Leftism Isn't Progressive

American leftists have a habit of adopting (or stealing) labels that don't accurately describe them. For example, the agenda of the left--which consists primarily of putting more and more of the economy under the control of the government--is downright illiberal, yet they insisted on appropriating the term "liberal" from the libertarians whom it accurately described.

In recent years, the term "liberal" has acquired some negative connotations--80 years of association with the left will do that--so they've decreed that they shall once again be called "progressives." I object to this for two reasons:

1. It's a lame rhetorical tactic. Just about everyone thinks that his agenda will promote progress. Really, we libertarians don't sit around thinking up ways to drive the economy back into a state of preindustrial squalor*. You don't get to use a declaration of victory as the name of your political philosophy. Well, obviously you can, but I call BS.

2. It's just not true. Marginal tax rates in excess of 50% aren't conducive to progress. Protectionism isn't conducive to progress. Not even if you call it "fair trade." Price controls that reduce the returns to medical innovation aren't conducive to progress. Throwing more and more money at schools that have failed year after year to educate students adequately is not conducive to progress. Policies that discourage the accumulation of capital (e.g., income vs. consumption tax) are not conducive to progress. (Market) Liberalism is progressive. Leftism is not.

Yes, I'm unilaterally declaring victory, too, but I'm not asking for an implicit pat on the back every time someone refers to my political philosophy.

Libertarians and conservatives shouldn't indulge the left in this. At the very least, we should refrain from using the term ourselves to describe leftists. Even better, call the foul every now and then.

*There are some religious fundamentalists and/or PCMNWs who actually do, but they still consider it progress.

Share this

Call em' what they are...

Socialists. The left that try to convince us they are "liberals" in the US are actually various varieties of socialists. Never quite understood why some lefties in the US get so upset when they are called socialists when they policy ideas are just culled from the Euro-socialist handbook.

They stole leftism

They also, arguably, appropriated "leftism". According to Wikipedia:

The term originates from the French Revolution, when liberal deputies from the Third Estate generally sat to the left of the president's chair, a habit which began in the Estates General of 1789. The nobility, members of the Second Estate, generally sat to the right.

The Third Estate was:

The Third Estate comprised all those who were not members of the aristocracy or the clergy, including peasants, working people and the bourgeoisie. In 1789, the Third Estate made up 96%[2] of the population in France. Due in part to a limited franchise, the representatives of the Third Estate actually came from the wealthy upper bourgeoisie; sometimes the term's meaning has been restricted to the middle class, as opposed to the working class.

and furthermore:

The Liberals, the original so-called "Leftists", were those who opposed these social and economic systems and called for the establishment of democratic systems of government, with separation of Church and State, freedom of the press, and the establishment of "free-enterprise". The free-enterprise system was seen as an economic system where owners of property were free to engage in business however they so chose without the interference of the State and without having to pay tribute to the State in order to conduct business. In this case, however, "the State" was ultimately the king and his nobility, and the tribute went not to paying for public programs, but instead to supporting the Churches and the extravagant living conditions of the aristocracy. Thus, when reading much of the literature from the 17th and 18th century, one has to keep in mind that anger directed towards "the government" is anger directed towards aristocracy and the Church.

So the leftists stole "leftism" itself from advocates of laissez-faire. From us, that is.

1848-1849, Bastiat was a

1848-1849, Bastiat was a left-wing deputy in the parliament.

Leftists

Holy cow, I knew they stole liberal but not leftish. I'll have to research this further. I learn something new every day.

To be fair, we took

To be fair, we took libertarian from the socialists...

Just about everyone thinks

Just about everyone thinks that his agenda will promote progress.

Isn't this exactly the opposite of what conservative philosophers believe? That is, their guiding principle seems to be opposition to progressive change. Here is Roger Scruton:

The purpose of politics, in my view, is not to rearrange society in the interests of some over-arching vision or ideal, such as equality, liberty or fraternity. It is to maintain a vigilant resistance to the entropic forces that erode our social and ecological inheritance. The goal is to pass on to future generations, and if possible to enhance, the order and equilibrium of which we are the temporary trustees.

