I love-hate the word “progressive.” Its political uses derive from the so-called Progressive Era and the less-than-socialist reforms that were enacted during that early twentieth-century period.
Today, of course, few people who use the term think about its historical origins. They think it is simply a word that means “advanced,” “better,” – well, “progressive.”
For a long time in the nineteenth-century, “progress” meant the gradual liberation of human beings from the control of the state. For some thinkers, like Herbert Spencer, it was tied to a particular view of evolution. For others, like Benjamin Constant, it was based on certain historical changes that involved increasing complexity of life spurred on the process of “globalization.” Increasing division of labor, specialization and trade were critical in this view. Others, like Sir Henry Maine, emphasized the legal changes: from status (serf/nobility) to contract – each of us now decides how to relate to others in commerce.
Constant reminded us that the “liberty of the ancients” was a collective liberty. The citizens of Athens could do whatever they liked. The “liberty of the moderns” is an individual liberty. The individual is sovereign. It is a liberty against the state.
Now this progress has become reversed. The new “progress” is back to the “liberty” of the collective. We are the state.
We are in the process, in many areas of political life, of merging ourselves with the state – of conceiving of ourselves, not as individuals, but as part of a collective that somehow commands itself. The master appears to be us, but it is not: It is “them” disguised as “us.” It is the paternalists, the special interest seekers, the crony capitalists, politicians seeking glory, and the ignorant.
As government becomes more and more involved with healthcare, the expenses associated with it become increasingly socialized. Taxpayers now have a stake in the health of everyone. My irresponsibility is no longer my problem alone; now it becomes your problem too.
What of individual autonomy? We can see the handwriting on the wall. All sorts of clever proposals to turn us into wards of the state are coming forward. There are proposals to tax sugar in soft drinks In New York and other “progressive” states, and now the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) is planning to “slowly” reduce the salt content of food.
I am not arguing for people to increase their consumption of sugar or salt or even not to reduce it. I am simply saying that if we wish to be individuals and not automatons, we need to make our own decisions about health and much else. There are few decisions more personal or more intimate than deciding what to eat.
But when we look to the state to pay for our healthcare we unleash social and political processes that have a life of their own. Step by step we give up the control of the decisions that makes us human. We become playthings of state. This is not progressive. It is reactionary.
Where are the civil libertarians in all of this?
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