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The Right and the Left, in a Nutshell

Introduction to "Conscience of a Progressive," a Book in Progress.

Ernest Partridge, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers

March 18, 2006

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 peril.

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.

The Regressives:

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 right.”

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 “ordinary citizens.

The Progressives:

“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 right-wing propagandists.

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



Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the
fields of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy.  He publishes the
website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the
progressive website, "The Crisis Papers"
(www.crisispapers.org).   His book in progress, "Conscience of a
Progressive," can be seen at www.igc.org/gadfly/progressive /^toc.htm
. Send comments to: [email protected].

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