Monday, August 18, 2008

And the difference between Progressives and Liberals is . . . the use of force!?

Recently, in an attempt at clarifying dialogue [which is a good thing], Delawareliberal ran a post on Some Basic Principles, that offers a viewpoint on exactly what liberal principles mean. This was, at least in part, a response to a top-of-the-head definition of liberal objectives that I proposed to a libertarian-leaning conservative in a different thread that went like this:

Liberals define freedom differently that you do; neither side has a monopoly on the word.

Liberals view individual liberty as freedom from want, hunger, and lack of medical care, with the best possible remedies coming from an enlightened public policy that manages the necessary redistribution of some of society’s excess wealth to insure that all people start with a foundational basis of security and prosperity.

I was not--as DelawareDem acknowledged--trying to lampoon liberalism, but to make a point to another blogger that if you want to talk with people of different beliefs you have to make a good faith effort to understand their beliefs in their own terms.

DD countered with some boilerplate from the National Netroots Platform that I didn't find exceptionally helpful, because it's pretty much the Truth, Justice, and the American Way that you can find in any Superman cartoon or virtually any political platform: too general and sappy to be of any practical use.

The ensuing discussion, however, was more enlightening. I asked DD for a distinction between liberals and progressive, and he referred me to an article in the Huffington Post, but also made the following observations [two separate comments combined here]:

They [liberal and progressive] are not really synonyms. We believe a lot of the same things, but go about getting things done differently. I point you to David’s article in the HuffPo:

On an aesthetic note, I think the term “progressive” contrasts better with “conservative” for the terms are exactly opposite in my view. Conservatives want to preserve what is past, and Progressives want to change for the future...

To you, there would not be much difference between them, for to you, they are both for universal healthcare, but in a liberal v. progressive model, there is a difference in how they achieve it.

All right, the ends are the same, but the means are different. But how, exactly. For that distinction DD referred me to the 2005 HuffPo piece by Dave Sirota that tried to define precisely the difference between liberals and progressives.

Here are some representative excerpts [emphasis added]:

I often get asked what the difference between a "liberal" and a "progressive" is. The questions from the media on this subject are always something like, "Isn't 'progressive' just another name for 'liberal' that people want to use because 'liberal' has become a bad word?"

The answer, in my opinion, is no - there is a fundamental difference when it comes to core economic issues. It seems to me that traditional "liberals" in our current parlance are those who focus on using taxpayer money to help better society. A "progressive" are those who focus on using government power to make large institutions play by a set of rules....

A liberal policy towards prescription drugs is one that would throw a lot of taxpayer cash at the pharmaceutical industry to get them to provide medicine to the poor; A progressive prescription drug policy would be one that centered around price regulations and bulk purchasing in order to force down the actual cost of medicine in America (much of which was originally developed with taxpayer R&D money)....

Many of today's liberals are not fully comfortable with progressivism as defined in these terms. Many of today's Democratic politicians, for instance, are simply not comfortable taking a more confrontational posture towards large economic institutions (many of whom fund their campaigns) - institutions that regularly take a confrontational posture towards America's middle-class....

The fact is, the auto industry should be forced to produce more fuel efficient cars through higher government fuel efficiency mandates, without taxpayers having to bail out the industry. It's not like those mandates would be asking the industry to do something that doesn't make good business sense - demand for higher fuel-efficiency cars is skyrocketing....

But the general unwillingness of Democrats to consistently push for more sharp-edged progressive solutions is a big problem right now. The "free market" conservatives have so dominated the political debate over the last two decades that our side seems only comfortable proposing to pay off different economic players, instead of forcing those players to behave themselves. It's time for that to change. The government has a job to play in protecting Americans from being ripped off, and that doesn't mean just handing the economic bullies a bribe. It means pushing back - hard.

I certainly appreciate Mr. Sirota's candor. What stands out for me here is the open admission that, to a progressive, the purpose of government power is to force people and institutions to do what it wants.

I don't necessarily disagree that some of the progressive goals are quite laudable, and I certainly subscribe to the theory that corporatism is just as big a menace to human freedom as Statism, but there's a considerable difference here that centers--at least for me--on the non-aggression principle central to any definition of Libertarianism: no use of force or fraud to achieve your goals.

