What is progressivism?

Arnold Kling asks this question, so I thought I'd try a stab at it, but trying to cast progressivism in the best possible light.  Of course my answer is not exclusive to Arnold's, as we might both be right about the elephant.  From an outsider's perspective, here is my take on what progressives believe or perhaps should believe:

1. There exists a better way and that is shown by the very successful polities of northwestern Europe and near-Europe.  We know that way can work, even if it is sometimes hard to implement. 

2. Progressive policies offer more scope for individualism and some kinds of freedom.  Greater security gives people a greater chance to develop themselves as individuals in important spheres of life, not just money-making and risk protection and winning relative status games. 

3. Determinism holds and tales of capitalist meritocracy are an illusion, to be kept only insofar as they are useful.

4. The needs of the neediest ought to be our top priority, as variations in the well-being of other individuals are usually small by comparison, at least in the United States.

5. U.S. policy is not generally controlled by egalitarian interests,  So it is doing "God's work" to push for such an egalitarian emphasis at the margin.  At the very least it will improve the quality of discourse, even if the U.S. never actually arrives in "progressive-land."

6. Limiting inequality will do more to check bad governance than will the quixotic libertarian attempt to limit the size of government.

7. Skepticism about the public sector is by no means altogether unwarranted, yet true redistributive programs are possible and they can work and be politically popular; we even have some here in the United States.

8. We should support free trade, more immigration, and more foreign aid, but the nation-state will remain the fundamental locus for redistribution.  That means helping the poor at home more than abroad; a decision to do otherwise would destroy political equilibrium and make everyone worse off.

9. State and local governments are fundamentally to be mistrusted (recall segregation) and thus we should transfer more power to the federal government, which tends to be bluntly and grossly egalitarian, when it manages to be egalitarian at all.  That is OK.

10. The United States has to struggle mightily to meet the progressive standards of western Europe and we should not equate the two regions in terms of their operation or capabilities.  Yet there is an alternative strand in American history, if not always a dominant one, showing that progressive change is possible.  Think Upton Sinclair and Martin Luther King and the organizers of early labor unions. 

11. The evidence on economic growth is murky and so it is not clear that doing any of this carries much of a penalty in terms of future growth.  In some regards it will enhance the especially beneficial sides of economic growth, even if it does not boost growth overall.

In due time I'll be writing more systematically about why those views are not, on the whole, my own.  But not today!

It would be interesting to see a progressive try to sum up an intelligent version of libertarianism.


It would be interesting to see a progressive try to sum up an intelligent version of libertarianism.

Yes please!

Thank you for a contribution based purely on the arguments in a public debate which is often somewhat defined by personal slurs. It's appreciated.

I think your ideas are good and basically true, it does seem that you're answering a different question than Arnold.

He is trying to find (at least in his first two posts in this thread here and here) a fundamental core to the progressive (and libertarian and conservative) position(s). You are describing the (modern) results of the progressive position. I think that from the conclusions you bring, you might be able to backwards-wise arrive at a core, though.

Indeed, I'm wrote an direct answer to Arnold's question about cores...Casting progressivism in what I (libertarian) think is a fair and good light here. And I believe that it would comport well with your description here.

This is a good effort at understanding some of the views of progressives. What I'm not sure about is the emphasis on the size and power of government. I don't think there's an essential optimism about the efficiency of government. It's really just more that somehow we need to get some of the important resources from the rich to the poor (because we believe in a basic quality of life for all and some kind of stab at equality of opportunity) and we haven't come up with a better way than government acting as the intermediary. If there is a better way then I don't think most progressives would be against it.

Let me rephrase those, from an insider's perspective (sorry for the allcaps, but your comment section doesn't allow formatting):


2. Progressive policies offer more scope for individualism and ALL kinds of freedom. Greater security gives people a greater chance to develop themselves as individuals in important spheres of life, not just money-making and risk protection and winning relative status games.


4. The needs of the neediest ought to be our top priority, EVEN IF variations in the well-being of other individuals are NOT small by comparison.

5. U.S. policy is not generally controlled by egalitarian interests. To push for such an egalitarian emphasis at the margin HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH "GOD'S WORK". At the very least it will improve the quality of discourse, even if the U.S. never actually arrives in "progressive-land."


7. Skepticism about the public sector is by no means altogether unwarranted, yet true redistributive programs are possible and they can work and be politically popular; we even have some here in the United States.

8. We should support free trade, more immigration, and more foreign aid, but the nation-state will remain the fundamental locus for redistribution. That means helping the poor at home more than abroad; a decision to do otherwise would destroy political equilibrium and make everyone worse off. AND WOULD BE PATERNALISTIC.


10. The United States has to struggle mightily to meet the progressive standards of western Europe and we should not equate the two regions in terms of their operation or capabilities. Yet there is an alternative strand in American history, if not always a dominant one, showing that progressive change is possible. Think Upton Sinclair and Martin Luther King and the organizers of early labor unions.



(1)Doctrinaire faith that government is the only important threat to liberty.

(2)Ideology trumps science, fact and logic.

(3)Taxes are the greatest evil, except for;

(4)Collective ownership or control of anything.

(5)Subject to the above limitations, individual liberty is desireable.

(6)A tendency to attribute entirely bogus notions (e.g., 1,3, 9, and 10 of your list) to opponents.

I'm a progressive, but I don't feel envious of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and the young Henry Ford. They accomplished great things, and they deserve their wealth. I don't think many progressives disagree. But I definitely feel that the CEO's of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler are overpaid relative to their Japanese counterparts, and the same is true to even a greater degree of the heads of many of our financial institutions. To my mind, Gramsci was right about the ability of the power elite to define the conventional wisdom. To me there is no valid economic reason for the present degree of American inequality.

When it comes to libertarians, I agree with points 1, 3, and 4 of the 8:41:24 post. I would also add a striking inability of libertarians to imagine themselves in the shoes of the other fellow, to which I attribute the kind of thinking that leads one to call people too poor to pay income tax as "lucky duckies".

