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Apr 20, 2007 2:31 pm


Progressive Illiberalism



"The Progressive movement, which dominated the American scene in the years from the turn of the century to United State entrance in World War I, was not primarily a liberal movement," writes Arthur A. Ekirch Jr. in his magisterial work The Decline of American Liberalism."[I]n contrast to former American efforts at reform, progressivism was based on a new philosophy, partly borrowed from Europe, which emphasized collective action through the instrumentality of government."
Read the rest of my latest TGIF column,"Progressive Illiberalism," at the Foundation for Economic Education website.

Cross-posted at Free Association.

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Sheldon Richman - 4/23/2007

Pleased to hear it. I've commented on the new post.


Gus diZerega - 4/21/2007

Sheldon- This thread inspired me to offer a new one see above...


Sheldon Richman - 4/21/2007

I am sympathetic to this position. Oversimplification of course is an ever-present danger and hard to fully avoid. I think Ekirch appreciated this, perhaps more that my brief article indicated. Notice that he put radical socialists in the small camp of people who defended liberalism against the progressive nationalists.


Gus diZerega - 4/21/2007

You make a historical claim for which I would like some evidence. Please show me how unspent tax surpluses, rapidly rising housing prices and rising property taxes reflecting that increase in value (these are the immediate causes of Prop. 13) are the result of Progressivism.

Alternatively, was the "tax revolt" only in Progressive states? That at least suggests a possible connection to buttress what seems to me an arbitrary and irrational claim.

If you can demonstrate neither of these did you just make your claim up?

As to the rest -

My initial post addressed the argument that Progressivism was simply a case of the metastasized planning mentality. I argued that analysis was partially true, but that Progressivism was a complex movement where those who identify it only with the planning mentality misdiagnose it and misunderstand the history of how l;iberalism changed during the first half of the last century. Given the utter collapse of liberalism in any form in the Repoublican Party of late, this is an important issue.

You challenged my basic claim, arguing that strengthening democratic procedures seemed not to inhibit planning. I gave you both an example and logical analysis as to why you were mistaken.

Rather than giving counter examples or addressing my logic, you changed the subject to something unrelated and difficult to address in this forum- in part because your claims are even more vague. There are many different forms of initiatives, some better than others. Some weaknesses are inherent in the idea, others connected to particular forms. Their impact on liberty varies. In fact, what do you mean by "liberty" and why should I care? Finally, have you any actual evidence to back your assertion up? You offered none. All these issues would need addressing to adequately address your argument.

I would take more time if you took similar time with my arguments - but for now, I'll only observe that initiative legislation has been written in many forms, some better than others. California's provisions are not nearly as wisely crafted as, say, those for Washington state.

I agree that initiatives are not perfect, can be abused, and cannot deal with some kinds of important issues. But I do not recall ever having tried to make the claim they were perfect, could not be abused, or that they could deal effectively with any issue.

all that is irrelevant to my arguments on Progressivism.


Anthony Gregory - 4/21/2007

"Proposition 13 in California happened only because of the triumph of Progressivism."

It wouldn't have been necessary had it not been for such progressivism. Ballot initiatives have overall been bad for liberty, I'd say.


Gus diZerega - 4/20/2007

I meant my comment above to apply to both Anthony Gregory and Sheldon Richman's posts.


Gus diZerega - 4/20/2007

As to Anthony Gregory's post, perhaps the words of a die hard planner might make my point clear. As Hayek quotes him in Road to Serfdom (63n), Harold Laski wrote, once coming to power a British socialist government would "take vast powers and legislate under them by ordinance and decree" and "suspend the classic formulae of normal opposition." Further, "continuance of parliamentary government would depend on its [Labor's] possession of guarantees from the Conserbvative Party that its work of transformation would not be disrupted by repeal in the event of its defeat at the polls."

as Hayek pointed out, planners require a predictable environment. The Progressive reforms I listed were designed to reduce the power and independence of government from its citizens. Another Progressive reform I did not mention above, the adoption of home rule, weakened state legislatures even more. The impact of these measures made the government's environment less predictable, less controllable, thereby undermining the kind of stability planners want.

