Progressives Are NOT Liberals

John Locke (29 August 1632 to 28 October 1704), the first to develop a liberal philosophy that included the right to private property and the necessity for government to have the consent of the governed.

John Locke (29 August 1632 to 28 October 1704), the first to develop a liberal philosophy that included the right to private property and the necessity for government to have the consent of the governed.
Wikimedia Commons/Portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller (December 1696)

There is a magic about some words, a magic given to them with the ideas we associate with them. Two of those words are the nouns Liberals and Liberalism. What I really want to accomplish in this essay is to rescue those terms from ever being associated with Progressives and Progressivism. In their present use, in fact, “Progressives” and “Progressivism” are almost exact antonyms to “Liberals” and “Liberalism” as used in the classical sense.

Why Is All This Important?

Many would say this is just an argument over the meaning of words, and that if we momentarily suspended whatever discussion used those words long enough to accept a common meaning just for that discussion, then all would be well. People in the No Labels movement tend to take this position. On their home webpage, they state:

No Labels is a national citizens organization working inside the Beltway and around the nation to usher in a new era of focused problem solving in American politics. No Labels is for all those who have had it up to their eyebrows with all the petty infighting, party-first agendas and hyper-partisan wheel-spinning that are keeping the government from doing the people’s work.

Therefore, in their view if a label does not have a common meaning between the parties, we should all agree not to use it, because using it leads to fights! Well, that is all well and good, but this attitude has several things wrong with it. For one thing we would have to find a different label to substitute for the old one, or we can not talk about the same things we wanted to reference with the old, disputed label. Also, notice that when we are seeking a common meaning for disputed words, we will still be arguing over their meaning, and until we find that common meaning, we can not continue our dialogue. To attempt to do so would risk the logical fallacy of equivocation, where the word is used several times with a different meaning each time.

Also, many people invest a great deal of emotion in some labels, and will not accept any other definition than their own. Political words like “conservative”, “liberal”, and “progressive” are words of this nature. To make matters even worse, some people just assume that others are thinking the same thing when they use such terms. I have even caught myself being guilty of this logical sin occasionally! As you can appreciate, this can lead to severe problems when you are trying to make yourself understood in substantive discussions. If we keep talking past each other because we mean different things than our adversaries are hearing, we can never come to any agreement.


Past History of the Ideas

So how can we approach this problem? If you reflect on these labels, you will discover they are terms that describe positions on a political spectrum. When I was in high school, people often said liberals were people open to change, while conservatives were people who wanted to conserve the ancien régime that liberals wanted to displace. Many people today still accept such an ontology, although such a spectrum is time-dependent. Over time, the lists of things people want to change and the things they want to conserve evolves with historical experience. Both progressives and conservatives want to change some things and preserve others — their lists are just different! A much more useful ontology would be one that meant the same thing during one period of time as in another.

Before we make an attempt to construct a time-independent political ontology, let’s take a look at how the disputed terms obtained their original meanings during the Age of Enlightenment. During this period the sciences flourished and religious authority and orthodoxy were increasingly questioned, As a part of this discussion, the divine right of kings and the authority of the nobility over the common people also came under a growing attack. The American and French revolutions made a perfect coda to this period of intellectual awakening.

The original liberalism was one of the most important fruits of the Age of Enlightenment, and is an ideology founded on ideas about liberty and equality of a society’s citizens. The 18th century political philosopher John Locke (whose visage graces the top of this post) is often given the credit for unifying liberal ideas into the first coherent liberal ideology or world-view. He is generally regarded as the father of modern liberalism. His liberal philosophy included  beliefs that all citizens had the right to own private property, and that governments could be legitimate only if they acquired the consent of the governed. Kings and parliaments do not derive their authority from God, but from the consent of the people they rule.

The most important problem a liberal ideology had to solve during those times was to find a way to limit a government’s powers so that the individual citizens could possess a modicum of freedom and some personal power to order their own lives. The American founding fathers, crafting the U.S. Constitution in 1787, used the ideas of Locke, together with ideas of the French Baron de Montesquieu on the separation of powers into different branches of government, to ensure the limitation of government power. The liberal emphasis was to limit government, not to strengthen it. Clearly, since the emphasis was on limiting government power, liberalism favored laissez-faire capitalism over government control of the economy.

