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The Individualist's Guide to Progressive Change

The Individualist's Guide to Progressive Change

10 Mins
June 26, 2010

If socialism were a respectable affiliation, Progressives would probably call themselves “democratic socialists.”

But socialism died as a revered ideal with the fall of the Berlin Wall and with the economic boom produced by China’s internal reforms. What has taken socialism’s place is an anti-capitalism wedded to the idea that greater government control of economic life is possible and desirable. Progressives wish America were more like Canada, with its publicly-funded health care system; or like Sweden, a model “Progressive” country, with a relatively high standard of living, a relatively flat income distribution, and a tax-supported cradle-to-grave benefits system. It’s safe to say that many of the top leaders of the Democratic Party, including President Obama and House Speaker Pelosi, identify with the world-view of Progressivism. Indeed, with the Democrats in control of Congress and the Presidency, this year marks a political high tide for the Progressive movement in America.

Today, “Progressive” is the term of choice for the far Left coalition in American politics. And “Progressivism” is a wonderful place to locate oneself, etymologically. After all, who is opposed to “progress”? Progressives take their name from the pro-labor, anti-big-business egalitarian movement that started in the upper Midwest of the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. To those roots have been added the left-wing civil rights tradition of the ACLU; a cultural rejection of racism, sexism, and hostility toward gays; and a post-hippie mixture of counter-culturalism, anti-trade anarchism, and environmentalism. Progressives have a clear vision of progress for America, but what sort of “progress” does their agenda represent? What will their brand of “change” mean for you?


Is it progress to have a free press where people can make their views heard? Progressives oppose ideological restrictions on speech. They champion democracy and elections worldwide. But they often favor restrictions on campaign financing. These laws can make it illegal for neighbors to casually pool a little cash to print some protest signs for an upcoming vote. By severely restricting how groups can spend money on political causes, they turn freedom of speech into an empty slogan.  

Does the automobile represent social progress? It used to. It increases individual autonomy, empowers people, and breaks down geographical barriers between groups. But Progressives, yearning for dense, European-style towns and fretting about the environment, would rather you rode a bike or took a train. In the ideal community, you shouldn’t need a personal car. Refined “progress” ranks solidarity above autonomy.

Refined "progress" ranks solidarity above autonomy.

Does the decades-long increase in the size of the average home represent progress? Progressives would rather hear that smaller homes are gaining in popularity—and indeed in 2009 the median square footage of new homes declined. Economic modesty and anti-materialism are hall-marks of Progressivism. People would be happier, Progressives believe, living in high-population, high-density areas, as Europeans do. However, the fact is that people all over the world tend to choose to spread out and have bigger homes if they can afford them—and if they are allowed them. To Progressives, a bigger home is one free choice too many.

Has it been progress for the ties of family, faith, and tribe to unravel, setting individuals—men and women, straight and gay, black and white, Catholic and Jew—free to choose their own courses in life? Progressives partake of the old liberal tradition in certain respects: they oppose racism and sexism and champion social acceptance of alternative sexualities. But their solutions employ the tools of economic and social control. So Progressives favor laws enforcing politically correct behavior, such as non-discrimination laws and affirmative action requirements. And today’s Progressives stand in opposition to impersonal market forces: they honor the traditional peasant village displaced by growth and change; they idealize town hall democracy as the solution for social problems generally. People must be bound together, and Progressives stand ready to lead the binding.

There’s a steady increase in per-capita wealth in the first world. Is this “progress”? No, we need to recalculate our measures of wealth to assume that any resources we use are a net loss. The new “progress” aims for “sustainable” living instead of growth. What isn’t “sustainable”? Steel, coal, oil, natural gas, non-organic crops, farmed trees (they disrupt the forest ecology), and farmed fish (unless raised with no modern chemicals, organically)—for starters. In short, it’s practically all of modern civilization that’s “unsustainable”. According to Progressive pundit Naomi Klein, “the most comforting and dangerous lie that there is” is “the lie that perpetual, unending, growth is possible on our finite planet.” If progress means going forward, Progressives stand for going nowhere economically.