Thanks 'pig, good effort. You especially nail #6.

Progressivism is a fantasy, like Marxism it was promulgated by "deep thinkers"
who lacked the ability to see how their ideology would be appropriated by
those afflicted with powerlust


(1)Doctrinaire faith that government, especially insular administrators
is the way to secure order, prosperity and progress.

(2)Ideology trumps science, fact and logic.

(3)Taxes are the greatest good,

(4)Collective or administrative control of everything.

(5)Individual liberty is undesireable, and contrary to the collective good.

(6)A tendency to attribute malevolence or ignorance to the opponents of
your schemes, even if you are malevolent or ignorantfabricated: hence Frau Pelosi's
comments about "swastikas" when in fact, she's the facist.

Very good post Tyler. I think it is always helpfult to try to paint someone you disagree with in the most charitable light. Most people Libertarians, Conservatives, and Progressives are well meaning and have something to add to the coversation.

By the way I am glad Liberals decided to switch to Progressive. I know they did it because they viewed Liberal as a tainted or bad word, but Progressive much better describes their views and doesn't distort the classical meaning of Liberal.


I don't think you read the instructions. It said sum up an intelligent version. All you did was pee on an otherwise civil thread."

And Stan chimes in to add his scent to the spot.

Progressivism can work (depending on how you define "work", I suppose) in small homogeneous nations that have more or less reached a progressive consensus. I don't think it can work at all in the U.S. and I'm not sure it works all that well even in homogeneous countries. If your definition of "work" is that those progressive states plod along without deteriorating into economic and political basket cases then I guess I agree.

I also really have to quibble with this sentiment, "Greater security gives people a greater chance to develop themselves as individuals in important spheres of life, not just money-making and risk protection and winning relative status games."

Up to a point, greater security promotes individual development. Too much security promotes laziness and hedonism, which seems to be what a lot the European countries you cite have descended into. It just seems to me that the progressive welfare state is far more soul-crushing than the U.S. system. I much prefer fending for myself than being taken care of and dictated to by nanny state bureaucrats.


If equality of opportunity were the goal, affirmative action as it exists today would be opposed by progressives. I don't believe that to be the reality.

Looking for progressives that have honestly attempted to provide new ideas or at least a modern restatement of old ideas, and after reading the appreciation of Jerry Cohen on Crooked Timber (yesterday you linked to it), I found that Cohen's latest book --"Why Not Socialism?-- will be released on August 23. On Amazon's web page for this book I read the following:

Why Not Socialism? very elegantly advances philosophical arguments that Cohen has famously developed over the past twenty years, and it does so in a manner that is completely accessible to nonphilosophers. The book brilliantly captures the essence of the socialist ethical complaint against market society. Why Not Socialism? is a very timely book.
(Hillel Steiner, University of Manchester )

Product Description
Is socialism desirable? Is it even possible? In this concise book, one of the world's leading political philosophers presents with clarity and wit a compelling moral case for socialism and argues that the obstacles in its way are exaggerated.

There are times, G. A. Cohen notes, when we all behave like socialists. On a camping trip, for example, campers wouldn't dream of charging each other to use a soccer ball or for fish that they happened to catch. Campers do not give merely to get, but relate to each other in a spirit of equality and community. Would such socialist norms be desirable across society as a whole? Why not? Whole societies may differ from camping trips, but it is still attractive when people treat each other with the equal regard that such trips exhibit.

But, however desirable it may be, many claim that socialism is impossible. Cohen writes that the biggest obstacle to socialism isn't, as often argued, intractable human selfishness--it's rather the lack of obvious means to harness the human generosity that is there. Lacking those means, we rely on the market. But there are many ways of confining the sway of the market: there are desirable changes that can move us toward a socialist society in which, to quote Albert Einstein, humanity has "overcome and advanced beyond the predatory stage of human development."

End of quotation.

I'd appreciate it greatly if you can answer these two questions. First, to what extent Cohen's ideas are relevant to what you think progressives should believe? Second, do you think that progressives can still sell their work because of their pointed criticism of market economies or because the alternative they propose makes people think that perfection is around the corner?

The view of one reared in the Progressive Era:

“The Progressive is one who is in favor of more taxes instead of less, more bureaus and jobholders, more paternalism and meddling, more regulation of private affairs and less liberty.†

H.L. Mencken, 1926

Not discussed so far is what progressives believe about the use of police power domestically and military power internationally. As a non-progressive, I too am guessing at their beliefs:

1) Police and military powers are inherently "bad". Threats can always be over-imagined, so we should starve these budget-busting beasts at a much lower level than they are funded now and take our chances.

2) The right of self-defense can only be exercised if the other guy shoots first, i.e., no pre-emption. The response must be proportionate and civilized (for example, they target and kill our civilians but we can't do the same).

3) Social justice overrides concerns about effectiveness. The armed forces and police should include people who had previously been excluded from service, even at the risk of lowering "standards" many of which are bogus.

I plead guilty. I really think a) that the high degree of American inequality can't be explained on purely economic grounds, and b) that libertarians in general do not feel that helping the unfortunate should be a high priority for society. For those of you who think this is pissing on an otherwise intelligent discussion, please explain why. And to add to my sins, I am unaware of any well-known libertarians (with the exception of Andrew Sullivan, who defies classification) who are concerned with political liberty except as it applies to gun rights. For example, if you can think of a libertarian who protested the Bush administration view of habeas corpus and the Sixth Amendment, please name names.


...b) that libertarians in general do not feel that helping the unfortunate should be a high priority for society.

There is to my knowledge a large body of work done by libertarians on mutual aid societies, etc.

For example, if you can think of a libertarian who protested the Bush administration view of habeas corpus and the Sixth Amendment, please name names.

Reason magazine, various publications, podcasts, etc. of the CATO Institute, were chock full of criticisms of the Bush administrations policies regarding civil liberties, habeas corpus, etc. I suggest you consult their archives.

1. There exists a better way and that is shown by the very successful polities of northwestern Europe and near-Europe. We know that way can work, even if it is sometimes hard to implement.

