I have spent the last few years studying the origins and evolution of progressivism. While I respect the needs it sought to address I remain skeptical and concerned over the means it sought to address them.
Progressivism and conservatism have been in tension since its origin. Progressivism considered the constitution, founded in a time of an agrarian centered economy, too restrictive to meet the needs of an industrial centered economy and challenged many of the principles that moored the thinking of the founding fathers in their design of the constitution. Progressives sought many of the same objectives of the Declaration of Independence but believed the constitutional restrictions on democracy and the power of the central government was an obstacle to fulfilling the promise of the Declaration. They wished to apply the restrictions on centralized political power to concentrated economic power, concurrently removing much of the constitutional restrictions on federal political power.
The first wave of progressivism known as the Progressive Era lasted from 1900-1920, from the terms of Theodore Roosevelt through the term of Woodrow Wilson. This period was known for its trust busting, the control of concentrated economic power, and the beginning of the regulatory state with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. The reaction to the increased power of the state, especially its enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts enacted during WWI, and Woodrow Wilson’s willingness to subvert the nation’s sovereignty to the League of Nations, led to a reaction costing the Democrats a severe loss in the election of 1920 when Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge defeated the ticket of William Cox and Franklin Roosevelt with one of the biggest landslides in American history.
The next ten years, a reaction to the high taxes and regulation of the Progressive Era, was called the Roaring Twenties which came to an end with the Great Depression and the second Progressive Era.
The next 50 years comprised the second wave of Progressivism, extended by the depth and duration of the Great Depression (some would argue because of the way it was addressed) and extending into the centralization of power to wage WW II and the Cold War. It began with the New Deal and ended with the Great Society. The New Deal came from the bottom of the Great Depression and came to symbolize the unlimited ability of the federal government to address social and economic problems. The Great Society came after the recovery and the end of WW II. Far from the bottom of a crisis, the Great Society came at time when there was much to lose, and came to symbolize the limits of the central government to solve economic and social problems. The second Progressive Era ground to a halt in the stagflation of the 1970s and the reaction was the Age of Reagan which lasted from his election in 1980 through the term of Bill Clinton. Even Clinton stated that “the era of big government is over.”
The third Progressive Era began with George W Bush and his principle of compassionate conservatism and extended through Obama with the gold ring of Progressivism, a form of national health insurance. Trump is a mixed bag with tax cuts and deregulation that would seem a reaction to the prior period, but a use of presidential power that would match progressive presidential aspirations. I will reserve judgment.
During this century of tension between progressivism and conservatism, the term liberal was altered to become more synonymous with progressivism. Some attribute this to the disappointment some progressives felt toward the last term of Woodrow Wilson, and some attribute this to the rebranding of the term by FDR. Regardless of the source of the change, the classical liberal model of individual rights and restrained government power was radically changed to promote the use of greater central power in the pursuit of social justice. Equality trumped liberty and the means were justified by the ends. Classical liberals became conservatives.
Progressivism was distinct from socialism, but they shared common roots. The historicism of Hegel began a trend of applying the certainty and methods of physical sciences to social realms. The future was predictable by experts and administrative expertise was capable of managing broad segments of the economy and society. American progressives were heavily influenced by this European intellectual movement. Progressives did not wish the ownership of the means of production but did favor the control of them through regulations and tax and monetary policy. Many who call themselves socialists today do not define socialism as the ownership of production, but simply share a view on critical social issues that matched the view of many progressives.
Progressives believed that the complexity of modern society required the oversight of an expert elite to manage. As socialist societies collapsed around the world, this need and the effectiveness of central control came into question. Ludwig von Mises and his student Friedrich Hayek wrote that the dispersal of knowledge led to a ‘fatal conceit’, a lack of awareness that the knowledge needed to control a complex society was unavailable to a single person or a small group regardless of their credentials. Further, the idea that there was a general will to be served by democratically elected representatives was a myth. The Constitution was not a method for compelling unity, but a method of managing differences. Pretending these differences did not exist did not bring unity and peace but required the use of government force to squash dissent. This is why tyranny accompanied the socialist movements of Europe and elsewhere.
The American progressive movement tinkered with some of these extremes at the margins, but never descended into the violence and demagoguery of Europe and Asia. Our Constitution, while challenged by early progressives, still restrained central power enough to avoid the outcome of Europe and other socialist nations. Our civic culture and freedom of commerce rejected the premises of European socialism.
While the Progressives sought to extend the restraints of political power to economic power, Hayek sought to bring political power to recognize economic realities. This new era of conservatism reaffirmed the genius of the founders of our constitution that dispersed power was best suited for the dispersed knowledge that generated our dynamic economy.
This tension between the progressives and conservatives will continue. While the difference is usually focused on a difference on issues the more crucial difference is about how those issues will be resolved. Unmoored by a gold standard or a fixed exchange rate, the economic ability of the central government appears to be unlimited, and the longer this lasts the more confidence we have that it can. Just because we cannot predict how this government debt bubble deflates does not mean it will not. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Our greater dependence on federal power still comes at a cost and we still struggle to clarify its proper role and to recognize its limits.