This means that conservatism, in the eyes of its critics, will always seem to be doomed to failure, being no more than an attempt to escape the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Entropy is always increasing, and every system, every organism, every spontaneous order will, in the long-term, be randomised. However, even if true, that does not make conservatism futile as a political practice, any more than medicine is futile, simply because ‘in the long run we are all dead’, as Keynes famously put it. Rather we should recognize the wisdom of Lord Salisbury’s terse summary of his philosophy, and accept that ‘delay is life’. Conservatism is the politics of delay, the purpose of which is to maintain in being, for as long as possible, the life and health of a social organism.

In other words, conservatism is anti-progress.

So it is, in an important sense, accurate to describe the left as pro-progress, in contrast to the right. The problem, of course, as you pointed out, is that the statist left is just wrong on economics. But at least they have the goals right, if not the means. The right is wrong on both.

Conservatism protects progress

The Scruton quote portrays conservatism as a struggle against entropy (decay). It is akin to the struggle against cancer and to the struggle against programming bugs. This is not anti-progressive because bugs and cancer are not progress. By fixing bugs and removing cancers, we (humanity) sustain the ground on which true progress can be made.

Conservatives are sometimes wrong about what constitutes decay, so they may happen sometimes to oppose genuine progress. But that is not the same thing believing your agenda will not promote progress.

Anyway, Scruton is wrong about entropy. Yes, entropy is increasing, but that does not mean that human society is doomed to decay anytime soon (before the death of the sun). We can (locally) experience sustained and even increased order, feeding off the sun. The sun and the universe as a whole experience increased entropy but for the next few billion years we ourselves need not. So Scruton is wrong about the hopelessness of the struggle against entropy. In the long, long run, it is indeed hopeless, but it is not hopeless within the time span that politics concerns itself with.

This is not anti-progressive

This is not anti-progressive because bugs and cancer are not progress. By fixing bugs and removing cancers, we (humanity) sustain the ground on which true progress can be made.

But you are defining progress to mean something different than what both conservatives and leftists mean by it. They don't simply mean "whatever is desirable." They mean active societal change. Conservatives reject it, thinking that whatever came before is better, good enough, or not worth risking changing, while leftists and libertarians embrace it. Maintaining the status quo is not progress, even as conservatives understand it.

Scruton himself is explicit about rejecting social change for the purposes of "equality, liberty or fraternity." Yes, if you consider these things to be bugs and cancers, than conservatism is for you. But then don't pretend to be a libertarian.

Burke

But you are defining progress to mean something different than what both conservatives and leftists mean by it.

I am explaining the explicit meaning of your own actual quote from Scruton. The word "entropy" means something. And it doesn't just mean change.

Wikipedia makes the point well:

However, conservatives do not reject change. As Burke wrote, "A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation." But they insist that further change be organic, rather than revolutionary. An attempt to modify the complex web of human interactions that form human society, for the sake of some doctrine or theory, runs the risk of running afoul of the iron law of unintended consequences. Burke advocates vigilance against the possibility of moral hazards. For conservatives, human society is something rooted and organic; to try to prune and shape it according to the plans of an ideologue is to invite unforeseen disaster.

So, as I said, conservatism promotes care in change, rather than opposing change. It focuses on fixing social bugs and preventing social cancers, two hazards of too-rapid change. The ultimate goal is not to oppose change as such, but to oppose decay specifically. Decay in fact opposes progress, real progress, so conservatism, by opposing decay, promotes progress.

And it doesn't just mean

And it doesn't just mean change.

But that is not what I said. I said, "active societal change." And your Wikipedia quote seems to support this definition: "For conservatives, human society is something rooted and organic; to try to prune and shape it according to the plans of an ideologue is to invite unforeseen disaster." I.e., conservatives oppose "active societal change."

Being a "progressive" seems to mean actively working toward societal change, not opposing it on the grounds that "doctrines" or "theories" are scary and dangerous (as if conservatism is not itself a doctrine or theory, despite its own claims to the contrary).

