Sunday, August 24, 2008

Community and Progressivism

Progressivism expressed the moral impulse of social Gospel Christianity and Populism as well as the social democratic ideas that late nineteenth century American university students brought home from the University of Berlin and other German universities. But the intent of morality is not the same as its execution. We can try to improve a bridge, but if the new bridge does not stand, then we have not helped. Moral action requires efficacy.

Progressivism emphasized large scale. In urban redevelopment, Robert Moses built roads, beaches, highways and public housing, but disregarded the effects on neighborhoods and personal networks within them. Jane Jacobs dissected his work on the Cross Bronx Expressway and New York City's public housing projects in her book Death and Life of Great American Cities. Progressivism aimed to improve efficiency and quality by increasing scale and applying a regularized pattern. But large scale often does not work. It is inflexible and difficult to change.

Robert Putnam has written an excellent book, Bowling Alone, about the decline of community. But the last thirty years has increasingly seen the failure of Progressivism, so it is not surprising that many Americans have chosen to shift from what Daniel Elazar calls the moralistic to the individualistic political pattern. Not only neighborhoods but the individual's relationship to the state, to his family, his employer and his economic future have been modified by the centralizing tendency of Progressivism, resulting in increasing distance from decisions and processes that modify his life. The classic example of this transformation is the Great Depression of the 1930s, which was the first major failure of Progressivism. Caused by a combination of inappropriate central bank tightening (Milton Friedman) or by President Hoover's mistaken attempt to cajole major employers into refusing to cut wages (Murray Rothbard), the Depression followed the establishment of the Federal Reserve Bank by less than twenty years and the implementation of Wilson's World War I economy (in which Hoover played a crucial role as Food Administrator) by less than ten.

Increasingly, government has been centralized and inflexible and incapable bureaucracies have been established. The Progressives claimed that "experts" could solve problems, so a hierarchy of expertise was established, and citizens' opinions became less important. Americans allowed themselves to be convinced that experts knew better. The news media also centralized, in part in response to growing labor costs facilitated by the National Labor Relations Act and the advent of television. The centralized news media became an advocate for government by expertise, the wisdom of Keynesian economics and bureaucracy.

The Progressive policies of urban redevelopment led to near-extinction of urban centers and the subsidization of suburbs, which in turn led to increasing commutes. As well, since the abolition of the international gold standard in 1971, declining hourly real wages have led to increasing hours of work as Americans have struggled to keep up with the declining economic opportunity that central planning has caused. The pure exhaustion of multiple jobs coupled with the distraction of television and the need to decompress has increasingly alienated Americans from their communities.

Moreover, a sense of apathy has set in because the centralized, unresponsive firms and government bureaucracies that Progressivim has established seem to be beyond the efforts of most Americans. As a result, a society that is increasingly stratified between those who benefit from Federal Reserve and governmental subsidies and those who do not has been accomplished in the rhetoric of moralistic, Progressive reform. The dissonance created by the discrepancy between the ideology of Progressivism and its assault on human dignity and living standards leads inexorably to loss of community and economic decline.

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