At the same time liberalism was developing as a political ideology, the reaction to it was the conservatism of the 18th century. Conservatism, as exemplified by the British politician Edmund Burke (1729-1797), wanted to retain traditional social institutions in the face of liberal political change.  While he generally supported the American Revolution, the horrors of the French Revolution led Burke to abhor the arbitrary and casual overthrow of social institutions, particularly “the ceremony of cashiering kings”.

Progressivism arose with the 19th century collision between liberalism and the industrial revolution. It is an ideology based on the idea of progress in the human condition that arises from the advancement of science, economic development, and social organization. In its original phase in the United States from about 1880 to 1920, progressivism viewed the government at all levels as the necessary tool to

Progressive era view of the "Robber Barons"

Progressive era view of the “Robber Barons”
Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress

limit the power of the “Robber Barons” of industry over ordinary American citizens. Technocrats who understood science and economics would control the various departments of government; they would aid ordinary Americans to control the captains of industry from exploiting them, as well as assist them in their other problems.

At first, because their emphasis originally was to increase the freedom of individuals from the economic problems of the industrial revolution, progressives could also claim to be classical liberals. However, as time progressed and progressives sought increasing economic power for the government to address economic problems, governmental intrusion took a decidedly non-liberal turn. Beginning with the progressive President Woodrow Wilson, progressives began to view the U.S. Constitution as an impediment to their programs to change society. Woodrow Wilson believed both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence had out-lived their usefulness. He declared there needed to be a change in the way we viewed those two documents. Instead of the old view of the Constitution limiting the powers of government with a separation of powers between the branches of government, he wanted Americans to take the Constitution as a “living”, evolving document. Instead of a Constitution guaranteeing ironclad rights for individuals, Wilson wanted a Constitution constantly evolving the relationship between government and its citizens. Instead of a separation of powers between government’s branches, Wilson believed society’s needs required cooperation between the branches. All of these beliefs are decidedly hostile to the classically liberal ideology of limited government.

Ever since Wilson, progressives have enthusiastically embraced this vision of a “living, evolving constitution”. In this point of view, the Constitution possesses all sorts of implied “penumbras” and “emanations” to be  discovered by judicial interpretation. Getting progressive judges to discover such penumbras is much easier to arrange than an actual amendment to the Constitution.

Present Day Use

Politically, the progressives of today are less about individual freedom and more about centralizing power, particularly economic power, in the federal government. A transfer of power to the government necessarily implies a consequent decrease in power of individuals over their own lives.  Therefore, we are treated to such displays of arbitrary government as the requirement that citizens not receiving health insurance from their employers must buy health insurance from government approved sources, or they will be fined by the IRS. As government control over society has increased, the progressives have taken up an increasingly authoritarian attitude to all those who oppose them. I have documented some of this in the posts Is Democracy the Best Government? Is It in Danger?Do Progressives Want a Police State?Progressives’ Disrespect for the US ConstitutionThe Limits to Free SpeechThe Economic Nature of FascismDemocrats Want to Imprison Scientific Skeptics?; and The Anti-Freedom Bias of Progressives.

By traveling so far down Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, the progressives have forfeited their claim to be liberals. Over a period of a little more than a century, the place of progressives on the political spectrum has drastically changed, while conservatives have picked up many of the characteristics of liberals: particularly the desire for very limited government, the constitutional separation of powers, and a  laissez-faire capitalist economy. How then are we to define a time-independent political ontology? We certainly can not do so by whether or not a particular party desires societal change, as both major American parties desire some change, and would conserve some aspects of society. As I wrote earlier, their lists of what to change and what to conserve are just different.

The answer lies in the difference between liberal ideology and what came before it: the limitation of government power. As I suggested in The Political Spectrum, to determine where in the political spectrum a particular person is, one should ask that person two questions: (1) What roles should government play in society, and (2) given the roles it must fulfill, what powers should be granted it? The larger the governmental role, and the greater the government power, the farther to the political Left the individual is. The smaller the desired government role and the government power that the person would grant it, the farther to the political Right that person is.

But however we should arrange our political classifications, one thing should be crystal-clear: Present day progressives are almost the exact opposite of liberals!

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