Again, conservatives do not claim that they are working toward social progress. In their own words, they are more concerned with preserving the status quo or some historical value, but not with progressive change as such.

One can be a conservative either with regard to means or with regard to ends, or both. That is, one can hold a progressive vision of where society should be going, but think that the best way to achieve it is passively, through organic growth, rather than through active social change. Hayek was in this sense a progressive with regard to social ends, if slightly more conservative with regard to means. Which is why Hayek was not a conservative.

Hayek's essay is worth

Hayek's essay is worth reading or rereading. Here are two relevant bits:

Let me now state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments. But, though there is a need for a "brake on the vehicle of progress,"[3] I personally cannot be content with simply helping to apply the brake. What the liberal must ask, first of all, is not how fast or how far we should move, but where we should move. In fact, he differs much more from the collectivist radical of today than does the conservative. While the last generally holds merely a mild and moderate version of the prejudices of his time, the liberal today must more positively oppose some of the basic conceptions which most conservatives share with the socialists.

[...]

Though quieta non movere may at times be a wise maxim for the statesman it cannot satisfy the political philosopher. He may wish policy to proceed gingerly and not before public opinion is prepared to support it, but he cannot accept arrangements merely because current opinion sanctions them. In a world where the chief need is once more, as it was at the beginning of the nineteenth century, to free the process of spontaneous growth from the obstacles and encumbrances that human folly has erected, his hopes must rest on persuading and gaining the support of those who by disposition are "progressives," those who, though they may now be seeking change in the wrong direction, are at least willing to examine critically the existing and to change it wherever necessary.

It's important to distinguish between means and ends. It's also worth recognizing what libertarians share with the left and not with conservatives. Leftism (and libertarianism) certainly is progressive in the sense that leftists are interested in actively changing society for the better, while conservatives are in this sense not progressive. Statist leftists just happen to be wrong about the particular details regarding which policies actually make society better off. Conservatives, on the other hand, have no coherent ends; almost by definition, conservatives are only concerned with means.

And surgeons are only concerned with keeping the patient alive

Nevertheless, by cutting out the tumor, the surgeon protects the individual's progress. A dead individual cannot progress.

No, the surgeon does not tell the individual what to do with his remaining days. But does that mean that the surgeon is anti-progress? No. It means that he doesn't concern himself with the patient's progress outside of his medical concern. The doctor by his very nature (unless he steps outside of his doctoring role) will not offer an alternative to however the patient is spending his days (except insofar as his activity affects his health). This doesn't mean that the doctor is opposed to the patient's progress in areas other than health.

Conservatism, as described, is care and caution. Indeed, care and caution do not by themselves provide a direction. But that does not mean that care and caution are anti-movement, anti-progress. Care and caution, done right, protect healthy progress, allow healthy progress.

Leftism (and libertarianism) certainly is progressive in the sense that leftists are interested in actively changing society for the better, while conservatives are in this sense not progressive.

You are making conservatives out to be a superior form of libertarian. We libertarians love to go on about the superiority of spontaneous order to planned order, and about the superior adaptability and fecundity of the unplanned changes that occur in the market in comparison to the sterile and decaying deliberately planned economies. Yet here you are portraying conservatives as letting things happen by themselves (provided they happen gradually) and libertarians along with leftists as planners, as social engineers.

Conservatives, on the other hand, have no coherent ends; almost by definition, conservatives are only concerned with means.

This almost perfectly describe a commonly voiced libertarian philosophy. Libertarians advocate that the rules be followed (that property rights be respected, etc.), and this distinguishes them from non-libertarians who, for example, want people to be equal and are not too particular about bending and breaking the rules to bring about that end. Libertarians are the ones who are famously big on rules, means, process (e.g. non-initiation of force) and not willing to compromise those rules to bring about sufficiently pretty ends/outcomes (e.g. everybody being equal in some way).

It means that he doesn't

It means that he doesn't concern himself with the patient's progress outside of his medical concern.

