DrRich’s Theory Of Progressive Thought

DrRich | September 8th, 2010 - 10:52 am


DrRich has now read large portions of the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” i.e., Obamacare. He finds in it the very essence of Progressivism.  To understand Obamacare, then, we must understand the basics of Progressive thought.

DrRich has always found American Progressives to be a bit enigmatic. He has found much of their behavior to be persistently, almost defiantly, illogical and counterproductive to the rights Americans hold dear, rights which Progressives themselves also insist they revere – in particular, our inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

As long as 20 years ago, DrRich had developed a sneaking suspicion that Progressives, their protests to the contrary notwithstanding, never really bought into the “inalienable” thing. On this point, he concluded, they were prevaricators. Since by then it was beginning to look like the Progressives were going to be running things for a while, it occurred to DrRich that it would be a good idea to understand what they really think, and what their agenda really was. And so, after much time and study and contemplation, DrRich developed his theory of Progressive thought, which he is now pleased to share with his readers so that they, in turn, might better understand Obamacare.

The Roots of Progressivism

When DrRich began his study of Progressives he did not quite know where to begin. So he decided to proceed, like Descartes before him, from the simplest and most irreducible of truths. Namely, that Progressives are really, really smart – or think they are. We know this because all the professors in all the best Ivy League schools are Progressives.

From this simple truth we can deduce that, whatever it is that Progressives are actually up to, it must have its roots in the writings of The Philosopher.

And sure enough, it was not at all difficult to discover the roots of Progressivism within the teachings of Aristotle.

Aristotle tells us that man is innately a political animal, an animal with an inherent propensity to gather into increasingly complex communities. The essence of man, according to Aristotle, is society.

The formation of complex societies is what defines mankind; it is what differentiates man from the rest of the animal kingdom. Hence, because man is defined by society, society is inherently on a higher plane of importance than the individual. Individuals are entirely beholden to and dependent upon and subservient to the society to which they belong. Indeed, they are defined as individuals by their place within that society. Without society, a man is just an ape (with a persistently infantile face).

In this sense, “socialism” is reduced quite simply to a philosophy in which society – the collective – takes precedence over the individual. Furthermore, the precedence of the collective over the individual is not something we can simply choose to accept or reject; it is the very essence of mankind. It is nature. It is just the way it is.

So, as you can see, Aristotle nailed Progressivism.

Clearly, while the name “progressivism” has only been around for a century or so (and we will shortly see from whence the name came), its roots are a very old idea. This idea, in fact, was the normal way of looking at the relationship between individuals and society until just a few hundred years ago, when humanists began to cautiously explore the radical notion that individuals (rather than the collective) constitute the fundamental unit of humanity. The new humanist heresy – which declared the primacy of the individual – was for a long time called “liberalism” (a term whose meaning has, recently, drastically changed, and is now a synonym for what had always been its opposite). Classical liberalism reached its zenith, DrRich thinks, a mere two and a half centuries after its painful birth, with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

But to Progressives, classical liberalism has always been an aberration. Despite what America’s founding documents might say, society takes precedence over the individual. It takes this precedence by way of the very essence of mankind, as was taught by The Philosopher, and so it cannot be otherwise.

The Progressive Program

The Progressive Program – the thing that makes Progressives progressive – is to develop the perfect society. This program is not optional; it is dictated by the nature of mankind.

Since society is what defines mankind, it follows, as the night follows the day, that the program of mankind, the purpose, the work, the essence of mankind, is to create the perfect society.

The perfect society has two basic requirements. First, it must meet all the basic needs of the individuals within that society (such as food, clothing, shelter, sanitation, and health), without which individuals will always be tempted to engage in the counterproductive behavior of striving for things. Second, the social order must be of such a nature that it can persist, theoretically forever, without fundamental change. Indeed, the very notion of perfection implies that any change, of any type, is bad, since it will necessarily constitute a movement away from perfection.