Yeah, they are very successful if by that one means that one is ok with permanent roughly double-digit unemployment.

Except for #1, I am inclined to subscribe to all of these beliefs, which I suppose would make me a progressive.

Q: Will I ever get to vote for someone who agrees with me, or should I continue to vote for Al Sharpton as a protest?

#7 sticks out as being obviously and totally false. The rest seem a fair and even-handed characterization, moreso than most Progressives deserve.

As a (I prefer) Liberal, I would describe Libertarians as simply people who believe in the free market as almost an omnipotent being that can ultimately lead to the greatest amount of prosperity and freedom to all. They believe any interference at all my a government entity causes the markets to not do their work properly is therefore the cause of all of our past and present day ilks from high health care costs to the war in Iraq.

As a progressive, I have a few disagreements with the notions of progressivism expressed above, most strongly with #'s 3 and 9.

With the former it's not that we don't believe capitalist meritocracy can work, there are clearly examples of it working and even in the aggregate a number of those born in the bottom quartile "make it"- it's that it's a fundamentally untrustworthy method of developing an egalitarian starting point. We don't seek to end a capitalist system, we're hardly communists, we simply seek to ameliorate it's very real side effects.

With the latter, I think your reasoning might be considered insulting. Progressives as a whole have little brief against many state and local governments. For example, you don't see us railing against Massachusetts or San Francisco. Inasmuch as we dislike devolving power via federalism, it's an efficiency argument based upon economies of scale, and an effort to deal with non-optimal systems such as school funding that rely largely on local/municipal tax funding and balanced budget requirements that cause the states to cyclically cut their budgets and lay off state employees in a downturn rather than provide countercyclial supports for those affected by the downturn. Add in issues of parochialism (the reason why we don't say "help the whole world" in #8) and it doesn't do as well to work for most people as the admittedly flawed federal system does. From my experience it's less that we dislike the state/local governments, it's that we see the federal government as being able to do more simply because of its construction.

I also think that lumping the entirety of Western Europe/social democratic Europe, is probably a mistake. The Swiss are not the Swedes, who are not the Dutch, who are not the Spanish, who are not the Italians, who are not the English, who are not the French. And I doubt many American progressives would see as their end goal a system that looks exactly like one of those in western europe- for one thing you'd have a hard time convincing any of us we want to give up the bill of rights.

at least one view of the elephant is how progressives position themselves against conservatives.

we are not against the free market, but against the extremist view that an absolutely free market is the best of all possible worlds.

we dont position ourselves against libertarians as much as against the flag waving, bible thumping conservatives.

to quote ambrose bierce: "a liberal is someone who wont take his own side in an argument".


A deeper explanation than "you don't get it" would likely make one take you a bit more seriously. I'm afraid my misunderstanding is not so clear for me to have any idea what you're talking about.


Your point is a legitimate one, but I think it speaks more to the counterproductive force of incumbents in industries who use those licensing tactics under the guise of consumer protection as a way to insulate themselves from potential future competitors. This is why we have barber licenses and why dental hygenists cannot work independently.

"But I definitely feel that the CEO's of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler are overpaid relative to their Japanese counterparts, and the same is true to even a greater degree of the heads of many of our financial institutions."

I agree, but as a conservative/libertarian I recognize that, unless I own stock in these companies, its none of my business.

Posting before coffee is a bad thing: "most Europeans" in "most Europeans are employed by small business than we Americans" should read "comparatively more Europeans."

I agree with Sean regarding affirmative action. The way some progressives use “equal opportunity† is a little Orwellian, seeing as it means that certain people (i.e., white males) are NOT going to be given the same chances as other people. The intent behind such policies is to produce a more equal outcome (i.e., less inequality between people of different races and genders), which is why I think that equality of outcome is at the core of progressivism (whether it be helping poor people or protecting the rights of women and minorities).

I lean progressive on many issues, but I agree with Sean that focusing on SES as opposed to race or gender is a better way—philosophically and in terms of producing better outcomes—of helping out the less well off, including those who may have been affected by past discrimination.

Regarding the Progressivism list, I simply see nothing about a belief in determinism there. That would be Marxism.

Regarding the Libertarianism list, I do not see #2 as a principle of it at all, rather something that Christian Right
fanatics indulge in, some of whom also claim to be "libertarians," even though they are very eager to have the government
forbid gays from marrying or women from having abortions, among other such things.

"Equal in our misery." I think my primary disagreement with "Progressives" (what a loaded term) is their insistence that the present is vastly more important than the future. I don't think there is any disagreement that tomorrow you could take half my salary to distribute among the poor, and they would be better off than in a free market system (and I could still live decently). The problem is that if you take this system and extend it 20 or 30 years, we will all be worse off (see China's transformation).

I also see economic growth as somewhat separate from life/society. Our economy is like a big machine. Things like computers, medicine, and cars are not just "there" as your right. They are the result of hard work and innovation. It seems only fair that those who contribute the most to the system should receive comparatively more benefits. You rub my back, and I'll rub yours. If you don't want to contribute to the system, that is absolutely fine, but you should not expect to be given a handout just because you were born in the US instead of Somalia. Now, with that being said, I think we are wealthy enough that absolutely no one in the US should be starving or dying from a basic infection.

Honestly, whether I live or die from some drug or whether I have enough money to live comfortably makes no difference in the grand scheme of things. People have been starving, working like slaves, and all sorts of terrible things since the beginning of our existence. Only in the past couple hundred years have we begun to seriously address these issues. I get this feeling that "progressives" just want our economic progress to stop here (good enough, right?), but we have so much further to go. Just like it has always been, if you desire something, stand up and do anything you can to get it. In the long run, we'll all be better off. We may all be dead, but our children won't be.

"It would be interesting to see a progressive try to sum up an intelligent version of libertarianism."

"What I have, I keep." originally by Dsquared. Or, for the version that Tyler is addicted to: "The status quo maximizes liberty, even for slaves."

@Nick wrote "Not so much equality of outcome, but equality of opportunity."

