Understanding Progressives

In The World is Never Finished Kevin Williamson addresses the fear of AI on employment .

But if we are going to look backward, let’s look back even farther. The belief that the remorseless efficiency of capitalist production will lead to mass unemployment and consign ordinary workers to lives of misery is older than the word “capitalism” itself. It is an ancient theme in science fiction and loomed large in the mind of Karl Marx. As Star Trek fans and etymology nerds know, the word “sabotage” comes from the French word “sabot,” a kind of simple wooden shoe that workers used to destroy machinery used to automate their work. The end of work has been upon us for a very long time, but it never quite gets here.

In the real world, the balance of power between the world of politics (which is to say, the world of compulsion) and the world of the market (which is to say, the world of cooperation) has shifted dramatically.

In that article he links to an old article of his from 2012 Risk, Relativism, and Resources.

This is a gem I have not seen before. It is a bit long -12 pages-  for him but it is an important article pointing out three things Conservatives need to understand about progressives:

  1. They are more risk averse- this is more defining that race and identity
  2. Inequality matters more than conservatives wish to admit.
  3. Progressive view people as liabilities, conservatives see them as assets.

Where Democratic-leaning Americans go wrong is that they miscalculate the welfare state’s value as a tool of risk mitigation. Americans support the relatively low returns on Social Security for the same reason that Britons and Canadians broadly support their relatively low-quality government health-care systems: because of the mistaken belief that these programs will always be there for them. Better a low-return retirement “investment” in Social Security than no retirement income at all, that line of thinking holds, or one that is subject to the inherent risks of the market. Similarly, many Americans understand that a government-run health-care system will be less innovative than a market-driven one, that it will be inefficient, and that quality will suffer — and they prefer it still, on grounds that access to health care will be guaranteed.

The article is worth the read.

The Progressive Contradiction

from Bring Back Political Parties by Kevin Williamson at National Review :

The Democratic party had an excellent reason to exclude Senator Bernie Sanders, the same reason the Republican party had to exclude Donald Trump: He wasn’t a member of the party. Sanders is a socialist independent who briefly joined the Democratic party for reasons of pure political utility. Donald Trump is a . . . whatever in tarnation he is . . . who joined the Republican party for the same reason. Trump, a sometime Democrat and Hillary Clinton donor who had been aligned with the politically insignificant Reform party, knew that he needed the GOP’s machinery to win the presidency, or to even get close, and Sanders knew that his influence and power would grow from running in the Democratic primary rather than as a U.S. affiliate of the Monster Raving Loony party. (I miss Screaming Lord Sutch.) Sanders is no fool: His lakeside dachas aren’t going to pay for themselves, and there’s no money in third-party presidential campaigns — that’s just an expensive hobby. Ask David Koch.

There is a contradiction within American progressivism, which seeks to make the political process more democratic while pushing the policymaking process in a less democratic direction. For a century, progressives have championed more open primary elections and open primaries, popular ballot measures, referendum and recall processes, and wider voter participation. At the same time, progressives, particularly those of a Wilsonian bent, have sought to remove the substance of policymaking from democratically accountable elected representatives and entrust it to unelected, unaccountable bureaucracies in the belief that panels of experts immune from ordinary democratic oversight could make hard decisions based on reason and evidence rather than on short-term political necessity and popular passions. They regarded the political parties and their infamous smoke-filled rooms as embodiments of corruption and old-fashioned wheeler-dealer politics at odds with the brave new centrally planned world they imagined themselves to be building.

The progressive pivot in our history is when the concept of individual liberty took a back seat to majoritarian democracy. Kevin illuminates this change when he observes that policy has been abdicated to non elected representatives. We were founded under the battle cry against ‘taxation without representation’., but we have evolved to ‘regulation without representation.’  Activist  courts have also relieved legislators of the need to craft clear language and to assume the responsibility for controversial rulings.

The Special Interest Spread

By Henry Oliner

The life force of the swamp is the tax system.  It has grown monumentally complex from the thousands of lobbyist swamp creatures and the thousands of special interests who have learned how to thrive in the hazardous environment.

Reform is hazardous because we can see the existing faults clearly, but the outcome of the change is hazy. The special interests of the swamp fear losing their advantages and protections for a benefit that is unclear and uncertain. We are promised lower rates in exchange for fewer deductions, but we know from experience that when the rates rise again the deductions do not reappear.

