Friday, February 01, 2008

Progressivism II: Early Progressive Movement

Note - Last week I posted the Intro to this series. If you haven't read it, you can read it here.

Before one can understand modern day progressivism, one must understand its historic development, which actually began in Europe under the heavy hand of European monarchies.

Before the Industrial Revolution, Europeans (and their several offshore colonies) operated as agrarian based societies. The source of wealth was property, all property was a gift of the monarch, and the people who lived on the land, who worked the land, were beholden to their noble overlord.

Initially, common people never questioned the right of nobles because it was believed that monarchs, and their lesser nobles, were leaders by divine right. God willed them to rule, and if that were not so, then someone else would be a king, or a duke, or a count. In some countries, the offspring of a noble would inherit his father’s land so long as he swore fealty to the king. The people of the land — serfs or peasants — fell under the authority of their new lord. Because the survival of the peasants depended on the noble’s good graces, they did his bidding almost without question. The reward for their labors was a portion of the food they produced for the landlord. They did not have the right to leave the land. They could not hunt for meat without the noble’s permission. And because they were tied to the land, the land determined the size of human population. There was a direct relationship between the number of people on the land, and the amount of food available to sustain them.

Two remarkable events transpired that signaled a change in the relationship between nobles and peasants. The first was the Age of Exploration, which resulted in the discovery and transplantation of new foods found in the Americas and elsewhere. An increase in the abundance of food resulted in an increase in the size of human populations among commoners. The second event was the industrial revolution. As more foods were produced, trading centers developed near well-traveled crossroads and a merchant class was established. With the development of industry, mostly cottage industries, people were able to move from agricultural labors to producing and selling goods and services. It was the beginning of human mobility, mostly with the blessing of the noble, but some times not.

Amazingly, with minor exception, the first major change in the relationship between the monarch and his lesser nobles did not originate from within the peasant class, but with the nobles themselves. Fed up with high taxes levied upon them to sustain King John’s wars with France, the nobles forced him into signing a pact with them; it provided that the king could not tax his subjects without their permission. This great pact or Magna Carta was actually the beginning of a constitutional relationship with the monarch; for the first time, it limited his power. But even if the Magna Carta did not benefit peasants initially, over a period of time the commoner would become its principle beneficiary.

As the industrial period progressed, more and more people shifted from agriculture to producing and selling goods. It was the genesis of villages, then towns, and eventually cities. Peasants became “workers.” Property, as a source of wealth, now included small factories and shops. For the common people, their labor still fed them — but currency replaced a percentage of food production. It was the beginning of capitalism, founded in industrialism. Goods were produced to meet the demand and the higher the demand, the more money the industrialist made. Factory owners were becoming wealthy, while the wages paid to worker remained static.

Inflation is the result of increased wealth. As more people become wealthy, they can afford to pay increased prices for goods and services. Industrialists and merchants, understanding that they could charger higher prices, willingly raised them. The problem was the workers' static wage. At first, workers didn’t expect the property owner to share his wealth, but they did anticipate a higher wage in return for their labors. After all, without their labor, there could be no wealth. When property owners refused to reward workers with a higher wage, particularly when they were working twelve-hour days, the workers became resentful.

It was this particular idea — distributing wealth — that led to the first “progressive” movements. Workers may have been free from the land and the nobles that owned it, but they became every bit as enslaved to the factories and the businesses. In the mid-1800s, a man named Karl Marx developed a theory about the source of wealth, published in the Communist Manifesto. He correctly observed that as industrialists became richer, workers suffered from dangerous working environments, long hours, and that they were becoming poorer.

The new (capitalist) nobility lived comfortably, as did the middle class merchants, whose wealth came at the expense of the working class of people, economically enslaved to the interests of property owners. Over time, the relationship between industrialists and workers deteriorated. Wealthy property owners refused to acknowledge any responsibility to “share their wealth,” and workers became steadily more resentful. It was always possible for workers to quit their jobs, but with more workers than jobs, workers had no advocates and no bargaining chips. It was such an intolerable situation that many parents put their young children to work — just to put food on the table.

