The Three Meta-Errors That Pervade Progressivism

April 16, 2019 Updated: April 16, 2019


Conservatives have so many policy disagreements with progressives that it’s hard to keep track of them all. However, they all stem from three fundamental errors—the meta-errors of progressives and progressivism.

These are: an unjustified faith in government competence, an irrational belief in the power of human will, and what I call “the tyranny of good intentions.”

1. Faith in Government Competence

The late historian Clarence Carson correctly identified “meliorism” as a key tenet of progressive ideology. Adapted from the Latin adjective “melior” (“better”), meliorism is the doctrine that the federal government should intervene in the market economy to improve the economic condition of citizens. That, of course, calls for a far larger role for government than the founders’ vision, in which the government’s appointed task was to keep us free and let us go about our economic business unmolested.

Progressives’ faith in the ability of government to make us more prosperous is unsupported by evidence. In fact, the evidence is that Uncle Sam has proven more accomplished in crippling economic progress than in boosting it.

The poster child for governmental economic incompetence in the United States is the “War on Poverty.” After a decades-long trend of the U.S. poverty rate declining (a trend temporarily reversed during the Great Depression, due to unrelenting counterproductive federal intervention), the poverty rate leveled off once the federal War on Poverty was launched in the mid 1960s. Since then, Washington has spent more than $25 trillion in today’s dollars, yet the poverty rate has remained stuck in a narrow band (roughly 11 to 15 percent) for more than 50 years.

Other salient examples of government incompetence: the Social Security system is giving workers lower returns than private retirement plans, and it faces severe deficits in the future. Health care expenses, insurance premiums, and deductible payments have soared the more Uncle Sam has intervened. So have the costs of higher education. Yet, despite government’s abysmal track record, progressives propose evermore federal “help.”

2. Belief in Human Willpower

Far from abandoning the failed strategy of expanding government to engineer economic progress, American progressives have doubled down on it. They now want democratic socialism. Progressives believe that the primary reason that government intervention hasn’t yet solved all human economic problems is simply an insufficiency of political will: We just haven’t tried hard enough.

No amount of real-world evidence—whether the historical failures of socialism in the USSR, People’s Republic of China, Cuba, eastern Europe, North Korea, and others, or the current humanitarian disaster in Venezuela, or the grim reality of Native American reservations and Veterans Administration hospitals here at home—can convince them that government economic control isn’t the path to prosperity and justice.

The lethal consequences of this mindset are illustrated by an incident that the late Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn recounted in “The Gulag Archipelago.” Soviet officials wanted to transport larger loads of steel by railroad. They took their plan to some railroad engineers. The engineers explained that the request was impossible because the railroad tracks couldn’t support more tonnage. The party officials then had the engineers summarily shot as saboteurs of progress. How dare they oppose the political plan! When the officials proceeded to order doubling each train’s loads, the tracks broke down, just as the engineers had warned them, and so even less steel reached the desired location.

The lesson here is obvious to anyone with a lick of common sense: The “will of the people” and political mandates are powerless to revise or repeal the laws of physics or the principles of economics. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit and socialism impoverishes. (If you want to understand why socialism is inherently unviable, read Ludwig von Mises’ 1922 book “Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis.“)

The progressives’ self-deluded belief that they can bend reality to conform with their will, whims, and wishes can have lethal consequences.

3. The Tyranny of Good Intentions

The “tyranny” here is twofold: It refers both to progressives being enslaved by their own emotions and their desire to exert power over others.

Progressives feel (“feel” may be a more appropriate verb than “think”) that because they want to do something that is so obviously good (e.g., help the poor, preserve a safe climate, etc.), their policy recommendations must necessarily be the right and best solutions—and that anyone who disagrees with them is, a priori, a bad or hateful person.

Thus, for example, these naive U.S. progressives are convinced that because they have good intentions, they can make socialism work. They think socialism hasn’t succeeded elsewhere because the leaders either didn’t implement socialism thoroughly enough or because those leaders weren’t good people. Read Mises, folks. Even saints with multiple doctorates can’t make socialism work.

So besotted are progressives by their own grandiose visions of their own goodness and rightness that they feel entitled to determine and decree what other citizens must do (not what they must not do, which was the concept of law held by the founders). The fact that their messianic plans, such as the Green New Deal, would make them slave-drivers over their fellow Americans doesn’t bother them in the slightest.

Through some warped combination of inflated love for themselves and a corresponding disdain, if not hatred, for others, the tyranny of good intentions turns progressives into wannabe tyrants.

The seed of tyranny germinates in a colossally self-flattering notion—one that I once held when I was a brainwashed undergraduate bleating for socialism—namely, “The world will be a great place when everyone else accepts the role I have chosen for them.”

The great Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith commented on this syndrome in his 1759 book “The Theory of Moral Sentiments“: “The man of system … seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.”

The arrogance of the social planner (i.e., contemporary progressives) includes stripping one’s fellow man of their basic humanity, their freedom of choice.

We can debate economic theory, the lessons of history, the affordability of various proposals, etc., with progressives until we are blue in the face. But until we figure out how to correct the three meta-errors underlying their policy proposals, they aren’t going to change.

Mark Hendrickson is an adjunct professor of economics and sociology at Grove City College. He is the author of several books, including “The Big Picture: The Science, Politics, and Economics of Climate Change.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.