Monday, April 5, 2010


A while back, Glenn Beck spoke at CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Committee), and gave an impassioned speech that included a blistering indictment of "progressivism." (Note: I didn't watch the speech, I caught about 2 minutes of it while channel-surfing and then read various pundits pontificating about it the next day.) Beck said that the biggest threat to the modern USA is this "progressivism," and pointed out that in our last election, we had the choice between a liberal Democrat who embraces "progressivism" and a Republican whose political idol is Teddy Roosevelt, himself the father of the progressive movement. In the minute or so of the speech which I saw, Beck said (and it's been a while, so I'm sure I'm garbling the quote) that you have one party sticking a fork in your eye, and the other party telling you they'll be better because they are only going to stick a toothpick in your eye. Nice analogy.

Well, the progressive movement has been getting a lot of ink lately, and I wanted to wade in, both with some history and some opinion. Last year, Jonah Goldberg wrote a terrific book that went to #1 on the NYT best-seller list called Liberal Fascism. He took a lot of heat for the book, primarily from those who didn't read it or objected to either the title or the cover art (which features a smiley-face with a Hitler mustache). But he correctly points out that (a) our stereotype that communism is left-wing and fascism is right-wing is based on a falsehood; (b) Mussolini was beloved by the American left throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, when he began to behave badly by invading Ethiopia and eventually ally with the Axis; and (c) that the "war socialism" of "progressive" president Woodrow Wilson during WWII was intellectually in the same vein as Italian Fascism (everything from the espionage and sedition acts to the Palmer raids to the use of propganda to the War Industries Board and food rationing).

Now, please note--Goldberg takes great pains to point out that this does NOT mean that liberals, then or now, were Nazis. But I agree with him that the root impulses behind small-f fascism (divorced from Hitlerism), the idea that Mussolini "made the trains run on time," and that this benefit was worth some small dimunition of freedom in exchange, is at the heart of what we call "progressivism." Indeed, one of my personal favorite figures of the era, the humorist Will Rogers, was quoted back in the early 1920s (long before Mussolini became a "bad guy") as saying that this dictatorship business ain't so bad, so long as you get the right dictator. I know that sounds just horrible these days, but it's also exactly what Plato said in The Republic about 2500 years earlier.

So, back to "progressivism." At the turn of the century, there were zillions of areas of American public life screaming out for "reform." Labor issues like the 8-hour day. The "temperance" issue. Political reforms such as the overgrown "spoils system" which had begun with Andy Jackson and had even led to the assassination of President Garfield. Woman suffrage. Anti-lynching laws. What to do about the new phenomenon of "big business," including such monopolies as Standard Oil, US Steel, and the railroads. Tariff reform, and the desire to replace tariff revenue with an income tax. There was not a single "movement" calling out for all of these things at once, but there were numerous reformers willing to make common cause to accomplish their own agendas. That is the world in which Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901. And what TR said (correctly, I think), is that the USA by the turn of the 20th century had grown beyond Thomas Jefferson's wildest imagination--that we were too big, too rich, and too interconnected to remain as decentralized and laissez-faire as we had been for the previous 100 years. The best example of this that springs to mind is the Meat Inspection Act of 1906, which TR famously supported after reading "muckraker" Upton Sinclair's expose of the meat-packing industry, The Jungle. Back in the days of Jefferson, no one had to worry if their sausage was really sausage. It was bought from a local butcher. The buyer likely knew the butcher personally. He possibly knew the pig personally. But by 1906, it was a good idea to have an inspector certify that certain standards were met. (By the way--even though I'm pretty conservative, I do very much like knowing that my USDA-certified ground round is actual COW.)

Anyway, TR is the one who let the genie out of the bottle. He used the previously-toothless Sherman Antitrust Act to "bust" trusts. He established the primacy of the US government over even the biggest of big businesses (JP Morgan's Northern Securities Corporation). And, over time, he and his successors co-opted many of the populist reform movements into a big tent called "progressivism." But it was Woodrow Wilson who took it to the next level.

The trick is, Wilson did not just breeze into office and impose a smiley-face fascism-lite on the USA. He did so in the face of World War I. Now, I'm no fan of Wilson (for a variety of reasons, including his racism and the feeling that his ego and stubbornness squandered the victory of WWI and set the stage for WWII... but I'm in the minority of historians). But we need to recognize that one of the key conflicts in all of US history is trying to find the proper balance between liberty and security. We may think that our generation's struggling with the ethics of Gitmo and enhanced interogation is something new, but it's not. During the Civil War, Lincoln (arguably our greatest president) suspended civil rights. During WWI, Wilson threw political opponents in jail (Eugene Debs actually ran for president from prison). During WWII, Franklin Roosevelt interned thousands of Japanese-Americans. And after 9/11, congress passed the Patriot Act by overwhelming margins. Pretty much every time we feel threatened, whether in the face of actual war or "the moral equivalent of war" (like the Great Depression), we the people make the same choice that Italians did with Mussolini--we say, "if you'll protect us and make the trains run on time, we'll gladly dilute our liberties... just a little bit." And then, when the threat passes, we calm down, step back, and write histories about how America did not live up to her best principles.

