Amity Shlaes wrote bookends to the second progressive period with The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression and Great Society: A New History. William Voegeli wrote an outstanding review of these books in The New Criterion in March of 2020 titled Not So Great.
The political consequences were as bad as the economic ones. A decade of over-promising and under-performing from Democratic and Republican administrations left growing numbers of Americans believing that cynicism about government was both better than naiveté and the only alternative to it. Ultimately, nothing is more corrosive to the alliance of experts and victims than a growing belief that people are being victimized by experts. Sumner’s better case, where A and B decide how they will join C in helping X, does not always obtain. That is, the experts are not always disinterested, and they sometimes use their powerful positions to find ways to avoid the consequences of their own innovations. Court-ordered busing to achieve school integration, for example, involved many children, but few whose parents were the judges, lawyers, and activists who promoted this remedy.
Even where the experts are self-aware and honorable, they are not always sufficiently expert. They know many things, perhaps, but their tragic flaw is that they can be counted on not to know what they don’t know. The foreign policy hubris that made America’s war in Vietnam a debacle was of a piece with the heedlessly arrogant domestic policies that led to rioting, depopulation, and de-industrialization in Detroit.
Moreover, precisely because their careers, power, and status depend on claims to expertise, experts are uniquely incapable of uttering the magic words “We were wrong.” In 1932 fdr called for “bold, persistent experimentation,” but also said that if an experiment fails, “admit it frankly and try another.” History shows that progressives have been much better at boldness and persistence than at frankness and humility. The inability or refusal to abandon failed experiments has proven to be one of progressivism’s gravest defects. Shlaes argues that the Great Society was replete with initiatives, like the Office of Economic Opportunity, that measured themselves in terms of outputs, dollars spent or clients enrolled, while being indifferent to outcomes, people actually ending up better off than they would have been if the program had never existed. “The political success of a project,” she writes, the evidence of governmental dedication, caring, and energy, “mattered more than empirical success.”
But as the philosopher David Schmidtz has argued, caring is worse than meaningless if it regards only noble intentions rather than actual consequences, intended and unintended. As he puts it, “If you’re trying to prove your heart is in the right place, it isn’t.”