As I understand it, Brandon's original post was about the accuracy of the label "progressive." The fact that conservatives reject an active, explicit focus on progress, while leftists (of both the classical liberal and statist variety) embrace such a focus, is reason enough to call those on the left progressives.

You are free to quibble that despite the left's interest in actively promoting progress, they are doing it wrong. And I would largely agree with you. And, you are free to quibble that despite the right's disinterest in actively promoting progress, they still want society to "improve" in some sense, if only by returning to past traditions, or by resisting decay. But neither of these quibbles are central to the issue. The label "progressive" does accurately describe a legitimate difference between liberals and conservatives; their vision of social goals and the means by which they want achieve those goals.

Conservatism, as described, is care and caution. Indeed, care and caution do not by themselves provide a direction. But that does not mean that care and caution are anti-movement, anti-progress.

Care and caution with direction can often be anti-movement and anti-progress. Take your medical, cancer example. "Keeping the patient alive" is itself a direction to move towards; one could just as easily make a conservative argument against ridding a patient of cancer on the grounds that "we simply don't what the side-effects of removing the cancer might be; better to let it be remain and hope the body organically heals itself." When in the context of cultural change, which is where modern conservatives often want to operate, the question of demarcation between what is within and what is outside the culture is central. "Keeping the patient alive" is a less conservative goal than "keeping the patient as well as his or her internal cancerous growths alive", because we just don't know how important those growths might be, or what removing them might do to the rest of the system.

You are making conservatives out to be a superior form of libertarian.

No, you are interpreting it that way because you have already concluded that a conservative approach to social change is the correct one. But I am actively arguing against that idea, precisely because it does not lead to liberty; it leads to stasis. It leads to preservation of whatever coercive social system, customs, cultural biases exist, so long as those entities are not the result of state planning. But this is not libertarianism/classical liberalism.

We libertarians love to go on about the superiority of spontaneous order to planned order

It appears you have not read Rad Geek's widely cited post, "Women and the Invisible Fist," which was a direct response to this very argument (in fact, if I recall correctly, he was indirectly responding to arguments you made.)

Incidentally, Jonathan Rauch also made the important distinction between extreme and mild forms of Hayekianism, arguing (convincingly) that Hayek himself was an advocate of the milder version, which is why he did not consider himself a conservative and would have found many of the arguments for extending the institution of marriage to gay couples appealing.

Libertarians are the ones who are famously big on rules, means, process (e.g. non-initiation of force) and not willing to compromise those rules to bring about sufficiently pretty ends/outcomes (e.g. everybody being equal in some way).

This is a modern, idiosyncratic, Rothbardian interpretation of libertarianism, and ignores the long tradition of classical liberal interest in achieving desirable social ends. Even Rothbard did not restrict himself solely to focus on means; a large part of his repertoire was imagining what society would look like, and how it would be improved, if his proposed means were followed.

It is true that classical liberalism sort of lost its way, spawning its welfare liberal evil twin, but the problem was not a focus on equality, but a confused conception of it.

Progress

But you are defining progress to mean something different than what both conservatives and leftists mean by it. They don't simply mean "whatever is desirable." They mean active societal change.

This is only a very small part of progress as people generally use the word. The eradication of smallpox was progress. The doubling of real per-capita income in the US over the last 40 years was progress. The development of mass-production techniques was progress. Conservatives--the better ones, anyway--are driven largely by the desire to conserve the kind of social order that makes this kind of progress possible.

But even according to your definition, leftists are not strictly progressive, and conservatives are not always literally conservative. When it comes to government programs (schools, Social Security, Medicare, etc.), it's the leftists who are conservative.

But even according to your

But even according to your definition, leftists are not strictly progressive, and conservatives are not always literally conservative. When it comes to government programs (schools, Social Security, Medicare, etc.), it's the leftists who are conservative.

I agree, and this is precisely the sort of argument Virginia Postrel made in "The Future and Its Enemies", with her distinction between dynamists and stasists, i.e. a realignment of political commitments along progressive/conservative lines.

But this seems to only support my argument; the problem with leftists is often that they aren't progressive enough, choosing to preserve the status quo and protect their political allies, rather than actually help the people they presume to care about.

