American Elephants

Old Tired Ideas That Never, Never Work by The Elephant's Child

In an essay from National Review titled “The String-Pullers” Matthew Spalding describes an influential book by Herbert Croly called The Promise of American Life (1909).  It is the clearest formulation of the nationalizing and socializing aspect of progressive thought:

Croly allows that Americans are entitled to an “almost religious faith” in their country, but quickly cuts to the problem: “The traditional American confidence in individual freedom has resulted in a morally and socially undesirable distribution of wealth.” The time has come to reject the ghosts of the Founding and devote ourselves to “a dominant and constructive national purpose” centered on a new theory of the state, in which experts administer government and regulate the economy to achieve progressive outcomes. By becoming “responsible for the subordination of the individual to that purpose,” Croly writes, “the American state will in effect be making itself responsible for a morally and socially desirable distribution of wealth.”

Progressive ideas are not, of course, new, despite President Obama’s constant reference to “Twenty-First Century” to describe whatever he wants to do. But this tired old theme has been proved wrong so many times that it hardly seems worth while to dust it off.

The idea of wise administrative experts sounds good, but where do you find them? The administrative experts we have installed turn out to be not particularly expert, but only ordinary human beings, as flawed as the rest of us.  John Allison, former Chairman and CEO of BB&T Corp was quoted in a recent CATO Letter. He was speaking of people at the Fed, but the quotation applies a lot more broadly:

In my experience they’ve all been guilty of what F.A. Hayek called “fatal conceit.” It’s the belief that smart people can do the impossible — and I don’t care how great your mathematical models are, you cannot integrate the economic activity of seven billion people around the planet.

Well, no, and you cannot integrate the economic activity of 330 million people around America either. A “dominant and constructive national purpose centered on a new theory of the state in which experts administer government and regulate the economy” to subordinate the individual to making the state responsible for “a morally and socially desirable distribution of wealth.” How absurd.

How much are they going to decide is morally and socially desirable to distribute to me? Or you? If equality is the desirable outcome, then we should all receive exactly the same income, regardless of our talents. And we should all live in the same size house on the same size lot. And after a single year would we still be equal?

Progressives don’t expect themselves to be leveled. They expect to be the wise administrative experts who tell everyone else what to do, and become very rich in those important posts. As they are doing. Greed is when someone else makes a lot of money. A wise administrative expert deserves to be highly paid because they are so important.

The division of Americans into “classes” is an artifact of the Treasury Department, who divides us up into quintiles, according to our reported income. The Treasury is tasked with seeing how Americans are doing since Internal Revenue is part of the Treasury.

And how will the wise administrative experts know how to administrate if they don’t know how many people are poor, middle class and rich? And what about our poor, who are considerably richer than the ordinary folk in the rest of the world? There are world progressives who want to make the nations equal — since it isn’t fair that America is so rich.

The Progressive Project is bunk. There are no wise administrative experts. We’ve had lots of examples of the administrative state, check your history books. We are only fallible, flawed, quarrelsome human beings trying to muddle through, and make life for our children a little better than ours was. Let’s hang on to our liberty  as if our lives depend on it. They might well do just that.

Is the American Dream to Make Life “Fair?” by The Elephant's Child

The State of the Union speech tomorrow night will be in some ways a recap of the President’s speech in Osawatomie, Kansas — populist, progressive and increasingly revelatory of what lies at the core of the progressive movement.

Obama importantly said during his campaign that he proposed to “fundamentally transform America.” Silly us. We thought he was going to Washington DC to be more bipartisan, to cure the divisions in America, to stop the quarrels and arguments and get things done, but that wasn’t what he had in mind at all.

America was founded on the principle of individual liberty and unalienable rights of  to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Our very wise founders believed that there was not much else a government could guarantee to one person without trampling on the rights of another.

That promise of individual liberty gave us the greatest burst of freedom and opportunity, innovation, wealth creation, creativity and success that the world has ever known, and the envy of the world. If the first promoters suggested that the streets of America were paved with gold and the woods teemed with game, it turned out that the streets were instead paved with opportunity, a more valuable commodity.

But of course the perpetually discontented noticed that not everyone prospered, that life was not equally fair to everyone. They were quite sure that a little more regulation would fix that, and they wanted government to create a better society. They believed that the founders were wrong about the need for limited government, because what was needed were some wise laws to make things more fair. Government could eliminate inequalities of wealth and property with a little economic regulation. What was needed was not equality of opportunity, but equality of outcome.  America should be Fair.

It turned out that the founders were right. There is not much else government can guarantee to one person without abridging the rights of someone else. Every time the bureaucrats made another regulation, it made things unequal for someone else. So they had to make new laws to make things more equal, but they weren’t very good at devising equality-type regulations, and things had to be fixed again and again.

The fixers don’t give up easily. It turns out that a progressive America requires a vast expansion of the state and an even more vast expansion of control, regulation, mandates and rules to make America more fair — but whose “fair?” Turns out that my idea of “fair” is not the same as your idea of “fair” and Obama’s idea of “fair” is something else entirely.

Somewhere in each Progressive, there’s a little tyrant lurking in the shadows.

Irving Kristol once said this, and I think he got it right:

In every society the overwhelming majority of people live lives of considerable frustration and if society is to endure, it needs to rely on a goodly measure of stoical resignation.

In other words, you not only  can’t fix everything, you can’t fix very much. People will still make bad choices, good people will be fired, bad people will sometimes triumph, terribly unfair things will happen.  Like your mother or grandmother said “Life isn’t fair.” The business of government is to protect property rights, try to eliminate artificial barriers to opportunity, and to uphold the rule of law.

Why would anyone think that they can make the rules that will make life “fair” for 330 million striving, hard-working, free people, each with their own ideas and dreams? Takes quite a bit of arrogance to assume that you are that smart.

If you think that life is unfair, wait until you have a vast bureaucracy earnestly working to correct that natural condition.  Oh wait…


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