In truth, Karl Marx was less concerned about an equal distribution of wealth than he was empowerment. Labor unions became the tool to achieve empowerment. Marx's theory addressed well-defined inequities in the gap between rich and poor, but his solutions were harsh and threatened the status-quo of industrialists. It was a theory that many along the way began to believe that could provide equality to mankind. In time, political parties catering to workers focused on punishing the wealthy, but in such a way that gave power to themselves. For their part, industrialists believed labor unions and politicians were holding them hostage — the so-called Robin Hood principle of economic management.

But as we saw from the seizures of factories in pre-Mussolini Italy, socialist workers (as they were now called) took control of many prominent businesses and proceeded to run them into the ground; eventually they closed down. In the United States during the 1970s, labor unions held White Trucking Company hostage — the owners decided to close the factory, resulting in well-paid union workers being forced into the fast-food industry. From this failure, one can see there needs to be a balance of power and wealth created between the capitalists and those that labor in their businesses. It must be a balanced and reasonable approach that fosters hard work, ingenuity, and meritocracy. Most corporations understand this today, and they are working to provide this balance of interests.

Today's progressives originate from two camps: political socialists who demonize the corporations that create opportunities for both jobs and investment, and unionists who are little more than thieves whom steal from their constituencies. In both camps, profit is a bad thing — as are those who assume the risks of capital investment, which in turn provides opportunity for ordinary people. We understand that the point of capital investment is to increase wealth, but social progressives view this as some kind of economical sacrilege. Equal opportunity only has merit when workers benefit, not their employers.

Today’s Marxists refuse to acknowledge that conditions that once existed in industrially developing countries are very different from contemporary conditions. In spite of the fact that most economic problems are more the result of people making bad decisions, from accumulating massive debt to pursuing “get rich quick” schemes, socialist progressives have developed a hypocritical attitude that more than anything else, benefits politicians and of course, themselves.

Today, we have people that have amassed enough wealth in the corporate world to maintain a good living in retirement, but who now embrace principles that follow outdated Marxist theories. One good example of this is healthcare. Neo-Marxists who have achieved wealth now clamor for a national single-payer health care system so that others can foot the bill; never mind that such nitwits did not have the presence of mind to plan for their later years.

Co-written by Mustang of
Social Sense.

Next: More history.


Greg said...

Sort of off-topic, but you made me think of it.... I once defended a lawsuit brought by a couple of litigation hobbyists - a "progressive" husband and wife team of university professors (oy vay!) - who claimed the magna carta entitled them to sue the city's zoning commission, harvard university and various and sundry other defendants. You should have seen the look on the judge's face when we told him the case centered on the magna carta. Priceless! It was a simple zoning matter. The case was dismissed.

I think it's pretty common among hard-leftists to always think the Man is coming to steal your basic rights away. City approves re-zoning? Sue under the magna carta. Federal gov't spies on overseas terrorists? Claim they are listening in on "everyone's phone calls." Six black kids brutally beat a defenseless white boy and are charged with a felony? Claim the whole justice system is racist. Obama doesn't win the NH primary even though the "progressive" press thought he would? NH residents are obviously racist. This is what it means to be "progressive" today. The Democrat loses the election? Claim the "Rethuglicans" stole it with their secret squad of Men in Black.

They live in a fantasy world that is their worst nightmare! Weird. It's a miracle they aren't all dead from heart attacks. And they are hardly progressive, so far in the past they appear the live. I'd call them regressive.

Mark said...

Greg - yeah alot of it is bulls**t and makes me groan..but I do think we need to be very wary of the guys with guns behind their good intentions...not that "the people" have done a great job of it the last eighty years.

LA - I'd like to go through point by point of your progressive history...but I'm seven years out of college and have at this point thrown all my texts out. Guess that says alot for my mind. I won't critique at this point for lack of something intelligent to back up my general skepticism - but I did enjoy it and am looking forward to the next installment. Maybe then I'll have grown a pair and will have something intelligent to say.