The perfect society therefore requires complete stability. This would include (at a minimum) a stable population size, the preservation of natural resources and the earth’s environment (indeed, when one hears the word “sustainability,” one is listening to Progressive gospel), the careful management of the economy, and the careful control – if not suppression – of unplanned innovations. This latter refers both to material (or scientific) innovations, and innovations of thought, either of which will always threaten hard-won societal stability.

The perfection of society is the paramount work of mankind, so any method which may help in achieving this perfection is to be embraced; none discounted out of hand. The only considerations one must make in choosing methods of action are: Is this method practicable? And: Is this method more likely to be successful, or counterproductive? These two questions fully define Progressive ethics.

So that’s DrRich’s theory of Progressivism and the Progressive Program. While it is only a theory, DrRich hereby asserts that his formulation is correct.

He makes this assertion for the purpose of advancing the debate and inviting argument. If any of his readers have a better explanation of Progressivism, one that more successfully fits the facts and explains the otherwise difficult-to-explain behaviors we’ve seen from Progressives in recent years, why, DrRich will be delighted to hear it. If it is convincing, DrRich will cheerfully abandon his own theory and adopt yours.

But to accomplish this feat, your theory of Progressivism will have to offer a more successful explanation of the following Progressive behavioral phenomena than DrRich’s theory does:

Individuals and Groups Within Progressivism

While Progressivism by definition places individuals in a subservient position to society, this is not to say that individuals are merely interchangeable cogs in a great machine, or entirely analogous to worker bees in a hive. DrRich’s prior sarcasms aside, Progressive society is not the Borg.

Indeed, individuals within a Progressive society are differentiatable, and can be publicly celebrated or castigated as individuals. But to a great extent the potential worth of an individual is pre-determined by the group to which the individual belongs. Group identity in Progressive society is critically important, as it provides the only feasible means by which the leadership of Progressive societies can attempt to control and direct individual behaviors.

(Group identity is so critically important to Progressive thought that it has been given a special name – “Diversity” – and has been designated as the Cardinal Virtue, from which all the other, subsidiary, virtues – faith, hope, charity and the like – must necessarily spring.)

And so, to stand out as individuals, individuals must stand out as a member of their group, and the manner in which they stand out must fundamentally reflect the assigned essence of their group. So, for instance, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are celebrated individuals, whose accomplishments nicely reflect their assigned group identities. In contrast, Clarence Thomas and Thomas Sowell are not celebrated by Progressives, and indeed are castigated as abominations, because their individual accomplishments do not reflect their assigned group identities.

Therefore, while individuals within Progressive societies can achieve a certain level of importance, individual importance is merely of tertiary concern, rather than primary or even secondary concern. Individuals can become officially “important” only if their importance reflects the essence of their assigned group; and the importance of the assigned group (the secondary concern), in turn, is proportional to its ability to advance the Progressive Program in general (which, of course, is the primary concern).

While individuals have the potential of rising to a state of importance within Progressivism, the vast majority of individuals will never actually do so. The great masses of individuals will be regarded by society as featureless members of their group, and will be treated accordingly. And the status of a particular group is always subject to change, given the extant needs of the leadership class. Certain groups (e.g. labor unions) may be exulted by the leadership, while others (e.g. the elderly, the white males, or the fat) will be devalued. Yet other groups (e.g. illegal aliens) may be celebrated by the leadership at one point in time (when, for instance, it behooves Progressive leaders to acquire voting rights for them before 2012), but then may be dismissed at some other point in time (in 2013, for instance, after the critical votes have been gathered, and now the group just represents large volumes of mouths to feed and healthcare to consume).

Good and Evil In Progressivism

Many Progressive intellectuals are fond of saying there are no absolutes, and so there is no such thing as inherent good and inherent evil. These intellectuals are wrong, even from within the Progressive paradigm. Because the Progressive Program – which, again, is to achieve a perfect society – is the innate agenda for mankind, there indeed exists a standard by which one can determine good and evil.

“Good” is anything which advances the Progressive Program; and “evil” is anything which threatens it.

