Those of us who are at middle age or beyond have lived through a revolution
in political and economic theory and practice, a revolution so profound that
few of us can even begin to appreciate its significance, much less its
Future historians, however, will understand and appreciate this revolution
and will wonder at the passivity of the public today and the ease with which
those who instituted this upheaval achieved their success. The same
historians, I would venture, will be equally or more amazed at how this
moment played out. But this we cannot know, for their past is our immediate
future. We are the agents of that still-to-be written history. The United
States of America, in this year of 2006, is at a hinge of history. Our fate,
and that of our successors, rests directly in the hands of all of us who are
politically alert and active today. As Edward R. Murrow famously said, “we
can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility
for the result."
Those factions and interests now in control of the United States government
declare that their policies, which they choose to call “conservative”
and I prefer to call “regressive,” are an advancement in the course of
human history. Those who disagree, and the pollsters tell us that they are a
majority of the American people, believe that in the past five years, and
arguably in the past twenty-five years, the people of the United States and
their government, have suffered a grievous setback.
I count myself among this dissenting majority. In my book, "Conscience
of a Progressive," now nearing completion, I attempt to articulate that
dissent, criticize the foundational dogmas of the regnant, “regressive”
regime that now controls our country, and justify the principles of
“progressivism” – the political-economic ideology that distinguished
and honored our past, and if we are both determined and fortunate, may once
again guide and enrich our national future.
Here, briefly, are the “players” in this political contest.
To begin, it is important to note that the regressivism that controls and
supports our present government is not a unified political doctrine. Rather,
it is a coalition, some factions of which are in strong disagreement with
others, most notably “the libertarian right” and “the religious
In general, most regressives tend to believe that the ideal society is
merely a collection of autonomous individuals and families in voluntary
association. In fact they assert that strictly speaking, as Dame Margaret
Thatcher once proclaimed, “There is no such thing as a society -- there
are individuals and there are families,” and Ayn Rand, “There is no such
entity as ‘the public’ ... the public is merely a number of individuals.
” It follows that there is no such thing as “public goods” and “the
public interest,” apart from summation of private goods and interests.
Moreover, there are no “victims of society.” The poor choose their
condition; poverty is the result of “laziness” or, as the religious
right would put it, a “sin.”
Each individual, by acting to maximize his or her personal self-interest,
will always act “as if by an invisible hand” (Adam Smith) to promote the
well-being of all others in this (so-called) “society:” that which is good
for each, is good for all. Accordingly, the optimal economic
system is a completely unrestricted and unregulated free market of
“capitalist acts by consenting adults.” (Robert Nozick) Moreover,
private ownership of all land, resources, infrastructure, and even
institutions, will always yield results preferable to common (i.e.
government) ownership and control. Finally, the regressives firmly believe
that because economic prosperity and growth are accomplished through capital
investment, the well-being of all is accomplished by directing wealth into
the hands of “the investing class;” i.e. the very rich, whereby that
wealth will “trickle down” to the benefit of all others.
The libertarian right insists that the sole legitimate functions of
government are the protection of the individual’s unalienable natural
rights to life, liberty and property. The libertarian’s demand for
individual autonomy and government non-interference entails a tolerance and
respect for privacy, and thus the libertarian has no use for sodomy and drug
laws, for laws prohibiting gay marriage, abortion, voluntary euthanasia, and
least of all for government endorsement of religious dogma or enforcement of
religious practice. Thus the libertarian fully endorses John Stuart Mill’s
pronouncement that, “over himself, over his own body and mind, the
individual is sovereign.” In general, the libertarian advocates the
fullest possible freedom of the individual, consistent with equivalent
liberty of all others. In these respects, there is much of libertarian
thought that should be attractive to the progressive.
The religious right, of course, vehemently rejects the libertarian’s
uncompromising tolerance and insistence that the government has no right
whatever to interfere in the private life of the individual. The religious
right, to the contrary, believes that the government is entitled to enforce
moral behavior and even to support religious institutions and
“establish” religious doctrines in the law. In the most extreme cases,
the religious right advocates the establishment of “biblical law” in
place of our present system of secular Constitutional law.
With the exception of the dispute between the libertarians and the religious
right regarding private behavior, all the other tenets of regressivism share
this characteristic: They all lead to policies that benefit wealth and power
(“the masters”), to the disadvantage of all others; i.e., the
“Progressivism” is essentially the “liberalism” of most of the
twentieth century, as promulgated by both Roosevelts, by the Kennedy
Brothers, and by many Republicans, such as Dwight Eisenhower, Jacob Javits
and Earl Warren. “Progressivism,” to put it simply, is “liberalism,”
free of the slanderous connotations heaped upon it by contemporary
In general, progressives endorse the political principles of our founding
documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as well as
the fundamental moral precepts of the great world religions and the ideas of
many secular moral philosophers – precepts most familiar to the American
public through the moral teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
Accordingly, progressivism is founded on enduring “conservative”
principles. Thus the familiar “liberal vs. conservative” dichotomy is a
hoax. Moreover, the Right, far from being “conservative,” in fact
endorses a radical political doctrine, with policies designed to return
society and the economy to a condition of autocracy, wealth and power for
the privileged few, and servitude, poverty and ignorance for “the
masses” – a condition which, until recently, was generally believed to
be permanently discredited and relegated to the distant past. Hence my
preferred term, “regressive.”
