Opinion

Progressives don't really get progress, but the American people do

Progressives claim to have a monopoly on progress – designed by intellectuals who 'know better' and brought about by a big, beneficent government. But Americans voted in last week's elections that this brand of progress actually impoverishes, and that a free market is much smarter.

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President Obama and other progressives attribute the Democrats’ electoral shellacking last week to their failure to communicate with ordinary Americans. The implication is that most Americans are too slow to appreciate the noble and courageous government programs that progressives enacted for the public good. Another implication is that progressives are unusually smart and visionary.

The very label “progressive” suggests a forward-looking intelligence – a desire to progress past present superstitions and misinformation into a future enlightened by ideas rather than benighted by ignorance.

And because, for progressives, progress is believed always to involve a larger role for the state, the hallmark of progressive thinking is the outpouring of ideas about what government can do. Anyone objecting to the implementation of these ideas is, therefore, a nonprogressive – someone content to allow past habits and irrational notions to interfere with big, bold, collectively imposed ideas for improving society.

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Trouble is, progressives’ understanding of the source of progress is regressive. It reflects an outmoded belief that society advances only if it is consciously designed by well-meaning and smart intellectuals and steered by a beneficent and powerful government.

For a different view: Election tally: Glenn Beck won. Progressivism lost.

Free markets regulate themselves

No one more famously exposed the wrong-headedness of this belief than did Adam Smith way back in 1776. Leave individuals free to pursue their own goals as they each see fit, said Smith in effect, and the result will be an orderly, prosperous, and growing – a progressing! – economy that no one did or could design.

Since Smith, generations of economists have refined our understanding that a decentralized, free-market economy is far smarter than is even the best set of ideas concocted by the world’s most brilliant intellectuals.

When markets are free – when individuals are prohibited only from violating the property rights of others and from breaking their contractual promises – the economy swarms with countless ideas. Countless entrepreneurs generate creative ideas for supplying new goods and services that consumers will value; legions of engineers work to develop techniques for producing outputs more efficiently; armies of attorneys devise new ways for contracting parties to better reduce and share risks; bankers around the globe each work to improve methods of getting liquidity into the hands of borrowers who can use it most effectively.

These ideas, constantly bubbling up from millions of different minds, compete with each other. Each of these ideas is tested in the real world, but without being forced on anyone. Also, the feedback on these ideas’ usefulness comes not from seminar participants, but from millions of actual producers and consumers putting their own money on the line.

Ideas that actually work survive. Ideas that don’t, don’t.

One size doesn't fit all

Here’s an even better part. In markets, one size does not fit all.

Ideas that work for, say, consumers with traditional tastes will survive for the benefit of those consumers, but will not crowd out very different ideas that work for consumers with tastes that are avant-garde. A billion flowers bloom. And as Matt Ridley points out in his book “The Rational Optimist,” these many different ideas will often cross-pollinate with each other, giving birth to yet another generation of ideas – a generation that exists only because of the large and diverse number of ideas that preceded them.

Contrast the multitude of different market-generated and voluntarily adopted ideas with the ideas of progressives – for example, progressives’ idea that government must regulate the fat content of foods.

Each of us can decide how much we value, say, juicy burgers and double-dark chocolate ice cream compared to how much we value a trim waistline and longer life expectancy. And each of us values these benefits differently. The dietary choices that I make for myself are right for me, but I cannot know if they are right for anyone else. Progressives, in contrast, falsely assume there’s a single correct metric, for the whole country, that determines for everyone how to trade off the satisfaction of eating tasty but fatty foods for the benefit of being healthier.

It’s in this way that progressives’ ideas are indeed big and bold – for these ideas are about how millions of other individuals should live their lives. In practice, these are ideas about how one group of people (the politically successful) should engineer everyone else’s contracts, social relations, diets, and even moral sentiments.

'Big Ideas' are big mistakes

Progressives’ ideas, then, are about replacing the market’s unimaginably large multitude of diverse and competing ideas – each one individually chosen, practiced, assessed, and modified in light of what Austrian economist and free-market philosopher F.A. Hayek called “the particular circumstances of time and place” – with a relatively paltry set of Big Ideas. These Big Ideas are politically selected and centrally imposed. And they are enforced not by the natural give and take of the everyday interactions of millions of people but, rather, by political authority.

What’s worse, this political authority rests with those whose overriding “idea” is among the most simple-minded and antediluvian notions in history – namely, that those with the power of the sword are anointed to lord it over the rest of us.

In this respect, progressive attitudes aren’t limited to Democrats. Republicans have fallen prey to the notion that Americans would be better off if only the power of the big, federal government could be marshalled for conservative purposes. How else to explain Republican support for such policies as No Child Left Behind or government funding to promote “healthy marriage” and “responsible fatherhood”?

Far from paving a path to prosperity and progress, progressives’ ideas are a recipe for impoverishment and regression.

The good news is that voters in America seem to get that. As pollster Scott Rasmussen noted last week, “voters don’t want to be governed from the left, the right, or even the center. They want someone in Washington who understands that the American people want to govern themselves.”

Donald J. Boudreaux, a professor of economics at George Mason University, is the author of “Globalization.”

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