Anyone who doubts the existence of good and evil within the Progressive Program need only observe the scores of behaviors and figures of speech which are condemned as unrelentingly evil by Progressives, with all the certainty and fervor of a Jonathan Edwards.

Accordingly, individuals who hinder the Progressive Program are a danger to mankind’s very essence. They are evil, and must be rehabilitated or eliminated.

Progressivism and the Leadership Class

Despite its lip service to the contrary, Progressivism is not egalitarian, even in theory.

The duty of mankind is to strive for the perfect society. The chief tool by which mankind is to achieve this program is man’s intellect and logic. It is axiomatic that only a minority of people will have the intellect and logic necessary to direct the program of mankind. Therefore, Progressivism fundamentally relies on an elite corps of individuals to guide our progress toward a perfect society. The perfect society will not just happen, it must be engineered by those who are gifted enough to lead.

The lack of egalitarianism in Progressive thought is illustrated by the special treatment accorded to the elite corps. The leadership class must be nurtured and valued by society. Furthermore, it must be given special privileges which others in society do not have. Because their work is so critical to the essential program, the elite must be removed from worry over the mundane necessities of life. That is, providing the leadership class with certain luxuries and privileges, and even freedom from having to follow all the rules that apply to the masses, is therefore not hypocrisy, but is an essential good. It redounds to the benefit of the Program.

Anyone who has not noticed recent glaring examples of this “different standard” for the Progressive elite should consider activating their “durable power of attorney” forthwith, so that a more alert individual can manage their affairs.

Progressivism and the Unwashed Masses

It goes without saying that, if left to their own devices, the populace would devolve into some primitive societal arrangement (such as capitalism) in which individuals would spend all their time striving to improve their own individual situations, even at the expense of others.

This means that the great unwashed masses must be “managed.”

Ideally, the best way to manage the population is through education, and so all efforts must be made – through formal education and by controlling the public media – to indoctrinate the population to the great benefits of the Progressive agenda, to the natural duty and obligation of all men and women to work within society to realize the Progressive Program, and to the inherent evil of all the alternatives. Since education will never be sufficient, the unwashed masses may need to be controlled through pacification (i.e., attempting to meet all their basic needs, so as to eliminate their impulse to strive). If this fails, they must be controlled through coercion, intimidation, peer-pressure, or (as a last resort or to serve as an object lesson) violence.

Fundamentally, the Progressive Program relies on all members of the great unwashed to subsume their own individual needs to the needs of the collective. That is, the Progressive Program requires a fundamental change in human nature. This change will never be forthcoming, and so Progressives are apparently doomed to be frustrated in their efforts. (However, as we will see shortly, Progressives ultimately have the answer to this problem, as well.)

So, despite their frequent hymns of praise to the worthiness of the common man, Progressives invariably develop an underlying contempt toward the unwashed masses. It is not difficult to spot this contempt if one is alert to it.

Progressivism and Politics

Under the Progressive Program, just like Aristotle says, mankind is essentially a political animal. In fact, the Progressive Program can only be achieved by political action. This means that politics – and to be clearer, political control – is the fundamental work of Progressives. Without politics, without political control, there is nothing. To lose political power is oblivion.

This attitude toward politics is in stark contrast to the attitude of conservatives, for whom government (and therefore politics) is merely a necessary evil, with which one must occasionally contend, when it cannot be avoided, as a part of life. For most conservatives politics is an afterthought.

For Progressives, politics is everything, the essence of human behavior. And it is worth any cost, any desperate measure, to maintain political control. Indeed, to fail to lie, cheat and steal in order to keep political control would be unethical.

Progressivism and Religion

Progressives have a natural adversity to organized religion. For one thing, religions tend to give a higher priority to some supernatural entity (and worse, to an afterlife), than to mankind’s “true” imperative, which is to achieve a perfect society right here on earth. However, since religious leaders can be readily coerced to serve the needs of the state (and always have been), this is not an insurmountable problem.