Except that the only way to have equality of opportunity is to have equality of outcome in certain fundamentals such as education, nutrition, shelter, and health.

"I think at its core, progressivism privileges equality of outcome over the benefits of the unfettered market. I think at its core, progressivism privileges equality of outcome over the benefits of the unfettered market."

Close. Progressives believe that there should be a floor on the range of individual outcomes, and that unfettered markets are not capable of developing such constraints endogenously. Note that Hayek said essentially the same thing -- that no one in a country as rich as the US should go without shelter or food or good health, and that the state had a role to play in delivering that. Progressives can (and do) disagree wildly on what the level of that floor should be and how to implement it.


You slander people, individuals that is, not abstractions like "the European model."

As for corporate taxes, they are merely passed onto the rest of the population in some fashion or another; less investment, higher prices, less hiring, etc. I would also note that the U.S., unlike any other OECD country that I know of, actually favors small businesses by having a graduated corporate tax rate.

As for a .2% growth difference, that is actually pretty dramatic, particularly over the medium and long term. You do understand that GDP growth compounds, right?

The actual policies and positions of conservatives, libertarians, and progressives seem to drift over time. What I see as more fundamental is their moral philosophies. As I see it, libertarians see protecting people from being harmed by other people as the most important moral goal, and besides that people should be free to do whatever they want. Progressives believe that protecting people from being harmed by others is important, but not quite as important as fairness. Conservatives value protecting people from other people and fairness, but they also put a high value on keeping society morally pure, patriotism, and respect for existing institutions; their positions reflect tradeoffs among all of those.

The positions change, but the values driving the three groups stay the same.

This is such a fundamentally decent summary of a reasonable strand of progressivism, one wonders how one can remain a libertarian if one grasps it.

You are right, however, that most progressives are incapable of articulating a positive version of libertarianism. I am certainly among that number. As always, the problem is that they laughed at Einstein, but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

The problem with my trying to sum up libertarianism is that I would cheat and quote a libertarian website.


"Since it depends entirely on the assumption that taking from the rich to give to the poor reduces inequality, it would be utterly demolished by the opposite-most conclusion, that it didn't reduce but increased inequality."

True, but we don't have to worry about agreement on the opposite-most conclusion. Thousands of civilizations will come and go before intelligent people agree on whether progressive taxes achieve their goals or not. The interpretation of economic data is an ideological Rorchach test: your interpretation is determined by your personality type. Take Krugman. Sure, someone can step up Gore-like and declare the science is clear and the debate is over...

Stephen: re: police powers: Cities in Democratic-leaning states spend more on police per resident than cities in Republican-leaning states, controlling for crime rates. It is not the Progressive opinion that police should be deprived of funding; it is the conservative position.

Joe Teicher -- the concern is the power dynamic the disparate salaries reveal, not that people are making money. Progressives don't care when A-Rod makes a quarter billion dollars, except in a vague sense.

It's the combination of so many working people finding it so hard to get by with the extreme salaries of the highest ranking corporate officials. The implication is that the system is damaged.

"the fact that progressive ideas have been repeatedly tested in multiple places and regularly found to be successful on every level."

Crime in England has risen by a factor of 40 in the past century. Nearly 3/4 of African American children are born out of wedlock (only around 20% in 1960) and a staggering total will go on to be some combination of criminals or wards of the state. The same effect has been working its magic on Latin immigrants. All over the world nations built by the state dept. have evolved into brutal thugtatorships or sclerotic messes like Mexico. The only places "progressivism" seems to have decent outcomes are those countries which maintain substantial memes left over from feudal society. Every level? Please visit Baltimore, Cleaveland, or Detroit now.

Seward, FYI the UK also has a graduated tax rate though it has become a little less graduated recently).

eccdogg: I did try! (click the link on my name to see the list)

Josh: where does that 40-fold rise in crime stat come from? I can't believe it.

The shorthand explanation for libertarianism can be found in the title of Leonard Read's Anything That Is Peaceful. Of course, that leaves a lot for debate, but I think it is a good starting point.

Punditus Maximus,

...one wonders how one can remain a libertarian if one grasps it.

Pretty easily actually. It is a fairy tale.

...the fact that progressive ideas have been repeatedly tested in multiple places and regularly found to be successful on every level.

Such as the abysmal failure of public schools? What progressive ideas do not account for is actual, you know, competition; nor do they account for individual utility. They believe (quite wrongly) that utility can somehow be rationalized, added up, etc. by the state and then handed out by a bureaucrat via some process which determines your utility.


Apparently they are sophisticated enough for you to comment on.

(I self-identify as progressive not Libertarian)

P: Contingent facts generally outweigh theory and models. If you want to make public policy in which the South matters, you must study its history and don't need to sweat poli-sci too much. If you want to craft a health care policy (per Klein contra McArdle), read works of journalism and fact-centric studies, not general textbooks. "Individual" refers to a specific person with a name and a history.

L: Theory and models, especially economic models, have sweeping explanatory scope and ought to be your default intellectual tools. Of course you should read history and journalism, but they are furniture (even decoration), not foundation. "Individual" refers to any member of the class of humans in question.

P: Go deeper into this case. Bonus points for seeming superfluity of detail -- you are turning an object into a subject, helping them be "heard."

L: Extract structural features in common with other cases. Bonus points for counter-intuitive (but compelling) analytical leaps -- you are turning messy contigency into an intellectual tool potentially useful to others.

P: Get published in a magazine.
L: Get published in a journal.

P: Talk to people involved.
L: Think.

P: Bottom-up.
L: Top-down.

(The MR crowd self-selects for people who may identify as P or (especially) L, but who have a diverse set of mental habits. In other words, don't flame me 'cause you're an L who is more sophisticated than portrayed by these L-points. I know that already.)

Sam I don't think some of your points are too bad, but...

Do you really believe that McCardle does not read fact centric studies? Maybe I was just imagining all those links she provides.

It never ceases to amaze me the extent to which each side thinks they have the "facts" or empiricism on thier side. Each side chooses the facts they look at and how to interpret them. The truth is much more cloudy IMO (and probably unknowable).

