BY MARK W. HENDRICKSON
If you admire nothing else about progressives, give them credit for choosing the political label with the most inherent appeal of any political movement in our republic’s history. What captures the spirit of America more than the promise of progress? The belief in, hope for and expectation of progress is quintessentially American. It is central to our identity and character as a nation. Progress represents our aspirations, epitomizes our identity and imbues our national character. It lies at the very heart of the American dream.
One constant theme throughout the history of the progressive movement in America is what the late historian Clarence Carson called “meliorism” — the doctrine that the state should take an active role in promoting the economic progress of Americans. Let’s try to assess how well progressives have succeeded in promoting economic progress among Americans.
Many progressive programs don’t lead to lasting, long term progress for the clients of those programs. Think of those admitted to colleges under affirmative action programs only to find themselves ill prepared and eventually flunking or dropping out. Add those who, due to political and regulatory pressure in pursuit of the progressive goal of increased home ownership, were issued mortgages that they couldn’t afford which resulted in financial losses.
It is interesting to look at the 1960s and the burst of progressive legislation that we know as Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty”. Charles Murray, in his classic book “Losing Ground,” assembled the data showing that the long term trend toward a reduced percentage of Americans being poor ended when the “War on Poverty” was adopted. Progressive policies did not end or reduce poverty, rather they institutionalized and perpetuated poverty.
The best that progressive policies can do is to support Americans at a low level plateau. This level, while certainly better than abject poverty, tends to make Americans dependent on government aid and tends to hold them back from achieving truly meaningful economic progress and independence.
This is understandable in terms of public choice theory. Progressives receive electoral support from a majority of those who receive economic benefits from progressive programs and from the bureaucrats who administer them. Progressives would lose that support if their programs solved the problem and could be shut down. In a classic conflict of interest, progressives can’t afford to bring too much economic progress to those they claim to be helping. I say, “claim to be helping,” because progressive policies often create perverse incentives that impede the economic progress of low-income Americans (such as here in Pennsylvania, as of three years ago, a single mom would have higher net income if she earned $29,000 than if she earned $69,000, due to the structure and income levels that qualify her for various government benefits).
Today, three decades after Murray documented how economic progress for poor Americans stagnated as a consequence of the War on Poverty, there is abundant evidence that economic progress for middle-income Americans has become increasingly difficult to attain.
Government spending designed to help Americans has increased over the decades, accelerating under the last two presidents (a prescription drug entitlement, allegedly necessary bailouts under Bush and Obama and the Bush and Obama “stimulus” plans).
Indeed, under progressive Barack Obama, middle class incomes and net worth have declined while census data shows that the federal government is spending more on assistance than ever before. The simultaneous occurrence of two phenomena—falling standards of living and government spending as an increased portion of GDP—is not a coincidence. In fact, there is a known positive correlation between the two. The bigger government gets, the more economic progress is retarded. The lack of economic progress is the inevitable outcome when government removes wealth from private ownership and their concomitant economically rational prices which direct assets to their most highly valued uses. This shows the end that progressivism inevitably leads to. If Ludwig von Mises were alive today, he would state that progressives have committed the error of adopting the wrong means (expanded government intervention in the economy) for achieving the stated goal of improving the economic health of the people. Like socialism, progressivism is doomed to fail.
One major sign of today’s decidedly unprogressive economy is that the labor force participation rate has fallen sharply. It is no surprise that incomes and net worth are falling side by side with the labor participation rate since jobs are the primary means by which most Americans achieve economic progress. Progressive policies are largely responsible for reducing job opportunities.
Progressives wage an obtuse ideological war against capital, the rich and corporations. To win this war they strive relentlessly to raise taxes to pay for their plethora of wealth redistribution programs. Progressives do everything they can to divert wealth from the private sector to the public sector. In the private sector, the savings of high-income individuals and the profits of corporations form much of the capital that finances business enterprises (and so creates jobs) which, in turn, produces additional wealth. In the public sector, that wealth goes entirely to consumption which diminishes the country’s capital stock and its economic progress.
Progressives demonize, harass and persecute businesses (although they cynically make exceptions for their political allies in everything from startup boondoggles to huge corporations). By constantly seeking to tax, regulate and impose costs (e.g., Obamacare) on businesses, progressives impede the creation and expansion of businesses. This works to the detriment of workers. You can’t increase job opportunities without improving business opportunities. Everyone should want a climate in which businesses can flourish. In this climate, the more businesses there are competing for workers, the more the inexorable law of supply and demand pushes wages higher so that workers can achieve economic progress. Instead, Obama and his fellow progressives have been suffocating the job market by attacking capital and business.
Progressives care less about “the little guy” than their own political power. The cruel heart and intellectual bankruptcy of today’s progressive movement was made most apparent recently when its undisputed leader, Barack Obama, intervened to prevent poor children in Louisiana from using educational vouchers to get the education they desire in order to make economic progress. Obama values the political support of unions more than he does the welfare of those innocent children.
Progressivism has evolved into a pathetic caricature of itself. Progressives promise progress, but in practice progressivism has become the major obstacle to economic progress in America. They claim to be the champions of the poor and middle class, but their policies have imposed unnecessary economic hardship on the very people they claim to want to help. The end (in the sense of “culmination”) of progressivism is betrayal and economic stagnation. The end (in the sense of “termination”) of progressivism as a political force in America sadly lies in the future. The end will only happen when more Americans awaken to its fraudulent nature and realize that they have been deceived.
Editor’s Note: This column first appeared at Forbes.com
Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, Mark Hendrickson, is Adjunct Professor of Economics at Grove City College, where he has taught since 2004. He is also a Fellow for Economic and Social Policy with The Center for Vision & Values, for which he writes regular commentaries. He is a contributing editor of The St. Croix Review, sits on the Council of Scholars of the Commonwealth Foundation, and writes the weekly “No Panaceas” column in the Op/Ed section of Forbes.com.
Mark’s published books include: America’s March Toward Communism (1987); The Morality of Capitalism (editor, 1992); Famous But Nameless: Inspiration and Lessons from the Bible’s Anonymous Characters (2011); and God and Man on Wall Street: The Conscience of Capitalism (with Craig Columbus, 2012).
Mark Hendrickson’s Archives at Self-Educated American.