Sometimes, when confronted by viewpoints that I just don’t understand, I ask myself little questions like, what is the worldview that inspired this particular opinion? What is the foundation on which that worldview is built? And, what does their perfect world look like once all their goals are achieved?
I’m of the belief that almost every worldview has some rosy utopian vision in mind when all the aims are met. With this in mind, I’ve been trying to crack the progressive egg. What are they really after? What is their end-game? As our country becomes more and more ideologically split between small government conservatives, and big government progressives, it is important to try to figure out what really motivates the other side.
Why would one, for example, mandate the size of soft-drinks in a restaurant, as New York City is proposing, or ban smoking inside one’s own apartment or condo, as some Californian cities have done? I know, I know, soda and cigarettes are bad, but why do they think government is entitled to ban potentially harmful individual decisions?
To get there, you need to get down to their philosophical beginnings. The foundational belief that leads to these sorts of laws seems to be that humanity is perfectible or at least “progress-able,” and that the government is a good vehicle for driving stupid citizens towards smarter outcomes. For Christians, or others who believe that humanity is flawed, putting that kind of power into the hands of politicians is a very dangerous proposal. We might use an old cliche like, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” to warn against this misplaced trust in government. It seems much safer to have millions of potentially stupid people drinking too much soda, than to give people enough power to make these kinds of decisions for us.
For the moment though, let’s just assume that the progressives are correct. We are not hopelessly corrupt, just not too smart, and government can help guide us towards a grand future of something better. Ok, well what is that something better? If we are progressing towards a goal, is it a definable place which we will be able to recognize upon arrival?
At the dawn of the Progressive-Era, to be a progressive often meant to progress towards a place of racial and genetic purity. President Woodrow Wilson, who progressives still celebrate for some reason, fired most African-Americans from their government posts, segregated the military, and even hosted a viewing at the White House for the Klan propaganda film, “The Birth of a Nation,” also known as, “The Clansman.”
Margaret Sanger, another progressive and the founder of Planned Parenthood, wanted abortion clinics in every area of high black population so that they could eliminate them from the nation’s gene-pool. Here is a short piece put together by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s neice, Alvetta King, about the impact of the early progressive movement’s eugenics programs on the black population.
Now, I don’t think anyone would suggest that modern progressives want the same things as past progressives. You will not find many in the movement today who want a master race, or support the Klan, even though Woodrow Wilson and Margaret Sanger are still both hailed as important figures in progressive history. Hillary Clinton, for example, often talks about her love of the Planned Parenthood founder.
My point in bringing them up though, is just to show that this utopia shifts. What is reasonable to the enlightened of one generation is abhorrent to the next. Progressivism is therefore not a specific vision of the future, but more the project itself. Just the fact that the government is participating in this sacred work is enough. The goals have shifted drastically but the idea of achievable progress, and the government as a vehicle for this progress, have remained. Otherwise, why continue to use the name?
It all comes down to a crucial difference in what we see as the role of government. The US Constitution was clear to list our rights as “negative” rights, meaning things the government must not infringe on (like life, liberty, religion, speech), not “positive” rights that they are obliged to provide (like housing, food, health care, work). This is because they knew when you got used to holding out your hand to have things provided to you, those whom you rely on wield tremendous power over you. When you are guaranteed negative rights, also known as freedoms, then you can create a life for yourself. It won’t always be pretty, but the decisions are yours. If you do crash and burn, this system encourages families, communities, charities, and churches to freely choose to help you.
This difference of political philosophy was spelled out very clearly for me a couple days ago when I watched a short clip of two liberal entertainment icons, Bill Maher and Seth MacFarlane, talking politics. Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the cartoon Family Guy, made just about the same point I did earlier about not understanding where the other side is coming from. Then he began to give great insight into this worldview. He argued that the government should be in the business of forcing people to recycle. His reasoning for this was that, “That’s the government’s job. It’s to, like it or not, force us to do things we don’t want to do that will ultimately help us all.”
So there it is. I think that summarizes it nicely. They want the government to force us to do the things we would otherwise not do, but are beneficial to us. Apparently that means no smoking or trans-fats, mandatory recycling, seatbelts, and bicycle helmets, and now (after Mayor Bloomberg’s announcement last week) limits on the amount of soda we can put in a cup.
With that in mind, that leaves me with a few more questions. What if 51% of people decide fat people need to exercise more? Wouldn’t that be government forcing people to do something good that they would otherwise not do? Brushing your teeth twice-a-day is also good. What about a law mandating that?
Pondering the good-enforcing future utopia, I can’t help but imagine a pretty miserable place. I see mandatory memberships at gyms where attendance is taken. I see a “Department of Equality” where hiring, pay, college admittance, grades and many other factors are closely monitored for fairness. I see a place where many things that might be bad for us are monitored and controlled by well-meaning bureaucrats.
It really comes down to the fact that you can’t be trusted to make your own decisions. What if you make the wrong ones? That would ruin utopia! Progressive intellectuals just don’t think the masses, when presented with choices, will do the “good.” Well, coincidentally and for many of the same reasons, I don’t think they would make the right decisions for us if we voted to give them that power. If people can’t be trusted to make the right choices, why would they be any better?
You only have to look at the insane beginnings of the progressive movement to see that when you give tons of power to politicians to create a perfect world, certain people’s freedom is sacrificed for the greater good. The best thing you can do, in my opinion, is inform people about their choices. The more we learned about smoking and its harmful effects, the less people smoked. Now, I’m sure the left would credit that to higher cigarette taxes and bans on lighting-up in bars and workplaces, but in the end, people fearing their own death would have done the trick on its own. Or it it didn’t, they were warned.
That’s not enough for them though. They realize that no matter how often you tell somebody that cigarettes and hamburgers are unhealthy or that brushing your teeth is a good habit to get into, some people will simply not listen. They might even gorge themselves on fast food while driving down the road (seatbelt unbuckled). When they are done eating, they might light up a cigarette. On arrival at home they might even pass-out in satisfied bliss without first flossing the gristle from betwixt their teeth.
For many, we realize that that’s just life, but for the progressives, it drives them crazy. They must be stopped, they say. These fat, happy bastards are standing between us and utopia! Well, life is short. If some want to elongate their lives by certain more healthy behavior, that’s fine. But for the fat, happy bastards amongst us, 5-10 more years is not worth it if it means giving up the things that make life enjoyable in the first place. Just let them pursue their happiness and you eat the arugula!
There is no utopia on this earth. As long as people have free-will they will often choose unwisely. Many understand their decisions but just choose to “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Individuals must be allowed to make their own, often bad, decisions as long as they don’t negatively impact their neighbors. Many will fail at achieving a good life, but having another person’s perfect world forced on them is worse, and it’s certainly not utopia.