Proposition 13 in California happened only because of the triumph of Progressivism. While my view is now more nuanced, most libertarians at the time, including me, thought it was wonderful.

Sheldon Richman helps underline my point. Progressivism was very complex. No single ideologiocal label really does it justice. But even this description distingusihing between Wisconsin and national Progressives is an oversimplification. Progressivism triumphed in more states than LaFollette's Wisconsin. California and many other states also adopted Progressive institutions that fundamentally changed their political dynamics. Since then the primary has basically spread nation wide, reducing the power of party elites to control access to elections. To write about Progressivism and ignore all this is seriously misleading. Ekirch's book is wonderful, but it has only a national focus.

Further, as Ekirch also notes, there was a world of difference between Wilson and Roosevelt, as I observed above. The Wilsonian Progressivism, with many Populist roots, was emphatically not planning oriented. That it lost out for a variety of rreasons should not blind us to its importance at the time. Wilson, after all, beat Roosevelt.

Yes, as things turned out the statist and nationalist wing of Progressivism ultimately dominated nationally, in no small part due to WWI. And I imagine we all think this was bad. But the decentralist wing triumphed at the state level. Why is this ignored? I suggest because it undermines simple ideological dichotomies.

And that is really my only point here - that the break up of liberalism around the turn of the last century was a complex affair, and no good guys vs bad guys analysis does it justice. Further it helped justify the demonization under a single label of all forms of liberalism that are not "classical" - which contributed more than a little to so many classical liberals selling their soul to Republican Caesarists over the past few years. Georeg Bush is acceptable because the liberals are worse. Libertarians, some of them, were not fooled. Most nonlibertarian classical liberals cannot say as much, and I think it worthwhile trying to understand why.


Sheldon Richman - 4/20/2007

Ekirch distinguishes between progressivism in the states and nationally: "However liberal and idealistic such progressivism may have been in Wisconsin on a local grassroots level, on a national scale it came to have a quite different emphasis and ultimate purpose" (paperback, 171).


Anthony Gregory - 4/20/2007

"In addition, many of the political reforms associated with the Progressive movement, especially at the state level, do not fit a planning and bureaucratic mentality. Not by a long shot. Consider the following: initiatives, referendums, the recall, and primaries. Even the civil service was designed more to fight political machines than create an elite corps of administrators."

I don't see the conflict between any of these reforms and more planning and bureuacracy. But then again, I don't see a conflict between more democratic involvement and participation, and more central planning and statism.


Gus diZerega - 4/20/2007

I have long admired Ekirch's book, and wish it had received much more attention during the past six years when many "classical liberals" embraced similar horrors as those he describes of certain Progressives and some in the New Deal.

Having said that, as I have read the Progressives, I think Ehkirch's analysis does not quite fit the gloss Sheldon Richman puts on it. Progressives were deeply divided and there were at least two broad camps represented, as Sheldon decscribes. The opposing platforms of Theodore Roosevelt and the early Wilson were both "Progressive" but only TR's fit this particular description of Progressivism.

In addition, many of the political reforms associated with the Progressive movement, especially at the state level, do not fit a planning and bureaucratic mentality. Not by a long shot. Consider the following: initiatives, referendums, the recall, and primaries. Even the civil service was designed more to fight political machines than create an elite corps of administrators.

I think part of the reason genuine liberalism is in such sad shape today is because too many times people adopt a simple dichotomy of "true" and "false" liberals rooted in divisions that first developed in the Progressive Era rather than that time as an extraordinarily complex one where liberalism ultimately fragmented over issues that the original liberal thinkers had never addressed because they did not exist and probably were often unimaginable: wage labor, giant enterprises, mass democracy, the rapid growth of science, technology, and corporate governance.