The real difficulty with organized religion is that the major ones stress the importance of the individual (since individual salvation, or individual enlightenment, is the major theme of the big religions). Under progressivism the inherent importance of individuals is necessarily subsumed by the importance of the collective, so by focusing the ultimate meaning of life on the individual, traditional religions become a major threat to Progressivism.

Apparently realizing that abolishing religion is far too difficult a task, Progressives have adopted the long-term strategy of infiltrating and co-opting religious establishments, and by means of introducing new ideas – such as group salvation, and the concept of social justice as a religious imperative – rendering religion, this “opiate of the masses,” less incompatible with the Progressive Program.

Progressivism and Eugenics

Since World War II, the enthusiasm with which Progressives publicly embrace the idea of eugenics has become muted. But eugenics is, in fact, inherently bound to Progressivism. One way or another, a perfect society will require far more perfect citizens than we have today. Indeed, the seething contempt with which Progressives regard the current genetic pool that comprises the unwashed masses is often difficult for them to suppress.

To a large extent, modern Progressivism was born as an offshoot of Darwinism. The idea that society could be perfected, and the idea that mankind could be perfected, were two sides of the same notion. And early Progressives unabashedly embraced both of these ideas, such that the idea of “culling the herd” became extraordinarily attractive to them – and they said so. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Bertrand Russell, H. G. Wells, and Margaret Sanger (the founder, as it happens, of Planned Parenthood) are only the most well-known Progressives who extolled the idea of eugenics.

But public support of eugenics among Progressives has become quite subdued, ever since the Nazis committed their atrocities explicitly in the name of achieving societal perfection.

One can argue, of course, whether the recent Progressive support of such activities as late-term abortions, or creating human embryos for experimentation, are partially aimed at desensitizing the public for future efforts to “guide” a more favorable genetic makeup for the population. Either way, DrRich reminds his readers of the history of Progressivism in this regard, and of the inherent attractiveness of eugenics to the Progressive Program, and urges them to remain alert.

Progressivism and Environmentalism

Radical environmentalism and the Progressive Program are not perfectly compatible. But they are close.

Radical environmentalists believe that humanity is a plague upon Planet Earth. Everything man has done since the day he first learned to cultivate crops (and thus for the first time became a different kind of animal) has been bad. And anything which delays, halts or reverses the sins mankind has perpetrated upon sacred Gaia, since that day he first departed from Nature, is a good thing. So the radical environmentalists are in favor of strong central governments which will control the behaviors of individuals (and which might ultimately drastically reduce or eliminate the human population).

Progressives are certainly on board with controlling man’s effect on the environment, but (in most cases) they are not in favor of returning mankind to a hunter/gatherer condition (since most Progressives do not view this condition as the embodiment of a perfect society). Rather, they view the environmental movement – in particular, the Global Warming Theory – as a good way to get the populace to give them the power they need to carry out their Progressive Program. So Progressives have completely embraced the Global Warming Theory as a means to their own political end. Accordingly they have declared man-made global warming to be settled science, and they suppress any efforts to study it further.

DrRich is very sorry about this. He suspects that global warming is happening, and concedes that human behavior may be playing a role, and is saddened that this scientific question has been absorbed into the Progressive agenda in such a way that we are not allowed to find out what’s really going on.

Progressivism and the Great American Experiment

Unlike any other nation in the history of mankind, the United States was not founded because of geography, race, religion or ethnicity. It was founded on an idea. It was founded on the still-radical idea that individual autonomy – the individual’s God-given right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – is the chief Fact of humankind, and that the only legitimate role of government is to create an environment in which individuals can enjoy those rights to the fullest extent possible.

One can see immediately that the Great American Experiment – which awards primacy to individual autonomy – is fundamentally incompatible with Progressivism. But because a majority of Americans still like the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Progressives need to play their cards close to their chests. They need to proceed carefully – but relentlessly.

By slowly re-interpreting the Constitution, and slowly addicting a critical mass of Americans to an array of government programs, Progressives are certain they will ultimately prevail. They have been at it for over 100 years, and have come a long way. DrRich cannot tell whether or not we have already passed the Event Horizon, the point beyond which restoring the Great American Experiment will become impossible. But we are at least very close.