As a card-carrying pinko, I'll buy into your description. Except #9. Progressives are split here on subsidiarity, as am I. Remember, the basic progressive notion of consumer protection is that the Feds set the floor; the states set the ceilings.

@eccdogg: please reread the disclaimer at the end of my post -- of course I don't believe she doesn't read fact-centric studies. I do think that Ezra's take here:


"There's a strain of commentary that's deeply hostile to subject-specific expertise. In my experience, this opinion is voiced with the most confidence by economists, who tend to believe that they have a theoretical framework for understanding most any issue."

does get at something central to Libertarianism as I experience it here and elsewhere. Klein is making his point in the context of a dispute with McArdle, but it comes up in other places. An example would be the recent MR post defining overrated composers as those more listened to than written about.

Paul J. Reber,

Well, there is also advice like "no government."

Wow. As a progressive I have to say I don't agree with a single point on your list. Most of it reads as though you cribbed it from comments overheard at a Palin rally (Point number 1 is that we need to be like just like Europe? Seriously?)

I do think that one major constraining factor with progressives discussing libertarianism is that I've never seen a definition of libertarianism put forward by a libertarian that another faction of libertarians did not denounce vociferously and in the most unequivocal terms.

Josh -- thank you for posting your source. You may be interested to learn that the laws in England have changed between 1900 and 1997, as has the enforcement philosophy. Homicides per million, which don't actually change in definition, show a much more reasonable variation, from 9.6 to 14.1. You also have to wonder how much of that rise is due to improved investigation and record-keeping in general. Anyone who has worked in vital statistics is well aware of how incomplete they are, even after WWII.

Here is my view on what progressivism means, warning I am a libertarian:

1) Educated experts are better at planning than market forces.
2) One purpose of a government is to ensure equality (the definition of this varies)
3) The other purpose is to ensure appropriate outcomes as defined by the experts.
4) Democracy must be maintained as it is the best to government's behavior.
5) The right to own stuff needs to be carefully controlled by the state both for egalitarian purposes and so no one is harmed.

Ok, now modern Libertarianism:
1) The freedom is more important than the exact method for legislation
2) All rights are negative.
3) Initiation of coercion or fraud is bad, but defensive use is ok. (What exactly defense means varies a lot)
4) Government involvement in economic matters is inherently dangerous.
5) The right to own stuff is a right.

(1) Negative Liberty is good in so far as it promotes Positive Liberty and Fairness (which are more important).
(2) Corporate America is more dangerous than the USG to our freedom and welfare and so should be constrained by the best and brightest (altruistic) regulators for the common good.
(3) If the right people are in charge, the government can probably improve market outcomes.

(1) Positive Liberty and Equality should be constrained by Negative Liberty (always).
(2) The USG is more dangerous than Corporate America to our freedom and welfare and so giving it more power to regulate puts our liberty in greater danger.
(3) No matter who is in charge, markets will probably provide better outcomes than central planning by the government.

Is this fair? Where have I gone wrong?

I should note, there is a point in a progressive tax system where the marginal gain is greater than the marginal cost.

The question is not "why have taxes?" It's "where's the equilibrium in cost vs. utility?"

I think it's very hard to argue honestly that the social democracies are hellaciously oppressed without ending up in a situation where we're simply talking past each other.

As for Seward's insults towards me, he should read up on the effective corporate tax rate in America, and how the burden actually falls heaviest on midsized firms rather than large firms, whereas in Europe there are far fewer ways for large firms to decrease tax burden.

Lastly, for the libertarians, how do you deal with the simple fact that economic, sexual, racial, and other inequalities that are currently a part and parcel of the system currently creates a world wherein those born to the bottom half have extraordinarily less access to develop their natural talents where those born to the top .5% have to screw up massively if they want to fall to even the 4th quartile of living standards? One thing that makes me so strongly progressive/liberal is that I cannot countenance that simply due to who I was born to will have the greatest effect on what I can make of my life. I don't think we can ever be equal, but we can sure be a lot closer to at least give everyone a fighting chance to succeed on their own merits..

I just love the vanity of the term "progressive."

Even calling them 'progressives' is an epic failure.

They are not 'progressive' or 'liberal' at all. They are fascist and rigid.

Toads, progressives fought against fascism, on a volunteer basis, in the Spanish Civil War. Fought, died, and lost anyway. That's just not even remotely a fair charge.

I think the problem you're encountering, which I will likely encounter when I try to meet your challenge of intelligently summarizing libertarianism, is that words don't mean what they used to.

For the most part, your definition of progressivism is accurate -- or at least it used to be. Nowadays, progressivism is sort of a catch-all term for everybody on the left. So you might have a socialist who calls himself a progressive who agrees with #3, while a social democrat or a liberal (in the American sense) would not but would still call themselves progressive. There would be some (i.e., populists) who agree with #8 and others who would not. There would be some (communists and some socialists) who would agree with #9, but others (i.e., the Green Party) who would not.

When terms become to widely used, they become difficult to define. As someone who identifies as a progressive broadly and a socialist specifically, I don't try too much to define the former term while thinking very hard on how to define the latter. For me, the simple and perfectly acceptable definition is that a progressive is one who is working for progression toward equality of opportunity for everyone. While those who call themselves progressives may have different ideas on how to get there, we're all trying to get there.

Filip, you hit the nail on the head exactly.

Could someone provide a short list, of say 10 individuals, that are regarded as the most influential in the Progressive movement? Just a gut feeling, based on a little research, but it seems like some of the most visible pundits have murky forms of corporate agendas lurking behind them. Are we dealing with wolves in sheep's clothing? The Center for American Progress -- is it considered a true progressive organization? Behind it is huge money. Huge money is often not suicidal.

Hrm. Unfortunately, Tyler, you left out all the bullshit parts of Progressivism. Little things like: failing to acknowledge that some problems are hard (e.g. linear infrastructure like roads, pipes, and wires) so that when free markets have a hard time, progressives ALWAYS supply a government solution a priori. They never bother to revise the government solution. The government can (in their eyes) never do worse than free markets once a free market hasn't generated the result they want. The end result of that is that corporations end up running government programs that nominally regulate them.

