The Fatal Conceit of Progressivism

Classical Liberalism (a.k.a., ‘Conservatism’) holds the view that human nature is flawed but fixed, and the primary task of society is to set up institutions and a form of government where power is carefully controlled, curtailed, and diffused. Classical Liberalism looks at history and finds countless examples over centuries of the tyranny and injustice of the few inflicted on the many.

Progressivism (a.k.a., ‘Leftism’), on the other hand, subscribes to the idea that human nature is malleable and perfectible (as they understand the term). It is a utopian view that tends to dismiss the record of human history and denies the human nature that underlies it. Historically, the practitioners of Progressivism in the West have championed the idea of concentrating power in order to ‘get things done’ ‘for the good of the people.’

Classical Liberalism, which adheres to a dim view of human nature, has paradoxically produced a system of government that has promoted human freedom and flourishing while Progressivism, which holds that human nature can be optimized under the right circumstances (Historically this has occurred under full-throated Progressivism, Socialism and Communism) has led to untold human misery and the deaths of hundreds of millions of people.

In the U.S., Progressives like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton desire to transform a country that got built on the foundation of freedom, individualism and voluntary association into one that more resembles a European-style social democracy, where the collective is emphasized over the individual and the government is characterized by more concentration of power in the hands of a few enlightened Philosopher Kings who rule over the population via a complex bureaucracy staffed by unelected, unaccountable ‘experts’.

Progressives emphasize security provided by government at the cost of freedom, while Classical Liberals emphasize freedom and derive their security from sources other than government (family, friends, religious organizations, voluntary organizations, etc.)

It is ironic that Progressives have preferred to label themselves as such, because their idea of concentrating power is as old as human history.

On the 4th of July 1926, President Calvin Coolidge observed the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence with these words:

About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers

Alexis de Tocqueville was a Frenchman who visited America in 1831 and marveled at the vibrancy of American society and the unfettered industry and interchange of ideas and goods among Americans. Of America, he wrote of the type of despotism it had to be on the lookout for:

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Tocqueville referred to this as ‘Soft Despotism’, but he could have just as well been speaking about Progressivism.

The fatal flaw of Progressives is their lust for power and dominance over others, dressed up as compassion or benevolence and sold as being ‘for the good of the people’.

In the ‘Lord of the Rings’, the wizard Gandalf well understood the deceit of concentrating power under the pretext of ‘doing good’.

But Progressives heedlessly clamor to grasp the Ring of Power, trampling over ground angels fear to tread on, because they feel they are somehow different from all other humans and they, alone, can defy all of recorded human history.

If that isn’t delusional, I don’t know what is.


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