In fact, one plausible theory for President Obama’s headlong pursuit of programs and policies which anger the majority of Americans, and which gravely and immanently threaten the political control which is the center of the Progressive universe, is that he sees America as being at the very cusp of that Event Horizon, and believes that one last, small push will gain it, and make the Progressive Program irreversible, whatever might happen in the next election or two.

Progressivism and Healthcare

DrRich does not need to say much about Progressivism and healthcare right now. Many of the posts in this blog have pertained to this very question, as, undoubtedly, will many more.

But to really understand the current American healthcare system, and to understand Obamacare (the future American healthcare system), it is necessary to understand Progressivism. DrRich sincerely hopes that this current post will help a few of his readers understand, if not Progressive thought itself, at least DrRich’s conceptualization of it.

35 Responses to “DrRich’s Theory Of Progressive Thought”

  1. William Barghest says:

    For an alternative/expanded theory of Progressivism, you may want to see this blog:


    • DrRich says:


      Thanks for the link. I find it very interesting. I’ll make three brief observations regarding your “alternative” explanation of progressivism.

      1) Your concept of “Ultracalvanism” – beliefs traceable to Calvinism, but (among other things) without God – doesn’t bother me as much as it might, since I always regarded the Calvinist god (who predestines millions of innocent babies each year, from the instant of their conception, to everlasting perdition, no matter how piously they live their lives) as more or less a son of a bitch. I, for one, won’t miss him.

      2) I find your four fundamental ultracalvinist beliefs to be incompatible with one another. The “fair distribution of goods,” for instance, fundamentally requires an all-powerful central authority to conduct the confiscation and redistribution of goods. This central authority will always have to rely on violence, or the imminent threat of violence, to do its job. This condition, obviously, does not comport with the other fundamental belief in the “futility of violence.”

      3) Ultracalvinism, as you have laid it out, fails to explain the actual, real-world behavior of Progressives nearly as well as does my theory of Progressivism.


      • William Barghest says:

        The interpretation of the progressive movement in the link is not mine, but the blog’s proprietor, Mencius Moldbug.

        I suppose he was trying to give a historical account of where the beliefs of the progressive movement came from, tracing them to traditional mainline Protestant, particularly Unitarian, or back further to the English Dissenters of the 1600′s. They have dropped (since the 1940′s) the traditional christian origin of their beliefs, preferring to justify their mission from some other legitimizing principle such as science or reason. (It is fun to take environmental expressions and to translate them into Christian theological term. “sustainable” usually end up translating well as “eternal”,”holy”,”everlasting”.)

        The basic point of your post seems to be that the progressives are a group of intellectuals who are seizing power in order to build an ideal society. You say this is inconsistent with American foundational principles, but this is more or less how 17th century Massachuessts was run,

        “How could an educated elite of ministers (and magistrates, as I learned from Timothy Breen) hold such dominant power in a fledgling colonial settlement? Granted the deference normally accorded a university degree, these educated leaders lacked the large-scale property interests normally associated with a ruling stratum. What were the institutional arrangements and practices that facilitated this remarkable empowerment? Finally, why did this elite choose to use their power to impose an order on Massachusetts derived from academic theology? What did it mean that the Bay Colony was patterned after a high cultural theory?

        Professional intellectuals and intelligentsia comprised a collective interest. They were the great unexamined class in modern political history, whose will to power occasionally took the form of revolutionary ideological politics. I had a greater appreciation for the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred’s claim that the Puritan divines were the precursors of the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks.”

        from http://books.google.com/books?id=LDTkgIDeXcwC.

        The ideals ascribed to ultracalvininsm, were meant to be descriptive, not normative. The “futility of violence”
        I believe accurately describes progressive views towards use of military power. I think this belief is aimed at sources of power and authority that are not yet dominated by progressives, so it is not really inconsistent with their goals.

