Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Rothbard vs. the Religion of Progressivism

Posted by M. C. on June 11, 2022

Despite these superficial deviations, progressives are Marxist to the core because they fervently believe in the Enlightenment myth of inevitable progress toward an ideal society. Therefore, as Rothbard points out, progressivism is “‘religion’ in the deepest sense, held on faith: the view that the inevitable goal of history is a perfect world, an egalitarian socialist world, a Kingdom of God on Earth.”

Joseph T. Salerno

Our main text for the Rothbard Graduate Seminar this week is Murray Rothbard’s Power and Market: Government and the Economy, which contains a systematic treatment of one area of economic theory, interventionism. This represents a departure from past seminars in an important respect. Earlier seminars focused on texts by Mises or Rothbard that addressed a much broader scope of their thought. Previous seminar texts such as Man, Economy, and State and Human Action cover the entirety of economic theory. Human Action, in addition, features a full treatment of methodology as well as discussions of epistemology, political philosophy, and economic history. Other texts used at earlier Rothbard Graduate Seminars such as The Ethics of Liberty and Economic Controversies are also broad in scope, containing, respectively, Rothbard’s systematic presentation of his political philosophy and a broad spectrum of his essays on theoretical and applied economics.

This week’s RGS deliberately focuses on the much narrower topic of interventionism, because it is the economic program of progressivism, the prevailing ideology of the twenty-first century. Progressivism attained this position after a leftist “long march” through Western educational, cultural, religious, economic, and political institutions, which began shortly after World War II, gained momentum during the 1960s, and rapidly accelerated in the 1980s. In a prescient memo written shortly after the war, Ludwig von Mises pointed out that the essence of the progressive policy agenda is interventionism. Mises called the teachings of progressives, “a garbled mixture of divers particles of heterogeneous doctrines incompatible with one another.” He included Marxism, British Fabianism, and the Prussian historical school in this doctrinal witch’s brew. Whatever the differences among them, however, all progressives were passionately united on two points. First, they believed that “contradictions and evils are . . . inherent in capitalism.” And second, they argued that the only way to root out the inequities and irrationalities of capitalism and transform it into a more humane and rational system was by imposing the program of interventionism laid out by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto. As Mises pointed out, “the Communist Manifesto is for [progressives] both manual and holy writ, the only reliable source of information about mankind’s future as well as the ultimate code of political conduct.”

To be clear, the gradualist, interventionist path to socialism laid out in The Communist Manifesto was explicitly rejected in the later writings of Marx as “petty-bourgeois nonsense.” The later Marx advocated permitting the conditions of revolution to ripen until the continuing immiseration of the workers, worsening economic crises, and concentration of capital in fewer and fewer hands caused the proletariat to rise up and destroy the capitalist system in one mighty blow. Although embracing Marx’s ultimate goal, progressives thus differ from full-blooded Marxists in choosing the nonviolent, gradualist route toward socialism via interventionism, the mixed economy, democratic socialism, or whatever you wish to call it. Some progressives view interventionism as a method of subverting capitalism and achieving full socialist central planning. Others—probably the majority today—see interventionism as the means for taming and humanizing capitalism and seek to foist it on the productive class of workers and entrepreneurs as “a permanent system of society’s economic organization.” But the difference between these two variants is beside the point. Regardless of the precise long-run goal of their proponents, interventionist policies have the same effects. They distort market prices, misallocate resources, stifle and misdirect entrepreneurship, destabilize the economy, and redistribute income from the producers to the parasitic ruling elites and their constituencies and cronies.

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