Mark Levin is a rabid right wing radio talk show host. Because I at least scan about any title with the word progressivism in it, I viewed his latest book Rediscovering Americanism: and the Tyranny of Progressivism and was pleasantly surprised at the depth of his topic. His study of the origin of natural rights, his survey of the philosophers like Montesquieu who influenced the founders and framers, and his review of the changes in our fundamental governing ideas that came with progressivism make this a very worthy read. Its depth is surprising and at least for me required a slow reading.
Kevin Williamson at National Review wrote an excellent review in Rediscovering Austrianism and focused further on Levin’s distinction between our constitutional heritage and progressivism:
Levin applies the Hayekian standard to the case of regulation. Hayek, a classical liberal who gave a great deal of thought to the mode and character of economic regulation, argued that there were sure to be cases in which the conditions for market competition could not be created or maintained. What economic liberals (funny word, “liberals”) could not accept, in Hayek’s view, was the replacement of functioning market competition with “inferior methods of coordinating individual efforts.” What this means, Levin argues, is that the alternative to progressivism is not doctrinaire libertarianism but political action within the context of government power, particularly federal power, operating within its properly understood role. “Regulations informed by America’s founding principles and instituted for the limited but significant purpose of nurturing, improving, or promoting private property and economic vibrancy are both prudential and essential to safeguarding individual liberty and the civil society,” Levin writes. But regulations organized along other lines — “schemes to fundamentally transform society” as he describes them — are something else, inevitably put forward in the service of “progressive ideology, special interests, crony capitalism, etc.” and constituting “a perversion and abuse of legitimate governing authority.”
Free societies are delicate things, and they are based on complex economic and social systems that are not the design of any single intelligence and not subject to reform or management by any single intelligence. Hence, it is necessary, as EPA administrator Scott Pruitt likes to put it, for regulation to be regular. That means developing rules that are broad, stable, generally applicable, predictable, and oriented toward general social ends rather than toward highly specific political goals. (E.g., “We’ll generate x percent of our energy from solar and wind by year y.”)
This is an admission that markets are imperfect and necessary conditions may be hard to maintain. But it does not mean than any centrally planned government intrusion is preferable. If market forces are not delivering what is wanted in an acceptable time frame (patience is rarely a good campaign slogan), then the best alternative is to fund the outcome as directly and as transparently as possible. Even then policy makers should be keenly aware of the consequences of usurping normal market functions and incentives.
The worst solution is to imagine that any centrally planned agency or bureaucracy can engineer or maintain a complex economic system that will serve all needs.
Hayek warned, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”