        There is more here,

  2. Dr. Dave says:

    I’m a newcomer to your blog, and have been impressed with your past posts, but this one takes the cake. It echoes my sentiments exactly and beautifully ties together so many of the thoughts I’ve had over the years. I feel like those of us for whom politics is an “afterthought” need to become grounded in our own philosophy as well as the other side’s so that we can counter the “Program.”

    • DrRich says:

      Dr. Dave,

      Thanks. I am more confident than I was a year or two ago that non-Progressives (the great majority of Americans) will aggressively defend their own “Program.”


  3. Tim says:

    Dr. Rich,

    Thank you for this journey through the Dark Side. Have you read Dr. Sowell’s “A Conflict of Visions”?

    I would add that – whether one believes in a god or not — as a matter of historical development the attitude of Jesus was revolutionary. For the first time, what mattered was not the nation or the race, but the individual soul– even children. That notion was strong historical leaven.

    A tactical note: I find that the most Progressives need to be stopped when they use the word “we”. They get really angry when you decline to be in their “we”. It is the most dangerous word in the language.

  4. Pavlov says:

    Regarding eugenics, it is worth noting that progressives, though eugenicists in their aim, are more often then not “dysgenicists” in their policies.

    One prime example of this contradiction is to be found in the history of the USSR, where the most progressive policies ever were implemented decades ago. It is well known the earlier leaders thought whole undesirable “classes” had to be wiped out. Alas, the consequences have proved to be less happy than expected : alcoholism became more prevalent then ever, and many areas of intellectual pursuit completely abandonned (I am speaking of the then nascent field of genetics, of course).

    American “liberal” progressives, too, are highly unlikely to result in any better genetic makeup on the population level, as they will obviously repress any individual not fitting in their “groups”, as you correctly predict. Thus, any change other than “regression to the mean” is extremely unlikely regarding any genetically determined trait.

    On another hand, collectivistic thought continues to strike me as utterly robotic, in-humane.

    A recent editorial in the NEJM, for instance, cannot seem to understand any other reason for tanning other than vitamin D synthesis (!).
    “Is cutaneous vitamin D synthesis a justifiable defense of indoor tanning in 2010?”, the authors say. Not a single sentence suggests that people might be tanning just because they prefer a darker skin !


  5. martin smith says:

    Progressives as Pavlov says will likely only render any program they attempt to institute as ineffective or impossible by their attempts to control things they cannot and mismanaging the things they can. Example: Any attempt socialist nations have made to control or nationalize health care has resulted in the digression of the very same, Europeans come to America for surgeries that they can’t get in they’re home countries due to the time it would take standing in line for their turn if Obamacare becomes our reality where will we go then?
    God is the only being with the power and knowledge to lead everyone to a perfect society and to get there he does not force us but advocates the use of our own agency. Make our mistakes but learn from them and move forward.

  6. Praveen says:

    Dr. Rich,

    I know you find it amusing to heap on doses of sarcasm and hyperbole, but this article doesn’t say much except as a vehicle by which you are expounding on your political beliefs.

    That’s all good and well. It’s also great to make straw men and then skewer them. But, supposing for a moment that you and Mssr. (Glenn) Beck are correct about the cancer of Progressivism in America… why is it that the putative opposite site (Conservatism), has been on the losing side of virtually every major social movement of the last century plus? Things like the national parks, food inspection, women’s suffrage, civil rights, etc are all part of the evil legacy of the Progressive movement. Clearly they are the chief enemy of American liberty.

    Me, I’m not dogmatic enough to say that Progressives, Liberals, classical liberals, Libertarians, Republicans, Conservatives, Democrats, Whigs, Know-Nothings, Greens, or others are good or bad. I judge proposals on their merits. I know that you know it’s a good idea to do the same.

    • DrRich says:


      1) At least some of the good works you attribute to Progressivism I would attribute to Classical Liberalism, of which I count myself a member. Further, the fact that Progressivism might have resulted in some true good works (and I agree that it has) does not undermine my argument about its fundamental flaw. Even Mussolini, after all, made the trains run on time.