Today’s Progressives wed the old, pro-union, industrially-oriented Progressivism of Robert La Follette to environmentalism. Civilization is off-course, they say, we are destroying the Earth itself. Our crude, materialist civilization has destabilized the climate and poisoned the biosphere with artificial chemicals. It would be healthier to grow all food organically and to move to a post-carbon economy.


Most Progressives I know do not eschew wealth or productivity in their personal lives. They’re reflective about their personal choices and hold that one should try to find work and personal relations that make one happy. In this much, they are children of the Enlightenment. But the guiding force behind the Progressive ideology is a discomfort with modern civilization—a hatred for it, even. Progressives do not want merely to straighten out problems in their own lives; they want to change society so that they no longer feel guilty about it.

To ask whether Progressives are aiming at progress is really to ask whether Progressivism is a teleological ideology, aimed at a set of values, or whether it is a coalition centered on expressing certain discontents instead.

We can examine this deeper question by looking at several key Progressive policies.


Progressives do not claim to oppose energy usage as such. However, they favor conservation as a good in itself—which would seem to amount to opposing energy usage in practice. They favor adoption of solar, tidal, and wind power, because none of these transform a fuel into waste and none emit atmospheric pollutants. Unfortunately, these favored technologies are nowhere close to becoming price-competitive with petroleum, natural gas, hydroelectric, and nuclear power generation, the energy-generation methods currently in wide use.

Progressives oppose oil, coal, and natural gas because these involve mining and because they result in carbon dioxide and pollutant emissions. However, these emissions do not currently cause us grave health risks. In fact, there has been a steady advance in fuel efficiency and in managing dangerous pollutants such as particulates. But what about global warming? That’s just it: Progressives foresee an ecological apocalypse. But if the bottom line is human well-being, there’s scant evidence as yet of any coming disaster due to warming, either.

There will never be an energy technology that does not disrupt the landscape.

Today’s “green energy” isn’t hydroelectric: big dams are considered too disruptive to the fish and the landscape. And it isn’t nuclear: nuclear energy is a devil’s brew which curses the earth with 10,000-year wastes, Progressives say. Behind these objections is the larger principle that that industry and its by-products are to be distrusted—so big dams are ugly and nuclear waste can never be managed—even though nuclear waste is produced in very small quantities from very large outputs of energy and even though it has been managed very well for over 50 years now. Another principle at work in the Progressive mindscape is that no form of energy production may disrupt the natural landscape.

By those terms, “green” power is a chimera. Photovoltaic solar—the most innocuous—is too costly, with complicated chemistry and high construction expenses. Solar hot-water plants—the most efficient—need vast desert tracts for sunlight plus plenty of water for steam. Already, major solar projects have been cancelled due to insufficient water supplies, and there are few such plants to begin with. Geothermal power is another green darling. But it turns out the subsurface hot-spots needed for geothermal steam energy are on fault lines: two much-ballyhooed projects in California and Switzerland were cancelled recently for causing earthquakes. And as for wind-power, rows and rows of hill-top or coastline turbines “scar” the land as much any dam does.

The problem is there’s no fairy-dust solution. Large-scale energy production requires technology. It isn’t “natural.” It requires land and resources. It’s an open question whether solar or wind-power will soon be competitive with the other sources of energy in terms of cost. It is certain, however, that there will never be an energy technology that has no by-products and that does not disrupt the landscape. How will Progressives react when they come face-to-face with this fact?


There is much to like in the rough outline of the Progressive vision of a better society. Progressives envision a society without great extremes of wealth, one where people see each other as equals. They want to see an end to poverty. Such a situation could develop through just dealings among people—poverty could end if practically everyone approached life with a responsible, long-term view; huge differences in wealth could be avoided if large swaths of the population were inventive, prudent, and entrepreneurial. If that were to happen in a society based on individual responsibility and a social ethic of trading value for value, no doubt it would have ancillary benefits, such as a decrease in temptations to second-hand living—temptations for the poor to sponge off of the rich or for the rich to mistake economic power for social mastery.

