Thursday, February 5, 2009

Evolution of Progressivism as Elitist Paradigm

The debate between individualists and social democrats centers on the effects of centralization and the scope of rationality. Social democrats or "progressives" argue for enhanced centralization and the possibility of broad rationality in policy making. The rationality is accomplished through elite experts who claim to have superior, scientific knowledge obtained through university education. Individualists, in contrast, argue for the necessity to coordinate economic activity through decentralized, autonomous producers who are coordinated via price and motivated by private property. The debate between advocates of price versus hyper-rationalistic human planning through a centralized government agency would seem to have been settled in the 1980s. None of the socialist states was able to successfully implement centrally planned economies. Moreover, the tyranny associated with communism confirmed the worst fears of Milton Friedman and others. Yet, as late as 1972, when it had become evident that the Chinese communists had murdered approximately 25 million people, leading advocates of rational planning, John Kenneth Galbraith and Wassily Leontief, argued for the virtues of the Chinese communist system in the pages of the New York Times Magazine. Within a decade the Chinese themselves admitted that their approach to communism had failed, yet this had escaped the expertise of American universities' most famous economists. Now, 20 years after the final failure of Soviet communism, American academics and the Democratic Party continue to argue for state coordination and elitist-conceived solutions to elitist-conceived problems.

The question of centralization and decentralization has a long history in the United States. Its advocates hearken back to the ideas of Steuart and Shaftesbury and Hume, who was an anti-rationalist in epistemology and ethics but a rationalist in economics. Alexander Hamilton adopted the ideas of Hume and aimed to implement the mercantilist model. The Federalists believed that elite business people had exceptional rationality so that they could transform paper money into enhanced real wealth. This idea came from Hume. In turn, the elitist centralizing and hyper-rationalist idea was adopted by the Whigs, Henry Clay and then Abraham Lincoln, and carried forward by the Republicans in the form of advocacy of high tariffs and national banking. Although the Republicans voiced the ideology of laissez faire in the late nineteenth century, their reform impulses, as reflected in the National Banking Act, the Morrill Act, high tariffs, and the Pendleton Act reflected a centralizing interest in rationality. In turn, the early twentieth century Progressives advocated rationality and centralization, and this theme was reenforced by the New Deal.

If one looks at the social origins of the centralizing rationalists in American history there was a transformation in the late nineteenth century. Hamilton and Clay were a Federalist and a Whig who came from modest origins. Hamilton was an orphan who had won the support of businessmen in Nevis who financed his education and Clay was from a frontier middle class background, although he claimed to be poor. This was William Henry Harrison's response to the Jacksonian common man ideology of which Louis Hartz writes and that Abraham Lincoln carried forward.

A shift occurred in the Gilded Age. The Mugwumps did not identify themselves as having come from poor backgrounds. Their interest in rationalization of civil service and contempt for corruption was a reaction to Jacksonian democracy. They were college educated and saw themselves as differentiated from the mass of Americans and immigrants because of their education. They conceptualized themselves as a self conscious elite, and were other-directed. Their opposition to James Blaine in 1884 was group and media derived. It was fashionable. Among the Mugwumps was Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt rejected the laissez-faire philosophy of the older Mugwumps and carried forward the view of morality as an elitist obligation. Progressives saw reform as a class-linked moral prerogative. However, Roosevelt also advocated support for big business, centralized authority and the use of rationality as he defined it, for the ends that he defined as moral. The Progressives applied moral skepticism with respect to the natural rights philosophy, but moral dogmatism with respect to their social vision. They were other-directed in that the Progressive vision consisted of ad hoc propositions, news and whim of the elite itself. It claimed to be pragmatic, but refused to permit its dogmas to be falsified. Roosevelt initated a century long claim to superior mental ability of those who advocate the Progressive or liberal dogma.

The claim of superior mental capacity of a superior class follow through Hamilton, Clay and the Mugwumps, into Progressivism and the New Deal. Hamilton and Clay believed with Jefferson that there was a natural aristocracy. Hamilton and Clay both believed that government support for the elite would foster social goals because the elite could best use public wealth. The Mugwumps transformed the claim to superior knowledge from business to control of business via the state. This coincided with the increasing complexity and knowledge required to succeed in business. As technology grew more complex, the centralizing elitist philosophy dispensed with the claim that superior knowledge was needed to found and run business, and transformed into the claim that it was needed to regulate and dominate business.

The Mugwumps were the first group to identify altruistic or moralistic elitist aims. This came about because of their horror at the boss system and what they identified as pathologies of immigration and urbanization--slums and corruption. They sought to rationalize government.

Roosevelt was thus the product of the increasing wealth of American society. Unlike the early nineteenth century Federalists and Whigs, the Progressives made no pretense of humble origins but rather claimed an aristocratic elitism. Jane Addams was a social worker who aimed to altruistically help immigrant poor through a superior social position. Labor was viewed as ineluctably trapped in inferior class status. Class and group differences were viewed as inevitable, with the Progressive leadership expressing the altruism of the elite class. Government support for and rationalization of big business, the good trusts and the Federal Reserve Bank, the Workers' Compensation laws that limited employer liability in the name of altruistic concern for workers expressed the new elitism.

No comments: