from Rationalization: The Enemy of Integrity by Jonah Goldberg at National Review

One of my intellectual peeves is the idea that 20th-century progressivism was primarily about a coherent set of principles. As I’ve written countless times, progressivism was primarily about power.

The original progressives tailored their arguments to wherever the field was open. When expanding the franchise would empower progressives, they were for it. When they held the executive branch, they argued all power should be vested there. When they held the legislative, ditto. The courts, ditto. Oliver Wendell Holmes is famous for advancing the doctrine of “judicial restraint,” but I’ve always believed he took this position in large part because he understood that progressives had the whip hand in Congress and the White House. When advancing progressive ends required judicial activism — as in Buck v. Bell — Holmes was more than happy to legislate from the bench, on the lofty constitutional principle that “three generations of imbeciles is enough.” Judicial restraint was just a way of clearing the field for his team to move the ball downfield.

It seems to me that the religious politics of people like Falwell is simply a right-wing version of this approach — but instead of it being adorned with political and philosophical jargon, it’s full of religious bumper stickers. It’s just another variety of what was once called “priestcraft” by diverse thinkers such as James Harrington, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Paine. It’s the practice of using one’s religious authority to gain personal or political power.

There are any number of public policies that have outlived their original rationale. But because interests become invested in the policy, they become determined to craft new arguments to keep them in place. The original arguments for affirmative action were all about correcting for the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. That’s gone by the wayside for the most part, replaced and expanded by arguments for “diversity” for its own sake.

The Davis-Bacon Act was initially passed in no small part to keep poor blacks and immigrants from stealing “white” jobs. But that doesn’t mean the modern AFL-CIO is motivated by racism when it spends millions to defend it.


Is there a Progressive ideology? I think there is, based on majoritarian democracy over individual liberty and an empowered presidency on he order of Jackson, Roosevelt (both of them) and Wilson.  Just because they lack intellectual consistency when their opposition has their hands on the levers of power, does not mean the lack an idea of what they want.

Rationalizing away the immorality of progressive politics could also be am evolutionary development of those ideas.

One of many ironies of progressivism is that root word, ‘progress’, when it has come to mean a conservative commitment to a 100 year old ideology, even when it often bears little resemblance to those roots.

Modern progressives may reject the racist roots of the minimum wage, but they still adhere to a central power and distrust of constitutional principles. They fail to account for the progress of the conflicting ideologies such as spontaneous orders and markets. They fail to acknowledge that the constitutional distrust of central authority still has merit.