That brings us to today and the current "crisis." Whether it was Wilson (our first and only PhD president) and his "dollar a year men," or FDR and his "brain trust" or JFK and his "best and brightest," we keep on falling into the same trap that Will Rogers did. If only we could get enough brilliant experts on the job, they could run our lives for us better than we can for ourselves. The Ivy Leagues are full of brilliant, earnest, good-hearted young people who are just SURE that they could manage this nation far better--for our own good--than simple rubes who shop at Wal-Mart. They write books like What's the Matter With Kansas, which suggests that if only ignorant Kansans knew their own self-interest better, they would be more liberal politically. And of course, our current president fits in that same academic vein--Columbia undergrad, Harvard law, instructor in a top-tier law school. So once again, we're seeing the same refrain--let us (the smart folks) run things, from GM to Health Insurance, and we'll take better care of you than you would take care of yourselves.

So, Beck has a point--the "progressive" impulse is at the heart of our diminishing freedoms. But the answer is emphatically NOT to go back to the days of rat-poop in the sausage. What we need to recognize is the trade-offs, and the laws of unintended consequences. Many very popular "progressive" ideas didn't work out as planned (prohibition comes to mind, as does the income tax, and the "war on poverty"). Not every change is "progress."

Evil Intentions

A little political musing, anyone? I read entirely too many online news articles/editorials/blogs. Where I used to "read the paper," now I sit with a laptop and surf--sometimes for hours on end. I really need to scale back (and I intend to). But after I read a story, sometimes the most illuminating part of the read is the "comments" section. And this brings me to a pet peeve of mine.

If you read the comments on almost any story, article, or op-ed with even a hint of the political, you'll almost immediately get a string of ad hominem attacks that impugn the motives of the other side. To take two extremes, you have the folks who insist that our entire post-9/11 security apparatus was either rooted in Dick Cheney's desire to make Haliburton stockholders rich or George W. Bush's perverse desire to torture perfect strangers. And on the other hand, you have those who look at our current economic situation under President Obama and say that our current deficits, entitlements, etc. are out of whack on purpose because Obama/Reid/Pelosi want to bankrupt the country and usher in an age of neo-socialism.

How about we back off from that just a bit? Is it that hard to imagine that good people can reasonably disagree on principles without ulterior motives? That doesn't mean I have to agree with them--I can (and do) think that many modern liberal principles are naive and economically unsound. But I accept that some wonderful, very intelligent people hold them. I much prefer the economic theories of Hayek or Milton Friedman to John Maynard Keynes. But that doesn't mean that every Keynesian is a knave or a fool--indeed, there are plenty of Keynesians much smarter than me.

And if I can say that about my liberal friends, shouldn't I get the same benefit of the doubt in return? When a facebook friend posts an article about evil, heartless conservative shills for the insurance industry who want grandma to die for the sake of profits, I think, "do you really believe that about ME?" I just think the math doesn't work. You know me! You've known me for years! Do you think I am one of "them," or that "they" are evil, while I am simply deluded? Because I don't want to think that about you.

It's a Big Lots World

I had an epiphany Saturday. I don't shop, period. That's one of the biggest benefits of being married 20 years. I occasionally go out and BUY something, but never shop. On Saturday, though, I was feeling a bit disconnected from the lovely Mrs. Sal--we had been "together" for several days, but moving around in our own little bubbles. So, in the interest of togetherness, I decided to accompany her on a trek to get Easter candy for kids who are far too big to get visits from the Easter bunny.

Well, we wound up in Big Lots. Big Lots is amazing. But not in a good way. It makes Wal-Mart look like an elite institution. Sure enough, they had candy, and they had it cheap--mission accomplished. But we had to get through the checkout line. Hooray! Another adventure!

Let's just say that the young lady checking out satisfied Big Lots customers was quite likely not the valedictorian of her class. I stood and watched, totally amazed, as she had apparent difficulty with opening plastic shopping bags. The line piled up, the helpless, hapless, clueless clerk fumbled on, and we eventually made it out safely.

But here's the amazing thing--I wasn't upset. Normally, my tolerance level for incompetence is lower than Carlsbad Caverns. But here, in Big Lots, I simply recognized that this is as good as it gets. If I had wanted excellent customer service, efficiently-moving checkout lines, or basic levels of hygiene, there is a Publix right across the parking lot. But we chose Big Lots, so there were no illusions. And then it hit me--this is the model for a much, much happier life.

All too often, I walk around upset at ignorance, incompetence, and sloth. It infuriates me that the kid at the drive-thru at my local McDonald's cannot seem to push the button that looks like a stinking cheeseburger correctly. I am amazed that a US Congressman seems to think that the island of Guam may tip over, or that 435 of them cannot do checkbook algebra. But I need to remind myself--it's a Big Lots world. Half of all people are below median intelligence (sorry, that's just math). What I need to do is lower my expectations and be pleasantly surprised when I get even Wal-Mart levels of service.