Thursday, March 13, 2008

Failure of Progressivism

Writing in the tradition of John Dewey's progressivism, Peter Levine and others have argued that deliberation and democracy are key values and that society ought to be reformed to reinvigorate public participation and deliberation. Liberals now call themselves progressives and continue to argue for enhancement of the public sphere at the expense of the private sphere; increased government involvement in the economy; and a reinvention of policies that, over the past century, have failed. But Progressivism has failed and will continue to fail because its commitment to big government ignores the conditions for good decision making in a large economy and in the kind of large organizations that progressivism subsidizes.

In order to function, economies and institutions need to make best use of information. Such information is available through price fluctuations and on-the-spot shifts in demand. To make best use of informational change, economic decision makers must be local and/or flexible. Some patterns may be global, but even there continuous improvement is necessary to an efficient organization, and the ability to continously and at times radically improve is necessary to an efficient economy.

To be local, organizations must be decentralized. To be decentralized, they must be small actors who are profit oriented; or be decntralized large organizations. Institutions at the macro-economic level are too large and centralized to be able to make use of local information, as Friedrich Hayek has argued. Thus, to make best use of information in the economy, economic actors must be small, privately owned organizations with local knowledge or be able to emulate such organizations. For large governmental institutions to work they must emulate small organizations anyway, and there is no reason to characterize them as governmental institutions. To the extent that they are government institutions they will not function effectively.

There is a second reason for the failure of progressivism. In order to manage systems, feedback is necessary and reform of policy must be continuous. This is important in both the individual organization and the larger economy as well for two reasons. First, organizations need to maintain stability. If, for instance, prices rise, then the organization must be able to promptly adjust purchasing policies, pricing strategy and a host of similar variables in order to stabilize themselves with respect to the rising price. Second, in order to improve their products organization must be able to continuously change. This requires motive and ability to continuously improve organizational information systems. Such continuous improvement is impossible in a democratic setting. Democratic processes are global and require mass deliberation. Nor are such improvement processes possible via expert commissions. Experts are not privy to what the quality expert EI Deming called the "profound knowledge" of workers intimately involved in a production system. Moreover, the knowledge base that is required changes constantly because of shifting conditions.

Neither of these requirements hold with respect to deliberative democracy and so is precluded by progressivism. Deliberative processes are untimely; cannot integrate local information; are rigid; are unable to be revised because of the costliness of the deliberative process; are subject to opportunistic manipulation by self-interested parties and insiders; do not reflect a unitary profit motive; and often are subject to a range of contradictory motives.

Because of these limitations progressivism is necessarily at odds with progress. Progress requires innovation, which in turn is conditional upon incentives, a clear goal, a focus on improvement (continuous as well as radical), flexibility with respect to decision making and experimentation conditioned upon flexibility and unforeseen results and outcomes.

Thus, progressive-liberalism is inherently anti-progress. Its very name is self-contradictory.

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