Thursday, September 23, 2010

Progressivism

If this is Progressivism, then I'm practically a Progressive. If we reject the economic ignorance expressed in the article as being central to progressivism, then I'm a full-fledged Progressive. What the author, Conor Williams, describes is a moral spontaneous order. In such a case, there is in fact no conflict between the expansion of rights and "natural rights," as he supposes. His argument thus implies a break with tradition that is not necessary -- nor, quite frankly, realistic. One has to have property and property rights in order to have changing ideas of property and property rights. One has to have a concept of voting rights to expand voting rights to more and more people. One has to progress within a tradition. Breaking with tradition isn't progress -- it's merely change. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes one needs this kind of change. But history has shown that it is much better to continue within a tradition. One of the consequences is that over time, where you are in that tradition may little resemble where you began. But the change has happened at the margins, allowing people time to adjust and integrate everything together well.

Williams thus seems to suggest that Progressivism is interested in discontinuous change change, even while trying to argue that there is in fact a tradition of progressivism in the U.S. This idea that progress involves discontinuous change is what brings about charges of nihilism and lack of foundations. Insofar as Progressivism advocates for the rejection of tradition, it is in fact anti-foundationalist. the classical liberal position, however, is one of change within a tradition. It is a foundational progressivism. This makes all the difference in the world.

There seems to be some disconnect between Williams' ideal Progressive and real-world ones. For example, he argues that, "Constitutional protections of individual property, speech, and conscience are meaningful because they make it possible for Americans to enjoy valuable individual and community goods. They are judged by their consequences, by their fruits. Insofar as American institutions do not lead to the political goods central to the American wager, they fail in their stated purpose." Fair enough. Why then do actual Progressives repeatedly support policies that have proven to "fail in their stated purpose," arguing that what really matters was their intentions? What he describes here might be more accurately attributed to real classical liberals rather than to real Progressives. Indeed, one can go back to the above stated examples of American Progressivism, in the expansion of voting rights and the alteration of ideas of property in the abolition of slavery, as successses in classical liberalism, as it was the classical liberals who pushed for these reforms.

If we replaced the problematic economics with a better understanding of the catallaxy, then what Williams describes is classical liberalism. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by that, as the modern American liberal tradition comes precisely out of this tradition. It is classical liberalism stripped of an understanding of economics, returning instead to folk economic understanding. And that's not progress.
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