In contrast to the regressive, the progressive regards society not as an
aggregate of autonomous individuals but as an “emergent” entity that is
more than the sum of its individual human components. In this sense, a
society is like a chemical compound such as table salt or water: substances
with properties that are separate and distinct from the properties of their
component elements. It then follows that there are “social goods” and
“public interests” that are demonstrably separate from the sum of
private goods and interests. Moreover, there are genuine “victims of
society” who are in no way responsible for their suffering and poverty.
(The illegitimate child of a teen-age heroin addict did not choose her
parents. The decision to “outsource” a job was out of the hands of the
worker who loses that job).
Because society (or “the public”) is demonstrably distinct from the sum
of its component individuals, behavior that might be good for each
individual, may be bad for society as a whole; and conversely, what is
“bad” for the individual (e.g., taxes and regulations) may benefit
society at large. These fundamental precepts: “good for each, bad for
all” and “bad for each, good for all” are of essential
importance to the defense of progressivism, and by implication to the
refutation of regressivism.
The progressive is not “against” free markets, but rather believes that
in the organization and functioning of society and its economy, markets are
invaluable servants. But markets can also be cruel masters. Thus, in the
formulation of public policy, markets should count for something and even
for much, but not for everything. There is a “wisdom” of the
marketplace, but that “wisdom” is not omniscient. Adam Smith was right:
each individual seeking his own gain might act, “as if by an invisible
hand,” to the benefit of all. But as Adam Smith also observed and
regressive economists tend to forget, there is a “back of the invisible
hand,” whereby self-serving action by each individual can bring ruin upon
the whole – a warning that was vividly presented by Garrett Hardin in his
landmark essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” (1968)
The progressives are so much in favor of a market economy that they are
determined to protect it from its excesses and from its inborn tendency
toward self-destruction. The progressive recognizes that the natural
tendency of “free markets” is toward monopoly and cartels, which are, of
course, the end of the free market. Thus the progressive endorses anti-trust
laws, which means, of course, a rule of law enforced by government.
The progressive also recognizes that market transactions, especially those
by large corporations, affect not only the parties of those transactions
(the buyers and sellers), but also unconsenting third parties, the
“stakeholders;” for example, citizens who reside downwind of and
downstream from polluting industries, citizens who are enticed by false
advertising to endanger their health, and parents whose childrens’ minds
and morals are corrupted by mass media. “Stakeholders” should thus have
a voice in these corporate transactions, and the only agency with a
legitimate right to represent the stakeholders is their government; hence
the justification for regulation of corporations.
The progressive agrees that economic benefits “trickle down” from the
investments of the wealthy. But he also insists that the wealth of the
privileged few “percolates up” from knowledge and labor of the producers
of that wealth – the workforce – and from the tranquility and social
order that issues from a public that is served well by, and freely consents
to the rule of, its government. The progressive insists that the workers are
most productive and prosperous when they participate, through collective
bargaining, in determining the conditions of their employment. The
progressive also recognizes that the productivity of that workforce results
from public education and from the publicly funded basic research that might
otherwise be neglected by private entrepreneurs.
In addition to the libertarian’s defense of government’s function of
protecting the rights of “life, liberty and property,” the progressive
believes that it is also the function of government “to establish Justice,
insure domestic Tranquility, ... [and] promote the general Welfare."
Critics of The Right, who choose to call themselves “conservatives,”
should note that these words are quoted directly from the Preamble to the
Constitution of the United States.
Also, along with the libertarians, the progressive endorses the “like
liberty principle” which affirms that each individual is entitled to
maximum liberty, consistent with equal liberty for all. Likewise, the
“no-harm principle,” expressed in the familiar folk maxim, “my freedom
ends where your nose begins.” However, the libertarians fail to come to
terms with the full implications of these principles, for their program
results in freedom for the privileged few at the cost of the freedom and
welfare of the many. To put the matter bluntly, the progressive disagrees
with the libertarian, not because the progressive values liberty less, but
because he values liberty more.
The progressive insists that certain institutions and resources are the
legitimate property, not of private individuals, but of the public at large.
These include, first of all, the government itself: the legislature, the
executive, and the courts. In addition, the natural environment – the
atmosphere, the waterways, the oceans, the aquifers, wildlife – can not be
parceled out, marked by property lines, and sold to the highest bidder.
Language, the arts, literature, the sciences, are common heritages which
must be protected and nurtured for the common good, and not be used and
exploited exclusively for private gain.
Finally, the progressive demands that government belongs to the people, and
not exclusively to those interests that can afford to “buy into” access
to and influence upon the government. “Governments,” the progressive
reminds us, “are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the
consent of the governed,” and that “whenever any Form of Government
becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or
to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” And if the
(self-described) “conservatives” find such sentiments to be treasonous,
they should again take note of the source. These words are from the founding
document of our republic: The Declaration of Independence.
Accordingly, far from being “traitors,” as Ann Coulter would have us
believe, progressives are among the most authentic of patriots.
Copyright 2006 by Ernest Partridge