Ultimately, the #1 rule which distinguishes a progressive from a libertarian is that libertarians trust people, and progressives don't.

Sam Penrose, since I was re-browsing Taleb's Black Swan, I recognize where you got the idea of your imagined dialogue from. For one thing, Taleb himself -- who eschews abstract modeling and "top-down" thinking -- self-identifies as libertarian-leaning and has many positive things to say about Hayek. But more importantly, your dichotomy cannot explain why so many progressives enjoy John Rawls' "veil of ignorance" as a theoretical device nor can it explain why progressive economists like to talk about the textbook "social planner" who maximizes utility for society. What is politically feasible or realistic often takes a back seat to what achieves the target value of some metric in a planning document (reducing obesity by 20% in the next five years or cutting health spending from 15% of GDP to 12% of GDP, for instance).

You seem to be comparing progressive political activists and campaigners with libertarian academics. The problem is that your imagined dialog says much more about the difference between activists and academics than it does about the difference between progressives and libertarians.

@ Gabe: Odd, I find that I have the same problem when dealing with libertarians (the naivety issue). I'm pretty pragmatic when it comes to solutions, if your way ends up working better for our shared goal, then I don't have a problem with it. I just think you're massively misjudging the negative externalities concomitant with many (but not by any means all) libertarian methods.

@ Lord: I think when it comes to people who've thought about their beliefs, and who've really worked through the information, the Friedman/Hayekian libertarian isn't really uncommon. And just as you shouldn't judge the merits of progressive/liberal/conservative/oompa-loompa beliefs by people who espouse worldviews such as the one you describe.

Progressives believe direct action fixes things.

Conservatives believe direct action produces only perverse side effects.

Since by and large the problems that are solved by direct action have already been solved, the terrain is always dominated by problems that respond to direct action with perverse side effects, and conservatives are usually right.

The instinct to fix things is the same, but the caution is not.

If you want to know the basis of conservatism, real true conservatism, read the US founding documents and the works of Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine, as well as many of the other founding fathers. Even back then the creation of the structure of our country was quite contentious, and certainly not perfect, but it was a good system.

Look at it now...taken over by an oligarchy practically, if not completely.

This country was created to be a Republic, if we could keep it, as Franklin is quoted as saying. Individualism is a core idea in a Republic. An educated, informed populace is another required item on the list.

As for your one point, I do not see how any modern progressive policies as I understand them could be said to allow for greater scope of individualism. Progressive ideologies are collectivist, not based on the individual, which always ends up in tyranny in most cases, based on history.

The USA is Republic, not a Democracy, though you couldn't tell now. It doesn't take a genius to figure out power hungry people would take it over as the masses stood by.

Sadly most of us have forgotten our history.

I am delighted with the concept of Economics as a Science With No Data. I don't think I could have come up with a more pithy description of the libertarian view of the world.

I think that a core difference between progressives and libertarians is their attitude about the morality of government intervention. A self-defined progressive above listed his basic tenets as follows:

Three Big Goals:
(1) Closing the gap of Equality of Opportunity
(2) Maximizing personal freedom
(3) Social Safety Net

This is a very good list, but it implies that only progressives care about these outcomes. In fact, many libertarians would favor those ends, as well, even assuming an expansive definition of "personal freedom." The real difference is the means. Progressives have a positive view of state power as a means. Libertarians view the government monopoly on violence as something to be employed as little as possible, just enough to enable a civil society.

Progressives see state power as the only way of enforce socially desirable economic outcomes. Libertarians see state power as inherently suspect, even if it is used to right a wrong, (which sometimes they agree it must). The key is getting agreement on what wrongs are so wrong as to take a risk on government force as a solution, and the libertarians are stingy on this score, while progressives are rather generous.

The fact that most libertarian attacks on government tend to focus on its waste, inefficiency or corruption makes progressives believe that we're simply debating about the leaky bucket. If we can simply get libertarians to understand that a certain amount of waste, inefficiency, or even corruption is a small price to pay for social justice, then we could all reach some sort of agreement on government policies. But this aspect of the debate disguises the essence of their difference.


Haven't read Taleb, actually, and don't pretend that any 200 word passage I could write on the subject won't sound like a caricature. I agree that there are progressive intellectuals who draw on Libertarian traditions (and presumably Libertarian activists who draw on progressive rhetoric and tactics). It's a big messy world with complicated people in it. But I do think the associations:
get at a real difference (in practice) between those who self identify with one or the other.

It would be interesting to see a progressive try to sum up an intelligent version of libertarianism.

Here's a good faith attempt. I don't think it applies to all libertarians, but it probably does to the ones I'd have a beer with. Let me know where I'm wrong or incomplete.

1) The market mechanism is an extraordinary means of coordinating social action. This mechanism reflects not the will of a few well-positioned central actors but the aggregate knowledge and preferences of society.

2) Furthermore, even a perfect democratic state which perfectly reflected aggregate knowledge and preferences would have a fatal flaw - it would force everyone to go along with the same program. The market is not only effective but moral, because it represents the spontaneous free action of all.

3) Although there are differences in station between members of a liberal order, these are in principle gradations of comfort, not power.

4) Furthermore, most people can attain any station they wish in a liberal order; it's primarily a function of preferences for consumption goods vs. free time. (There's nothing, of course, wrong with either preference.) Some people have an easier time of it than others, but increasing the reach of the state is only likely to multiply their advantages thereof.

5) Not all human social evils are specifically statal in nature; sexism, racism, homophobia are of course awful, because they judge individuals by the quality of the group. It is unfortunate that many left attempts to attack these only create another artificial hierarchy of priveliged groups when equality can only mean the treatment of each as an individual, not a possessor of group characteristics. Left to the profit motive, people will discover that these prejudices are irrational and abandon them.