But Progressives invert the order of these goods: equality of condition is for them a high social goal; merit and responsibility play a lesser role. This equality of condition is “social justice.” To Progressives, all wealth is suspect when not equally shared. Responsibility is a code-word for social oppression, because it means, among other things, that others are not to blame for one’s failings and shortcomings in life. Poverty is, for Progressives, ipso-facto a claim on the wealth of others—no matter how that wealth was earned and no matter if the poor person has any relation at all to the wealthy one.

Justice consists in treating people as they deserve. It is an assessment of their capabilities, character, and actions. By rejecting this policy of holding people responsible, Progressivism makes every productive society contemptible. This is a social view based in envy, rather than a celebration of the good.


I’ve mentioned already that Progressives espouse an anti-capitalism that isn’t tied to an endorsement of socialism or communism. But capitalism—the market economy—is the only system that has been able to steadily raise human productivity—and hence, wealth. The Progressive turn away from principled socialism may be, in effect, the adoption of a pragmatic experiment to see how much regulation, taxation, and bureaucratization capitalism can take without dying. Is the economic goal of Progressivism the maximum practical welfare state?

Some Progressives are at pains to deny that there is any unique merit to capitalism or any need to limit the size of government. Consider the journalist William Greider, author of Secrets of the Temple, who happily propounds the view that the banking system is a conspiracy to rob the common folk. Greider advocates a permanently loose money policy (“Inflation is usually associated with dynamic growth.”) Few are those with the moxie to say, in effect, that the stagflation of the 1970s was the ideal economic situation, or that today’s Venezuela, with its soaring inflation, expanding price controls, and growing shortages, represents “dynamic growth.” (At least Hugo Chavez is giving the finger to Uncle Sam—that scores brownie points with Progressives.)

Progressive economic theory is reflected in the contrast between Obama rhetoric and Obama policy.

Progressive economic theory is reflected in the contrast between Obama rhetoric and Obama policy: President Obama will talk about the role of the market and the need for growth, but his policy proposals are for new restrictions on business, new entitlements, new bureaucracies, and expanded taxes. Socialism is the doctrine that government ought to control the means of production, either through ownership (classic soviet socialism a.k.a. “communism”) or through mandating what the private firms will produce and what they will be paid (national socialism a.k.a. “fascism”).

Progressive economic policies flip-flop between these two models, but socialism doesn’t seem to be the goal. The real purpose of these policies seems to be to alleviate the Progressive’s envy and guilt over the supposed excesses of capitalism, and to express the Progressive’s alienation from money-grubbing truck-and-barter. But if a shining socialist future isn’t the goal, then it isn’t at all clear how these essentially socialist policies are supposed to contribute to “progress.”


Ayn Rand diagnosed the ills of the last century as the fruits of three basic, related ideals that have been widely embraced. These ideals are

(1) the epistemological method of mysticism, which adheres to a “higher” form of insight than the objective knowledge we can discover through integrating the evidence of our senses using logic; (2) the moral ideal of altruism, which holds that one should not live for oneself, but that rather the good consists only in service to others; and (3) the social ideal of collectivism, which holds that that individuals are not primary; in social analysis only social groups really matter.

Today’s Progressivism is a secular expression of that same mystic-altruist-collectivist axis. Here we go again!

Progressivism’s social analysis is collectivist through-and-through. In economics, it envisions various working-class groups facing off against big-business plutocrats. Its politics favor a money-less democratic electioneering, where affiliation with an electoral bloc or interest group is the only way to influence the government. Its analysis of racism, sexism, and hostility toward gays consists in first classifying each individual by his race-class-gender status, then insisting on equal average results for each group. This collectivism sits uneasily with Progressivism’s cultural connection to the self-redefining, let-it-all-hang-out individualism of the 1960s generation (think: Utne Reader). But it is the collective, not the individual, that matters in their analysis and policy formulations.

Today's Progressivism is a secular expression of the mystic-altruistic-collectivist axis.

That Progressivism advances the morality of altruism is also plain. In fact, Progressivism is the typical ideology of educated people who want to show their moral earnestness. To be fair, if one has imbibed the ethic of self-sacrifice and service to the group with one’s mother’s milk, taking that ethic seriously could just be a sign of integrity or of empathy for the troubles of others. In any case, arch-Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer is to Progressives what a fundamentalist preacher is to Christians: his calls for First World citizens to ship 70 percent of their income to Third World indigents puts a number on the altruist moral urgings that motivate Progressives. But, as Rand explained, altruism treats the happiness of the agent as next to nothing. So, altruism rubs up uncomfortably in Progressive moral life against the practical ethic of authenticity and self-realization that plays a large part in most Progressive lifestyles (think again: Utne Reader). But nothing less than altruism can underwrite the Progressives’ assertion of expansive welfare rights and their idealization of social unity. And the ethics of environmentalism take altruism one step further: instead of holding that the community should be the ultimate beneficiary of our actions, it holds that the ecosphere (that idealized vision of nature without man) is the be-all and end-all.

Progressivism is essentially a secular outlook. With its strong ethic of religious toleration, a Progressive religious outlook must be, in effect, pantheist: viewing many religions as valid roads to God. But a rational view of the world is a Progressive theme. The Obama administration has prided itself on mastering facts, and many of its economic policies are supposed to have the endorsement of research findings. So mysticism is a cruel charge to lay at Progressives’ door. But they deny the straightforward facts of man and nature when they place the environment above human well-being. Progressives reject rational integration when they advocate both self-expression and self-sacrifice. Progressives promote social policies that have been proven to fail, against those that have been proven to work, for the sake of their envy of capitalist production and their alienation from having to live with the consequences of their own choices. As Rand pointed out, placing one’s feelings above the facts is a species of mysticism. There you have it.


Most Progressives are political for fashion’s sake. Their politics are intended to signal to the world their earnestness—because their values are spoken emphatically and publicly; their independence of mind—because they stand contrary to conservative conventionalism; and their objectivity—because they are standing against their own interests. Think of Progressive Hollywood stars like Robert Redford or Sean Penn, left-wing businesspeople like George Soros, or Progressive academics like Paul Krugman: in their practical lives professional success, personal happiness, and authentic self-expression are cardinal values. Progressivism is a leading political strain among the conflicted, the “bourgeois bohemians” as David Brooks called them in his BoBos in Paradise. It is one thing to pooh-pooh the ultra-wealthy when one has a healthy mutual fund balance and can afford international travel. It’s another matter entirely to truly embrace poverty or the culture of the poor.

Now Progressivism faces its moment of truth.

But now Progressivism faces its moment of truth. Major aspects of the Progressive agenda are being enacted into law by the Democratic ascendancy that swept to power with Barack Obama in 2008. Expanded social welfare programs, higher taxes, increased regulation of business, and increased “green” subsidies and rules are all on the docket. To be fair, greater attention to habeas corpus and the basic rights of citizens is also on the agenda, and one can only cheer for that.

One can never predict the course of human history—people have free will and are capable of remarkable deviations from their objective interests. Nevertheless, given the historical evidence and the general fact that humans need to be free to choose their values, we can expect that the Democratic economic policies will exacerbate the economic crisis to the degree that they partake of Progressive anti-market ideology. If this is so, each Progressive will soon face a choice between following the envious and hate-driven aspects of his agenda wherever they lead, or blinking and stepping back from that abyss to at least a more middle-of-the-road, science-based approach.

When the “green” technologies go on requiring subsidies, will Progressives double-down, or will they open their minds to a rational consideration of the full range of energy technologies? When “managed growth” policies crimp young Progressives’ ability to get a home that meets their personal standards, will they agitate for more openness to development, or continue to preach the virtues of simple living? When heavy taxes and regulation cramp the ability of businesses to make money, will Progressive business folk back off their support for anti-market attitudes, or just clamor for subsidies of their own?

This is the challenge that faces Progressivism: to choose human progress, or to oppose it. To favor human life and happiness, or to favor self-abnegation and stultification. Progressivism has proclaimed that progress is its goal. Now it must prove it.



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.

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