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Progressivism

Contemporary supporters of an expanded role for government are increasingly moving away from calling themselves liberals toward referring to themselves Progressives, so it is worth considering what the ideology of Progressivism entails.

Progressivism began in the late 1800s as a political movement that advocated expanding the role of government. Before the Progressive era, Americans viewed the role of government as protecting individual rights. The Progressive ideology argued that the proper role of government should go beyond protecting individual rights to include looking out for people’s economic well-being.

Progressivism is explicitly designed to use the force of government to take from some to give to others. In its early days, Progressives envisioned the state reigning in the economic power of people like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt to prevent them from exploiting those with less economic power. Even this vision makes clear that the goal of Progressivism is to impose costs on some for the benefit of others.

The Progressive ideology is now firmly ingrained into the political system, and everybody recognizes that the government routinely takes from some to give to others. Because this is how our government now works, Progressivism encourages people to engage in politics to increase their chances that they can be on the receiving end of those transfers.

Meanwhile, the idea that some might be using their economic power to exploit others has fallen by the wayside. It’s not that Progressives don’t think this can happen; it’s that the Progressive transfer state recognizes claims made by anybody, regardless of whether they were harmed or exploited by others.

Welfare programs transfer benefits from taxpayers to recipients without any thought that the recipients deserve the the transfers because they are being exploited by taxpayers. It’s the compassionate thing to do. But the rich as well as the poor see Progressive government as a source of economic support. Giant corporations receive subsidies, tax breaks, and regulatory protection even though when Progressivism was born, its core idea was to transfer from them rather than toward them. Progressivism leads to cronyism.

While the idea of Progressivism was to expand the role of government to both protecting people’s rights and looking out for their economic well-being, the the actual result of Progressivism has been that because it provides economic benefits to some by imposing costs on others, it violates people’s rights rather than protecting them. Progressive regulations limit people’s freedom of choice, and its tax and transfer policies take the property of some for the benefit of others.

Despite its compassionate-sounding agenda of looking out for people’s economic well-being, the political philosophy of Progressivism justifies a government that violates the rights of some to provide economic benefits to others.

Author:

Contact Randall G. Holcombe

Randall G. Holcombe is an Associated Scholar of the Mises Institute, DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, past President of the Public Choice Society, and past President of the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Virginia Tech, and has taught at Texas A&M University and Auburn University. Dr. Holcombe is also Senior Fellow at the James Madison Institute and was a member of the Florida Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors. His books include From Liberty to Democracy: The Transformation of American Government (2002), Producing Prosperity (2013), and Political Capitalism: How Economic and Political Power Is Made and Maintained (2018). His primary areas of research are public finance and the economic analysis of public policy issues.
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