6) Likewise, the free movement of goods, services, people, and technology across borders will tend to disrupt the maintenance of particularistic identities and systems of tyrannical control. The global market-society represents not the particularlistic social vision of Western Europe, although the inhabitants of that region were fortunate enough to first live within it, but the universal condition of human emancipation. However, the consolidation of this global society in systems of global governance - beyond those neccessary, at least, to ensure its continuation - would only undermine its essential character.

7) Those who argue about preferences for equality vs growth in an economy should have paid more attention in third grade math. Compound interest means that even a slight increase in the growth rate will be good everybody in the long run, regardless of what happens to the distribution of wealth.

8) Furthermore, the protection of the environment is best achieved by the free market growth machine. With higher standards of living, people are more willing to sacrifice consumption for environmental quality, and with incentives for innovation they are more likely to implement environment-saving technology.

9) Most new ideas come from people who start businesses.

10) In a large state true democratic governance is impossible, because unlike the market, a perfectly functioning democracy would require every voter to have perfect global knowledge. In the absence of such ficticious beings all particular attempts to regulate an industry - whether through tariffs, industrial policy, safety and environmental regulations, antitrust, whatever - will fall most under the influence of those with the most interest in it, the industrialists themselves. Thus, the tendency is for all regulatory frameworks to descend into the protection of market power.

11) Humanity's natural risk aversion means that crowds are likely to erupt into moral panics. This irrational side of human nature allows unscrupulous individuals to strip them of their liberties in the name of regular overblown crises - environmental, financial, military, cultural.

12) The influence of culture on human affairs is generally overstated. Human beings are alike everywhere in that they respond to material incentives and unlike everywhere in that each is a singular individual with hopes, dreams, and talents of her or his own.

...Economics as a Science With No Data

I think that might better describe religion. Oh wait - we were talking libertarian economics so that's redundant.

"Eccdogg wrote:

"I think it is always helpfult to try to paint someone you disagree with in the most charitable light."

And if your disagreement is with Adolph Hitler, Jozef Stalin or?????"

Two points.

First, it is always a good idea to TRY. In the case of those mentioned above I would imagine you would try and fail at showing them in a charitable light.

Second, do you believe that libertarians, progressives, or conservatives are anywhere near the evil of those mentioned. I do not (although I am sure many partisans do).

So in the context of this discussion it is always helpful to assume that a person you disagree with is not EVIL or STUPID, but that they have a different outlook on the world that maybe you should listen to pontenially refine your views or at least understand why they don't agree.

At the end of that conversation you may conclude that the person IS in fact evil or stupid at which point further conversation is useless. But at that point why bother bickering with someone who is evil or stupid, you are not going to change thier mind.

@wasser - Indeed! So what is the psychological gift of Libertarianism?

I don't understand what you're asking.

If you want me to psychologize about why people are libertarians, I'm sure I could throw out a couple of flattering or insulting theories as the audience demands. But that's a stupid game.


You wrote,

"...Economics as a Science With No Data

I think that might better describe religion."

Don't you see any difference between faith and reason?

In a thread in which someone feels the need to point out the difference between early 20th century and modern progressives, did we really see this?

Toads, progressives fought against fascism, on a volunteer basis, in the Spanish Civil War. Fought, died, and lost anyway. That's just not even remotely a fair charge.

From what I remember of Homage to Catalonia, many of the people fighting against fascism would not have self-identified with either the Croly and Ely Progressives or the modern version, both of whom seem(ed) to favor saving capitalism from the capitalists.

Tyler, this was a great challenge, and not very many are up to it (or even understand it). The level of debate over politics has fallen to the level of the lowest common denominator as people focus on the worst of Clintonism, Bushism, and Obamaism, none of which illustrates a pure view (theory) of the various political philosophies because of the demands of reality and compromise.

I am particularly amused/amazed by people who think it is possible, even in theory, to have no ideology whatsoever in one's personal beliefs. More accurately, these are people who think that their opponents are ideologues while they themselves are perfectly unbiased and focused on facts -- all of them and not just the convenient ones -- with perfect weighting and navigation through uncertainty. They are self-parody, impossible to take seriously, and responsible for most of the vitriol and talking past one another that has become modern political discourse.

Kudos to those of you who have understood and attempted to rise to the challenge, especially Leigh Caldwell.

I'm still delighting in the idea of science with no data. Even if you think economics has no possible data -- that, for example, prices do not exist, or that countries have neither histories nor economic policies -- the idea of having science with no data is just marvelous to me.

I've occasionally said that libertarians consider the real world to be a special case, to be ignored whenever possible. But "science with no data" is so much pithier.

Anyways, interesting discussion. Reminds me of late evening dorm room chats, which is of course the very best thing libertarianism has to offer.

But LTV, at least in Marx's version, is a theory of price formation. Maybe it corresponds to reality and maybe it doesn't, or maybe it does only under certain conditions. But if it doesn't we should dismiss it.


Do you like your mud pies a la mode?


I don't know what your're talking about.

Do you?

I'm not trying to hi-jack this thread, but...I once met a guy at a social event in Greensboro, and after a while we found that we both self-identified as Libertarians. He made the comment that if you asked 10 Libertarians the same question, you would get 11 different answers. We both laughed, but he and I knew the meaning of the joke. The biggest challenge for Liberarianism is that it is an enormously wide field, from anarcho-libertarians at one end of the spectrum, to crypto-fascists masquerading as libertarians at the other end.
My experience in the modern USA is that most people describing themselves as libertarians are totally inconsistent in their philosophy, to the extent that they are more authoritarian than libertarian. I remember discussing this with a work colleague who claimed to be "basically libertarian", until we discussed the "War On Drugs", whereupon he declared it to be necessary and right. At this point I opined that this did not seem to be at all libertarian, given that it involved fundamentally large-government authoritarianism, but he failed to see the philosophical disconnect.
The short comment in this longer message is that if we watch to see whether a set of Libertarian principles emerges in this thread, do not be surprised if the variation is way wider than that for a list of Progressive Principles.


Why do I ask how you'd like your mud pies? Obviously I am conducting a GMU type empirical field survey, and you're certainly not cooperating. You still haven't told me how you like your mud pies, and without that data how can I develop a universal, eternal, and immutable law of economics?

And since you mentioned Jonah Goldberg, I think he's one of the best, ever, not an economist, unfortunately, but still great.

Now, don't have a cow.

I wonder if it is possible to define libertarianism as entirely anti-progressive, and vice versa? How does one design a system of competitive meritocracy outside of, say, the rule of law; in other words without some sensibility of cooperative egalitarianism? How can we make critical decisions about our national defense without decisive and independently minded leaders? The yin yang arguments of conservative and liberal, or progressive and libertarian, irresistibly mirror the binary of "traditional" gender role. The libertarian father defends to the death the womb of individual liberty while the progressive mother nurtures each individual with equal attention and care. Yet binary models typically fail to delve beneath either the individual or collective social psyche. According to Jung, in the subconscious of each gendered identity there exists a gender opposite. Like gender, perhaps tension between the competitive and cooperative are integrated and necessary parts of a whole in the struggle to evolve socially; that is to progress. If I am a Progressive, then I would define Libertarian ideals as an alter-ego; a necessary part of my identity as an American who believes simultaneously in individual liberty, and social and environmental responsibility; and belief that the totality of human potential, intelligently constrained within an ecological equilibrium of competition and cooperation, remains largely untapped.

I'm half English, half US citizen so my comments are going to be from a mixed perspective.

I think you over-estimate the role of European systems in US progressives' worldview. Progessives use European states as examples of what can work - and European progressives do the same thing too. Here in the UK progessives talk a lot about what the Norwegians or the Danes can teach us about schooling or the penal system, but we don't mean by it we aspire to be them - just that we recognise that we can learn from their experiences. I think many politicians in the US are open to similar learnings, not just liberals - but the more cosmopolitan perspective in US politics has been drowned out by the ideological rump of the Republican party. It was not for no reason Colin Powell made his critique of what the GOP has become.

Progessives also don't believe in absolute determinism (generally at least) but rather in path determinism or contingency - if you're born into a poor family in an area with poor education, your chances aren't good, but you can still excel - personal choice is still a factor. Progressives would prefer every child got a shot at success, as (to be best of my knowledge) would conservatives - they just disagree on how best to get there. Nobody thinks children should pay for their parents' mistakes. Progressives think that government should make up for the inequalities that result from historical contingency; conservatives believe government will create new historical contingencies. Neither group's looking to secretly corrupt the next generation - despite the tone of much debate.

Inequality in the US is wider than in most of Europe. Progessives generally believe that if you lessen inequality, you reduce crime - the morality of the mechanism aside, more equal societies tend to be safer. Look at Norway! (joke - see previous comments...) And safer communities attract investment (less risk), attract residents (bigger market), and require less expenditure on security (lower overheads). The savings can be spent on stuff that makes life even better - environmental services, education, etc etc. Progressivism could result in lower taxes, if it were allowed to play out.

Finally - all political systems have flaws and require surveillance and calling to account - that's how power is trammeled. But asking limited power to spend money on health, education and infrastructure is not prima facie a bid for totalitarian control over our lives - so a reasonable response would be to ask how those powers would be kept in check and whether they are value for money, not to accuse those asking for the powers of some nefarious plot. I don't think any progressives would be afraid to argue for their cause if asked to, nor to make compromises if it meant the greater good could be done - but it's hard to maintain that view in the face of quite childish, hysterical attempts at criticism. This site's bloggers not included in that, of course. And of course, I don't think progressives would shy away from being held accountable for their decisions - in fact, I think they'd welcome it.

"Up to a point, greater security promotes individual development. Too much security promotes laziness and hedonism, which seems to be what a lot the European countries you cite have descended into. It just seems to me that the progressive welfare state is far more soul-crushing than the U.S. system. I much prefer fending for myself than being taken care of and dictated to by nanny state bureaucrats."
- Paul

Actually, you would be wrong. Let's look at the most welfare of the welfare states, the Scandinavian countries. Who has higher literacy rates, the US or Scandinavia? They do. Who has -vastly- lower crime rates? They do. Who didn't suffer much during the recent economic downturn? With the notable exception of Iceland, the Scandinavian countries. In a somewhat related question: Who has lower rates of religiosity? They do, by far.

By any measure you care to pick, there are more opportunities for more people in Scandinavia than there are in the US.

The point is that you /can/ fend for yourself, through the opportunities brought to you via circumstance. More socialized countries ensure that people who don't have your chance-provided opportunities at least have a few avenues of their own to make use of.

I happen to think that the fundamental difference between a Conservatives/Libertarians on one side and a Progressive/Liberal on the other side is that Cons and Libertarians heroically under-estimate the wicked role of chance in determining what opportunities are available to any given individual. Getting ahead means hard work, and nobody begrudges people their success, but saying that hard work was 100% of the reason you got ahead is as fallacious as thanking God that your surgery went well.

these comments are a long time ago almost 6 months. Reading through this crap I think you All should forget what your talking about and go off somewhere Alone and Meditate on the words of Jesus.Yours leave much to be desired.

I thought I'd try to help you out with this. Your understanding of progressivism lacks historical perspective, and your concept of conservatism is even less grounded. Conservative philosophy is the philosophy of our "Founding Fathers". It was called "liberalism" then. Progressivism is "new liberalism" as defined by Herbert Croley, John Dewey, and others in the early to mid 1900s, building on the ideas of Marx. There is a document that reviews all of this at www.cedarstrip.wordpress.com. It will take a few hours to read it all, but its well documented and will make everything clear.

One of your mistakes is assuming that Republican equals Conservative. Not so. Progressives have tended to dominate the Republican Party (as well as the Democratic Party) since WW II. They just have a different constituency than the Democrats. Special interest groups within both parties drive the legislative agendas. The conservative movement within the GOP is a fairly recent thing, but they don't control the party. It is somewhat like the far left movement within the Democratic Party.

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