Funny That Progressive Thought Hasn’t Made Any Progress
The current print edition of National Review includes a collection of pieces on turn-of-the-last-century founders of modern liberalism that are valuable not the least in the degree to which they shed light on current strains of thought on the Left (strains that seem not to have progressed very much, in the last hundred years). Although it does not appear to be in free online form, yet, subscribers can read Jonah Goldberg’s article on economist Richard Ely here. Of particular note is the imagery that Ely offers with respect to a leftist understanding of how society should function:
“The nation in its economic life is an organism,” he wrote, “in which individuals, families, and groups . . . form parts.” Hence competition and self-interest are generally bad things, working against the tide of progress. After all, organs in the human body do not compete against one another, so why should organs of the body politic? History, like evolution itself, was moving toward greater social cooperation. And it fell to experts to decide how to advance that process. “A new world was coming into existence, and if this world was to be a better world we knew that we must have a new economics to go along with it.” Not only did this vision provide a perfect rationale for empowering social planners, it necessarily consigned the rights and liberty of the individual to being an afterthought — hence Ely’s advocacy of what he called “coercive philanthropy.” If experts can glean which way social betterment lies, who is the individual to object? The job of the economist is not to consider discrete questions about how to, say, maximize productivity or measure discretionary income. It is to fix society in all its relations, right down to each individual. The goal of the economist, Ely believed, was to hasten “the most perfect development of all human faculties in each individual.” Whether the individual wanted that development was irrelevant.
The equation of society with an organism ought to be more disturbing than it appears at first glance. For one thing, the statement that organs cooperate, rather than compete, is arguable. Each organ will attempt to draw to itself what it needs and absorb that sustenance until it is sated. The difference, from human beings, is that organs aren’t exactly mobile within the body; they must await the allocations of more dominant parts of the body. Which brings us to the second thing — namely, that organs exist within a hierarchy. On a cold day, your body will draw heat, as necessary, from your feet in order to supply your torso and your head. (I recall an article from my youth titled “To Keep Your Hands Warm, Wear a Hat,” or something similar.)
Think of the disruption to the body if the pinkie toe could move and took up the notion that it could be a heart or a brain. Thus do progressive planners think of society. Sure, they’ll take care of each and every appendage, but every citizen must know his or her place, and not surprisingly, the planners themselves are confident that they belong in the skull, with its warm comfort, thick walls, and incomparable view.