LASunsett said...


//not that "the people" have done a great job of it the last eighty years. //

That's the thing Mark. We have 80 years of history we read in a paragraph, page, or chapter (depending on the depth of the book). It's incredibly difficult to have a grasp on those 80 years, in that short amount of print.

Like today, it was complex.

WWII was necessary to fight. It was a noble fight. The same cannot be said for WWI, which makes all wars look noble. How anyone could sit in trenches shooting at each other for years and not have the damn good sense see that nothing was being gained, is way beyond me.

Korea and Vietnam were conflicts that could have been avoided, now that we look back. Having been a kid through Nam and having a father that flew "Puffs", it had a different meaning for me. But the thing I have to apply whenever I try to analyze it (or Korea) is, the men who waged the war had just witnessed a madman try to take over the world. Their decisions were based on not letting a harsh militaristic dictator by the name of Stalin and later an oligarchical system that was openly hostile towards the US, get the upper hand as Hitler had just done in the days leading up WWII.

In hindsight, it's easy to condemn. But then, it was a legitimate concern.

In short, you had to be there.

Mark said...

What I meant by "guys with guns" is the politician/policymaker who decrees certain things that may be way off base with regard to rights (states and individual) and has the power to enforce because they can send us to jail. We haven't done a great job keeping this kind of thing in check. I'm speaking of taxes/regulations/wiretapping, etc.

In hindsight, it's easy to condemn. But then, it was a legitimate concern.

In short, you had to be there.

Yes. Not saying they weren't legitimate concerns...It is easy to condemn now but the challenge for us and who we elect is to make sure similar problems are approached with the knowledge of what happened in the past, and handled differently.

Anonymous said...

Former federal judge Andrew Napolitano wrote a book entitled A Nation of Sheep. He makes the argument that if we are not willing to stand up against government regulation — if we do nothing at all — then eventually the government will diminish all of our individual rights. It isn’t because government officials are “bad,” but because it is in the nature of government to increase its size, and its hold over the people. What we have done over the past 100 years, is to forget that WE are the government. And if WE the government decide that bureaucrats and elected officials know best, then we must not be shocked to learn that we no longer have individual responsibility, nor any accountability, for our selves or our families.

Recall that people with progressive mentalities have already done a lot of damage when WE weren’t paying attention. Here are some examples of how the government is “taking over” our individual rights. (1) Education: government tells parents that giving birth control pills to eleven year old girls is within the purview of a school district, and that parents have nothing to say about it. Government schools are brainwashing children to adopt a classical liberal view toward life, including “there are no consequences” for unseemly behavior; medicated kids have the right to disrupt the learning of other students; costly athletic programs are more important than libraries; no one has to be able to write a paragraph upon graduation, and social promotion is more important than content mastery. So far, everyone has bought into this crap, and we already know who the losers are. (2) Parents who refuse to provide a nutritional breakfast to their children can be arrested for “child abuse.” The children of authoritarian parents can sue their parents in court. So far, everyone has bought into this crap, and we already know who the losers are. (3) Since workers refuse to provide medical care insurance on behalf of their families, and since many companies will not do it, the government will do it so that everyone has the same amount of worthless medical insurance coverage. One-size fits-all social structures are okay because the needs and preferences of everyone in America are identical. So far, everyone has bought into this crap, and we already know who the losers are. (4) People who do not pay taxes are entitled to a tax rebate check. (5) Anyone can come here illegally, have their children in our hospitals at our expense; illegal law-breakers will be entitled to a public defender at the taxpayer’s expense. (6) The government will decide whether cloned meat products are safe; consumers have no need to distinguish between one product and another.

I go on too long. Suffice it to say that “progressive” attitudes were at one time a good thing; this has changed in 100 years to be not so good. We must remain mindful of who we are as a people. We are Americans, not Europeans. We do not value government interference in our daily lives. But if we continue “not paying attention,” then we’ll need to change our language to something else . . . we won’t be Americans any longer. Not in the traditional sense.