To what extent is the

To what extent is the "progressive" sect conservative, in that they generally try to maintain some sort of stasis with regards to international trade and protecting industries ("jobs") who time has passed by? Not that this doesn't happen on both sides of the aisle in congress.

Is conservatism more simply a disposition?

Vague, historically conservative-ish sounding themes like disapointment with modern society's alienating tendencies; consumerism and "selfishness"; opposition to life extension(?), scientific interference with "natural" foods, etc., tend to be fairly big on the "progressive" left. You can see this at work with the last issue of The American Conservative on the family and local foods, some of the progressive overlap with what I would call "real" conservatism, ala Christopher Lasch's later years. (Reagan's bunch, and the neo-cons, in contrast, represent the optimistic quasi-libertarian wing of liberal-democratic triumphalism.)

A kind of anti-humanism is at work with many progressives (as documented by Frank Furedi, for example), even as it purports to defend all of humanity, contra the relatively parochial, often (explicitly) nationalist right.

Progressivism and Conservatism defined

American Progressives in the early 20th century thought they could improve upon the Constitution and principles of limited government. However any random change has a 50-50 chance of making things worse (e.g., the "living Constitution" idea, other examples here) as it does of making things better. Knowing this, cynicism and wariness (whether inborn or not -- lots of people learn it as they get older) is the motive of conservatives and advocacy of liberty is the political result. So we now have a three-level account of conservatism here: Realism leads to wariness which in turn leads both to to a desire for liberty and a respect for what is proven ("tradition").

Conservatism Defined

The words of some conservatives from the above URL should illustrate the ideals of conservatism:

"If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism..... The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom". - Ronald Reagan

"...change – whether it “real change,” “bold change” or the “change we can believe in” variety others are selling – isn’t itself an innovative policy or a particularly strong leadership stance. ... The challenge for conservatives is calibrating whether the change being proposed is consistent with our principles and our philosophy, and whether that change is appropriate.... For us conservatives it must be about principles and policies that are grounded in freedom, free markets and the rule of law." - Fred Thompson

Progressive vs. Regressive

I thought members of the American Left were using the term "progressive" in the very narrow sense that they wanted to use the State to transfer wealth from the rich to the poor.

Probably the greatest success of the Progressives in the early 20th century was promoting the myth that either you were in favor of transferring wealth from the rich to the poor, or you were "regressive" and wanted to use the State to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. If you weren't with them, you were oppressing poor, sick Appalachian coal miners for the benefit of robber barons. There was no political middle ground.

Of course, even in this narrow sense, the progressive agenda fails to achieve its advertised ends. Through inflation, moral hazard, regulatory capture, and all the other pathologies of institutionalized violence, the progressive agenda disproportionately harms the poorest of society.

I don't think they referred

I don't think they referred to that meaning. I think they rather meant that institutions and society itself should be shaped through politics, in the same way that r&d produces technical progress by tweaking systems.

Progressive income tax

I think you're probably right - though the term "progressive income tax", which is intended to disproportionately grab the money of the rich, has the word "progressive" in it and so could cause confusion. One might be forgiven for associating "progressives" with the "progressive income tax."

I had always thought that the social-engineering idea that institutions and society should be shaped through politics (which means, to a libertarian - or so I thought - by means of state power, i.e., by means of the initiation of coercive force against people minding their own business) was precisely the sort of garbage that libertarians fought against. I had thought libertarianism at root an anti-politics political stance. However, recent encounters with libertarians on this blog have convinced me otherwise. Apparently progressivism is "half right", and the position that people should mind their own damned business is all wrong, and more, "libertarian paternalism" is actually consistent with libertarianism (or so I'm informed). I've thought of myself as strictly libertarian, but my mind-your-own-damned-business attitude seems to place me closer to paleolibertarians or even conservatives than I had imagined.

If I were to criticize conservatism, it is precisely that in many ways conservatives do not mind their own damned business. So the genuine critique of conservatism today is that it is too much like the progressives in seeking to use the government for social engineering.