Progressive Self Destruction
June 13, 2011Posted by on
When Government Jumps the Shark is the title Walter Russell Mead gave to his article in The American Interest. Mead goes on to say that in its day the progressive ideal was a revolutionary and even a noble one. A bureaucratic and professional elite would mediate social conflict between rich and poor, improving the lives of the poor while engineering the best possible administrative solutions to pressing social problems. Progressivism held out the hope that capitalism, democracy and history itself could all be tamed by competent professional management.
Victorian capitalism had been brutal, disruptive, competitive. Society became more unequal even as living standards gradually rose. Democracy was irresistible, but the masses were uneducated. The modern progressive era was born at times of great violence and upheaval. World War One, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, World War Two, the invention of nuclear weapons and the start of the Cold War: it was against this background that progressives sought to turn modern life into something safe and tame. Four generations of progressive intellectuals tried to make life a little less brutal and unpredictable, and we overlook the successes they had.
However, the progressive paradigm today can no longer serve as the basis for sound national policy. When a government identifies that there is a terrible social problem, it firstly offers a solution that will fix the problem at a relatively modest cost. Often it does, and a well established and functioning government program makes itself very popular: life gets better and as most people see the benefits clearly outweighing the costs. Eventually Washington benignly scatters benefits among an adoring population.The government program addresses the need it was intended to fill, and the citizens look to their representatives with gratitude and affection. All is well.
That is until the law of diminishing returns sets in and the value of new projects diminishes. However, the political forces pushing new projects grow stronger and bureaucrats rewrite the guidelines, cost-benefit analysts start fudging the numbers to make bad projects look good. Congress is pressured to keep that money flowing regardless with large and expensive programs that do less and less good at a higher cost. A powerful cluster of interests organizes around the government program as programs and subsidies become steadily more complex, less comprehensible.
The point is reached where the government program has moved beyond being wasteful and has become unsustainable. The programs becoming so powerful with many interests and industries growing rich on them and so many families dependent on them for what little financial security they have. Just as the programs are most in need of reform, reform becomes impossible. The problem today is that we are looking not just at one or two government programs, the progressive complex of social and economic policy as a whole has reached this point. They either lead us to allocate scarce resources in ineffective ways or they threaten us with ruin by becoming politically untouchable.
Progressivism itself, and not simply the individual government programs it spawns, is moving through the same cycle of life in which the most urgent social problems that progressivism set out to solve have been dealt with. Early progressives addressed the most important problems that were most susceptible to progressive interventions. The fierce commitment of progressive lobbies today to dysfunctional institutions and programs has brought matters to a crisis stage: fierce attacks on anyone seeking to reform dysfunctional institutions combine with unreasoning devotion to unsustainable entitlements. Progressives today are too often grimly determined to achieve two incompatible ends: an indefinite expansion of entitlements and benefits on the one hand and the preservation and even the extension of inefficient organisations and methods on the other. In the end when something cannot go on for ever, it comes to a stop.
The above is a synopsis of the article in The American Interest by Walter Russell Mead. As Mead finally implies, this is not just about the USA, it can be applied to any developed ‘Western nation’. [Peter/Aasof]