Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

This Is What the Progressives Want To Do to Us | Mises Wire

Posted by M. C. on March 6, 2021

The specific aspect of Bentham’s thinking (wide-ranging thinking, I should add) that appeals to the progressive mindset is his belief that there is no natural law, natural rights, natural liberty, and natural and naturally harmonic outcomes, especially in the marketplace.

Thus, it is not hard to see how, to paraphrase F.A. Hayek, “the worst get on top” in places like Minneapolis and Portland and, increasingly, Washington, DC. The sheer ferocity of the political radicals toward an alleged infraction of their view of “justice” is out of proportion to the actual alleged offense. In this atmosphere, most people just want out, leaving the radicals even more firmly entrenched to impose even more damage to others.

William L. Anderson

For all of the campaign and inauguration talk about “unity” and moderation, President Joe Biden is governing like a progressive on all fronts, from cultural issues to the armed forces to the economy. Biden’s unprecedented thirty-two executive orders his first week in office provide evidence he and his party intend to expand executive governance well beyond anything this country has seen in its long history. Furthermore, all his political appointments are people who fall well to the left of any kind of recognizable political center and who share the president’s progressive ideology.

So, what do progressives believe, anyway? What do we mean by the term “progressive,” and why is it in the ascendency today? Furthermore, even though its destructive results are well known when we look at its history, progressivism seems to have taken over almost all of our political and social institutions, shutting down all dissent in the process.

In 2014 libertarian attorney and scholar James Ostrowski published a book entitled Progressivism: A Primer on the Idea Destroying America, which is a worthwhile read if you wish to better understand this nebulous ideology. I heartily endorse the book (having read it myself), but will let Ostrowski speak for himself, and in this piece I will attempt to carve out a small niche of my own in writing about progressivism.

While the term “progressivism” sounds like something to describe modern, secular intellectual and political movements, it actually has its roots more than two hundred years ago in the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham. Anyone who has taken a course in history of economic thought is well familiar with Bentham, who influenced the English economists from Thomas Malthus to John Stuart Mill and even beyond that.

The specific aspect of Bentham’s thinking (wide-ranging thinking, I should add) that appeals to the progressive mindset is his belief that there is no natural law, natural rights, natural liberty, and natural and naturally harmonic outcomes, especially in the marketplace. This placed him in opposition to Adam Smith and also to Frédéric Bastiat, whose Economic Harmonies stood in contrast to Bentham’s world view that free market exchanges, unless they were guided by wise people in high places, would have socially harmful results over time.

Bentham’s view was that in order to provide what he called “the greatest good for the greatest number,” governing elites were to ensure that they could guide large numbers of people to act in what progressives today would call “the public interest” by setting structures of incentives—positive and negative—depending upon the situation. We can see this as a precursor of what would culminate in the Communist “experiments” that turned vast stretches of Asia and Europe into mass death zones and in the works of American psychologist B.F. Skinner, who saw people as little more than rats in a box to be properly trained by their intellectual betters.

Understand that this is not an attack on incentives; all of us rely on incentives one way or another, be it the entrepreneur’s pursuit of profit or the rewards (and punishments) we give our children to help them find direction in life. One of the most interesting applications of incentives can be seen in how British economist and social reformer Edwin Chadwick saved countless lives by changing the pay structure of delivering British prisoners to the penal colony in Australia.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, ship captains delivering prisoners from England to Australia were paid up front for each prisoner who boarded their vessels. Having already been compensated, captains had no incentives to care for their captive crew, and about half of the prisoners died during the trips. In 1862, Chadwick convinced policymakers to change the compensation to include only those prisoners who survived the long passage. Not surprisingly, the survival rate rose to 98 percent.

While Bentham’s utilitarianism was a precursor to modern progressivism, one safely can say that progressives today are less interested in laying out structures of incentives to guide human behavior than they are in simply being obeyed. To better understand that point, we need go no further than Biden’s recent cancellation of the Keystone Pipeline in the upper Midwest and his administration’s determination to cripple one of this nation’s most productive industries.

Perhaps there is no greater article of faith among American progressives than that the oil and gas industries are creating a “climate crisis” that supposedly will engulf the planet and make life unlivable. Not surprisingly, the Keystone project has been in the cross hairs of American environmentalists for a long time, since much of the oil to be transported comes from Canadian tar sands. Declares the New Yorker in support of the cancellation:

In the spring of 2011, the NASA climate scientist James Hansen helped orient the pipeline as a climate-related fight, pointing to the massive amounts of carbon contained in the Canadian tar-sand deposits and making the case that, if they were fully exploited, it would be “game over” for the climate.

Hansen’s predictions over the past three decades are reminiscent of those of economists who have predicted ten of the last two recessions, but it is the rare journalist who actually goes beyond being a mouthpiece for the climate change cult, so we are supposed to believe that if the Keystone project were to continue and the Canadian tar sands were further exploited, the result would be rising temperatures that would make the planet unlivable. (Whether or not the tar sands are economically viable, given current energy prices, is another matter, but Biden didn’t nix the pipeline because he believed the project to be uneconomical, but rather because the environmentalist constituency that dominates his government hates any fuels that originate in the ground.)

During his campaign, Biden made his displeasure about oil and natural gas known and vowed to “phase out” the industry (read that, cripple one of the most productive industries in our economy and certainly one of the most indispensable industries at that) and replace fuels with electricity that comes primarily through wind power and solar panels. Again, we see the progressive mindset at work.

First, and most important, even if Biden were successful in completely ending all “fossil” fuel use by 2035—a date that seems to be in vogue with progressive politicians and “woke” corporations like General Motors—it is doubtful that such a move would have any significant (or even insignificant) effect upon the world’s climate.

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Contact William L. Anderson

William L. Anderson is a professor of economics at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Maryland.

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