Rational Progressivism

…is as close to classical liberalism as a Democrat can get, me thinks. Liberaltarians inquire within. Nate Silver–the clear eyed election forecaster of 538.com–has a nice little essay on two concepts of progressivism:

Rational progressivism tends to be trusting, within reason, of status quo political and economic institutions — generally including the institution of capitalism. It tends to trust these institutions because it believes they are a manifestation of progress made by previous generations. However, unlike conservatism, it also sees these institutions as continuing works in progress, subject to inefficiencies because of distorted or poorly-designed incentives, poorly-informed or misinformed participants, and competition from ‘irrational’ worldviews like religion. It also recognizes that certain persons who stand to benefit from preserving the status quo, particularly elected officials but also corporations, may seek to block this progress to protect their own interests. The project of rational progressivism, then, is to propagate good ideas and to convert them, through a wide and aggressive array of democratic means, into public policy.

The second type of progressivism is what I call radical progressivism. It represents, indeed, a much more radical and comprehensive critique of the status quo, which it tends to see as intrinsically corrupt. Its philosophical tradition originates in 19th Century thought — and specifically, owes a great deal to the Marxist critique of capitalism and the Marxist theory of social change. It also finds inspiration in both the radical movement of the 1960s and the labor and social movements of late 19th and early 20th centuries (from which it borrows the label “progressive”).

So far so good. In fact, rational progressivism seems awfully similar to the classical liberal-institutional economics approach.  The main disagreement, I surmise, would have to be one of emphasis. Silver distrusts the market based institutions of the status quo, but, strange to the libertarian, forgets to apply the same analysis to politics. You could easily rewrite Silver’s most substantive sentence with a slant against government institutions. Consider it with classical liberalism inserted instead: A classical liberal sees these institutions of government  as continuing works in progress, subject to inefficiencies because of distorted or poorly-designed incentives, poorly-informed or misinformed participants, and competition from ‘irrational’ worldviews like religion and economic illiteracy.

Would Silver agree? Perhaps, but he sounds one egalitarian note at the end of it: 

I believe that economic growth is both a reflection of and a contributor toward societal progress, that economic growth has facilitated a higher standard of living, and that this is empirically indisputable. I also believe, however, that our society is now so exceptionally wealthy — even in the midst of a severe recession — that it has little excuse not to provide for some basic level of dignity for all its citizens.

There’s not much that I’d disagree with here on the surface. Dignity is a powerful concept, but when it comes to crafting policy based on the wings of the noble soul, the difficulties multiply in the details.  Just ask Leon Kass.  It’s also worth pointing out, and arguing, that the classical liberal doesn’t disagree on the sentiment here. The main disagreement appears not when considering whom we ought to provide for, but when and how.  If certain economic policies promise higher standards of living for a greater number of people, but require the patience of ten or twenty years for their fruition, the classical liberal will more likely support them over any policies biased towards the present.  If the argument is about reasonable social safety nets or the provision of public goods, then, again, it’s not clear to me that differences are all that big.  However, I get the sense that the rational progressivist seems tied to the present, providing for the present good at the expense of future prosperity.  So it’s not an argument about dignity, but about time and method.


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