikipedia. Accessed at 2/15/2010. Don’t lambaste me on my source for this. It’s a brief overview of the philosophy and enough for my purposes here.
  2. Hollander, Jonathan. The Progressive Road to Serfdom. Columbia Spectator. Accessed at 2/15/2010.