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Progressivism and Objectivism

Progressivism and Objectivism

4 Mins
September 29, 2010

Question: Are Objectivism and Progressivism linked? I have always considered myself a Progressivist and, after much study on Objectivism, I now know that I am definitely an Objectivist. Is Objectivism a type of Progressivism as it is a type of Humanism??

Answer: If only Progressivism could be a genus of Objectivism! But, alas, no.

The Progressive movement was originally an intellectual and political movement of the early 20th century. Its advocates sought to improve society through the application of technology and government initiative to solve social problems. In its first phase, it was identified with Theodore Roosevelt and the educational theories of William James.

By the 1920s, this movement, following the logic of its basic moral ideals, had become closely associated with democratic socialism and environmentalism. For example, the "Progressive Party" of Robert LaFollette "called for public control and conservation of natural resources, abolition of child labor, recognition of the right of labor to organize and bargain collectively, and the breakup of monopolies."

You can read the political history of Progressivism in brief at Bartleby.com.

Today, "Progressive" is a label that people and groups with generally socialist and environmentalist leanings use to identify themselves (e.g. The Progressive, Ralph Nader's PIRGs, the Utne Reader, The Nation, etc.). The Progressive magazine, for example, describes itself as having "steadfastly stood against militarism, the concentration of power in corporate hands, and the disenfranchisement of the citizenry. It has continued to champion peace, social and economic justice, civil rights, civil liberties, human rights, a preserved environment, and a reinvigorated democracy. Its bedrock values remain nonviolence and freedom of speech."

Now Objectivism is all for peace, justice, civil liberties, and human rights. If we strip these terms of their actual meaning, then we might see Objectivism as a kind of progressive philosophy. It shares with Progressivism a generally secular orientation and some specific political positions (generally the remaining liberal aspects of "liberalism," such as respect for freedom of expression, rejection of racism, etc.). However, Objectivism stands against the trend of thought represented by Progressivism on several grounds:

1. Individualism

Objectivism holds that individuals are ends in themselves, and that all rights are ultimately the rights of individuals to freedom.

Objectivism rejects all forms of statism, including state ownership of businesses, state labor regulation, and state regulation of business activity. Thus while "Progressives" say they are for "labor rights," for example, they do not favor the individual right to choose where one works and contract for terms of service and payment, which is what Objectivism advocates. Instead, "Progressives" seek workplace democracy, where unions are chosen by majority vote of the workers and where unions have the power to control the terms of workers' contracts without their individual consent. Similarly, while Objectivists oppose racism out of respect for individuals as such, "Progressives" define "group rights" and view people as essentially members of a tribal or racial group. They call that fighting racism. But it is still racist in its methods and view of man.

Objectivism also rejects altruism. This is the essence of the moral code of the "Progressives," a secularized, social version of Christianity that holds that goodness consists in one's service to others. We all have a duty to society, Progressives say. We must have "social justice" (which means equality of wealth and status), they say. Objectivism holds that each of us is a moral end-in-himself, fully entitled to seek our own welfare and happiness. There is no such thing as "society," except the individuals of which it is formed.

2. Reason

Objectivists reject faith and irrationalism as sources of knowledge. Despite their secular background, today's "Progressives" flirt with multiculturalist poly-logism and exotic religion. Self-described academic "Progressives" are at the forefront of promoting postmodern philosophical ideas, rejecting academic standards, objectivity, and logic in favor of politically motivated scholarship and rhetorical legerdemain. This is helping to corrupt the political aspects of Progressivism. After all, if definitions don't matter and logic is oppressive, then "social justice" can be a wish for status without merit and "individual rights" can be thought of as dependent on one's group.

3. Capitalism

Objectivists are for free-market capitalism, the separation of the state from the economy, except for its role in providing property law and courts to settle disputes. Objectivism sees capitalism as the system of dynamism, freedom, achievement, and progress. Most "Progressives" hate and fear capitalism. They are far more comfortable with more government programs and more government regulation than they are with deregulation and cutbacks in subsidies. Like "progressive" former labor secretary Robert Reich, they usually want government to guide the economy, supporting chosen industries and controlling land use.

And that's the pro-human wing of Progressivism.

Many "Progressives" are also committed to environmentalism and view human life as the abuse of the planet. To me, this is Progressivism come full circle, because to most leading "Progressive" environmentalists, "development" and "progress" are dirty words. The environmentalists have substituted "nature" for God, and they damn business for the sin of daring to use nature to create human happiness. Thus radical environmentalists are for steep cuts in human population, the scaling back of "sprawl," the strict control of technology (especially any new technology, such as genetically-modified organisms), and the eventual return of vast swaths of the planet to an uninhabited, wild state.

I personally was raised as a "liberal" and a "progressive." I have always identified with the aspect of those traditions that values the individual and seeks improvements in quality of human life. Objectivism draws out of those intuitions their true implications and basis in fact. By contrast, "Progressivism" as it exists today has in many ways betrayed those ideals and embraced their opposites.


William Thomas

William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.

William Thomas
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