The ‘special interest spread’ (my terminology) is the difference between the statutory rate and the actual rate after deductions and credits. In an objective system without the influence of special interests the spread will be close to zero. The spread grows as the government grows and tries to influence our behavior with nudges and policies to encourage select behavior.  Lobbying is a side effect of a government that involves itself in every corner of our lives. Government influence becomes an indispensable competitive tool.

The term ‘regulatory capture’ is a recognition that over time the special interests will begin to control the regulatory agencies that were formed to regulate them.  The agencies become a tool that well-connected companies can use to block competitors.

Tax reform will be difficult because the government operates through so many proxies such as non-profits, lobbyists, employees, consultants and local agencies dependent on federal funding.  It is also very difficult to change a system that has grown so complex. It requires distinguishing the design of an optimal system from the transition to that system.

Theoretically we would be better with far fewer deductions, but there are many homeowners who depend on their mortgage deductions to balance their family budgets.  Grandfathering existing mortgages creates another allocation distorting behavior.  It may also drive down home prices which is great for new homebuyers, but not for those who financed their existing homes. Changes in such complex systems will not come without some victims.

An optimal system is broad, low, permanent, and with a low SIS (special interest spread).  Such a system would require that the government relinquish much of its control over the economy and our lives.  The real loser is not a few special interests losing their precious deductions, but the federal government and the lobbyists who have learned how to maneuver and thrive in the swamp.


Regulatory Capture

from Gene Epstein’s departing column at Barron’s- Keep Asking the Big Questions:

I often paraphrase Winston Churchill on democracy when confronting a critic of the financial markets: They’re the worst way to allocate capital investment, except for all the others. The markets will always be magnets for charlatans and irrational investors. But if allowed to operate, they tend to punish the irrational with losses, reward the careful with profits, and steer capital investment to its most urgent uses.

Call unfettered financial markets alternative A. While fraud will remain an actionable offense in any civil society, proponents of alternative B go much further, claiming that financial markets must be heavily regulated by government to curb mistakes and abuses. But this falls into the philosopher-king fallacy and its corollary, 20-20 hindsight. Are the human beings put in charge of the regulatory agencies immune to the corruption and lust for power that pervades some of the worst elements they aim to control? Economist George Stigler has put the term “regulatory capture” into economists’ vocabulary, showing that regulatory agencies almost inevitably get captured by powerful interests.

Had regulators at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau asked the what-happens-next question, they might have considered that curbing payday lending at high interest rates might force many borrowers to go back to loan sharks, who use physically unpleasant means of collecting on their own high-interest loans. More damningly, when it comes to the causes of the Great Recession of 2008-09, government’s key role took place in plain sight.

The downturn wouldn’t have happened without the aggressive policies of government, starting in the early 1990s under President George H.W. Bush, which turned private mortgages into risky instruments. Regulators offered incentives to banks to load up on mortgages based on the view that nothing had changed to alter the relative safety of mortgage assets. Then the housing market collapsed.

The Dictated Truth

from Rupert Darwall in National Review, The Spiral of Silence:

One-sided media reporting is a striking feature of the climate and energy debate. “Climate denier” and “tool of malign fossil-fuel interests” are epithets used to delegitimize dissent and quash diversity of opinion. “Climate change is a fact,” President Obama declared in his 2014 State of the Union address. As philosopher Stephen Hicks argues in Explaining Post-Modernism, the post-modern Left uses language primarily as a weapon to silence opposing voices, not as an attempt to describe reality. To close the debate down, science masquerading as impartial judge is deployed as lead prosecutor. Dissenters and skeptics are derided as Flat Earthers and scientific ignoramuses. Yet the most stupid utterance on the science of global warming goes without a breath of criticism from scientists who regularly furnish the media with hostile quotes on skeptics’ views. “This is simple. Kids at the earliest age can understand this,” Secretary of State John Kerry told an audience in Indonesia in 2014. For someone who confessed that he’d found high-school physics and chemistry a challenge, climate science was easy. The science was “absolutely certain.”

Fact conflated with theory; certainty where there is pervasive uncertainty and lack of understanding; simplicity where there is unfathomable complexity; climate-model predictions of warming elevated above observations. The biggest distortion of climate science is unscientific in its premise and authoritarian in its consequence: “The science is settled. We must act.” When systemic media bias is purposed as a tool of state manipulation and social control, a democracy extinguishes its democratic culture.


Truth is discovered by exchange and endless questions. It cannot be dictated or thrust upon you with political authority. That is the definition of tyranny. Demonization of dissent is a political tool with no basis in science.