Yes, there are times in which force must be used defensively, and [here I go much further than most Libertarians] times in which there will be a general consensus for some limited uses of force [especially if you define taxation as such]. I go back to what Dr. Eric Schansberg has said [paraphrasing]: Labeling taxation (always) as force is too simplistic.

The inherent problem with the progressive methodology--as distinct with the progressive/liberal shared agenda--is this: there are two issues to consider with the power of government, issues defined way back in 1787 by James Madision. Government has to have the power to do what is necessary, while being restrained from doing what is evil.

Look at it this way: Government actions are rarely neutral; they almost always have either positive (good) or negative (evil) effects.

Progressives want the government EMPOWERED to Do Good.

Libertarians want the government RESTRICTED from Doing Evil.

[Conservatives want the government REQUIRED to Make Them Money (Snark, sort of).]

What genuinely scares me about Mr Sirota's article is the utter absence of the concept of necessary limitations to government power, followed closely by allowing the objectives of appropriate use of government power to be defined by only one portion of the political spectrum.

You can bet that Progressives, when they're not controlling the government, don't want Conservatives or Libertarians to have that kind of Government power at their beck and call to interpret their agendas (and the past eight years are a good example why).

But the Progressives aim at a situation in which the Government is not only the guarantor of rights, fairness, and justice, but the defining authority of all those traits as well.

Once health care prices come down, once automobiles get better gas mileage, once pension plans are fully funded, then would Progressives sit back and say, "Mission Accomplished," or would there are always be new worlds to conquer in the name of their ideals of fairness and economic justice? I think the answer is self-evident, but then, hey, I'm just a whacko Libertarian.


Anonymous said...

[Conservatives want the government REQUIRED to Make Them Money (Snark, sort of).]

Maybe if you said Capitalists, it would make more sense. Capitalism as a form of politics.

BTW, has anyone seen thing called the Republican Moderate. Back in the 70s they were all the rage, but they have disappeared after giving the heart and soul of the Republican Party to the Evangelists and the Oil Capitalists.

Steven H. Newton said...

I've discussed this before (and so has a book by Ryan Sager "The Elephant in the Room."

The original GOP coalition coming out of the 1970s was libertarians, social conservatives, and fiscal/defense hawks. The idea (espoused originally by Bill Buckley) was that libertarianism became libertinism without a strong social conscience.

Even through most of the Reagan years the libertarians, the defense hawks, and the fiscal conservatives were the senior partners--the moral majority repeatedly groused about Reagan's failure to support their issues more strongly.

In the 1990s Newt Gingrich built his Revolution of 1994 by a huge influx of social cons and evangelicals, which progressively (pardon the pun) pushed the libertarians out.

I don't want to see the re-emergence of the moderate Republican any more than you want to see conservative Democrats back into control of your party. I want to see Libertarians challenge the GOP as America's second party.

But hey that's just me....

Anonymous said...

As far as the Republican moderates re-taking their party, I think that ship has sailed.

Hmm . . . the Libertarians taking over the party is an interesting idea though. One quick question though, how do get those who came to be Libertarians from the Left and the Right . . . how do you get these diverse folks to work together under one tent?

I guess a pre-question would be do you think one can become a Libertarian on a Left-ward journey?

Steven H. Newton said...

In my circles I am considered a "left libertarian"; like Dems and GOPers there are all flavors. Four are I guess predominant: Left and right libertarians (left more emphasizing individual freedom and right more emphasizing economic freedom); then there's radical versus moderate (badly limned depending on how much government you think is necessary: we range from anarcho-capitalists to minarchists [govt for police, courts, and defense only] to constitutionalists to pragmatists like me).

If you think about it and insist on using a left-right paradigm, on that line in terms of views (although not necessarily policy positions) I am probably further to the "left" on gay rights, abortion rights, immigration, and other social issues than most folks at DE Liberal.

What potentially unites Libertarians of all stripes is precisely what divides liberals from progressives. Libertarians view non-aggression by individuals or organizations or governments to be a primary value. That's why the "force" issue for progressives is a dividing line for us, and why I think there are a lot of liberals who--when progressive push comes to shove in the implementation of force against other American citizens, will choose Libertarianism over Progressivism.

But of course that pre-supposes the existence of a real functioning LP, and that's what I'm working on now.