      2) “I’m not dogmatic enough to say that Progressives, Liberals, classical liberals, (etc.) are good or bad. I judge proposals on their merits.”

      I’m also not saying anyone is good or bad. Most of my acquaintances happen to Progressives; they are inherently good people, and I like most of them very much, and generally get along well with them.

      Rather, I am merely trying to discover the principles which drive the political philosophy called Progressivism, and which would explain the actual, observed behavior of PROFESSIONAL Progressives (i.e., the ones who practice the inherent profession of progressives, which is politics). I have laid out how my theory of Progressivism does just that, and despite your critique, my theory still stands solid.

      3) The real problem I have with Progressivism is that, fundamentally, it places the collective above the individual, and so is inherently incompatible with the Great American Experiment. And I, for one, am not ready to give up on the GAE.

      4) My article actually reveals why conservatism has been “losing” for 100 years. I believe it’s because a philosophy which centers on the individual will tend to concern itself, on a day to day basis, with individual concerns, whereas a philosophy which requires political control to advance will center its efforts on gaining political control. I actually think its an impressive indictment of Progressivism that it has taken over 100 years of concentrated, generations-long political efforts to finally reach the point of ultimate victory.

      What we’re seeing today with the tea party movement, I think, is the Great Awakening of the conservative majority – they’re now understanding that political action can no longer be an afterthought, or considered a necessary evil; but that if the foundational autonomy of the individual is to be preserved in America, political action, right now, must be made a priority, and likely THE priority. It may be too little, too late. But we shall see.

      Anyway, I still think my theory explains very nicely what we’re seeing out in the wild, and still await an alternative theory of Progressivism that explains the actual behavior of Progressives better than mine.

      Since I really like my Progressive friends, I sincerely hope there is a less malignant theory of Progressivism that explains how they behave. I’m all ears.


      • Praveen says:

        Well Dr. Rich, your argument near tautology in that you define Progressives as those wanting authoritarian or collective control, and therefore you are able to ascribe to them all sorts of ills. I leave you to your pastime on that.

        It may not surprise you that I don’t agree with your assessment of the Tea Party movement, which I see as a backlash against the changing demographics of America as much as it is anything else.

        I leave you with this – modern political scientists have abandoned the traditional left-right divide in politics to a large extent because it’s highly deceptive. It conflates political, social, and economic views into a single axis, which is a bad model if ever there were one. The folks at Political Compass do a better, if not perfect job:


      • DrRich says:


        Sorry I missed your comment until now.

        Actually, it is tautology to mischaracterize my definition of Progressivism in order to render it a tautology.

        Progressivism is the belief that striving for societal perfection is the inherent work of mankind. That this belief inevitably leads to authoritarian control is an unfortunate side effect of Progressivism, but does not define Progressivism. Progressivism, indeed, might not be such a bad thing if you could figure out how to get there without requiring authoritarian control. I leave you to your own pastime for that exercise, since you obviously believe it is possible.


      • Roger says:

        Your lack of malice toward Progressives lends credence to your observations and conclusions. For some reason, I just couldn’t watch Glenn Beck’s show, but I am interested in and intrigued by your arguments. Thanks for providing a possible explanation to some of our government’s apparently self-destructive policies.

  7. Praveen says:

    One more point – there is no such thing as a conservative majority in the US. Rising voter participation virtually always helps Democrats in the US, since the young, the poor, and ethnic minorities tend to vote at lower rates. For better or worse, if you were to tabulate votes from 100% of voting age adults, you’d probably get Democrats almost every time.

    I’m not saying this is a good thing – I actually like seeing divided government (Britain’s current experiment is quite exciting). I’m just noting a simple, oft-overlooked fact: the average American adult is actually center-left on the traditional scale. Likely voters (as measured in polls), however, are center-right.

  8. PalliativePoster says:

    Dr. Rich,

    I’ve linked here for the first time from the Pallimed blog and have been pleasantly surprised. I too have hopes that great awakening is occurring. Progressives have appealed to Americans through their basic goodness along with some guilt as to their relative wealth.

    Your writings: ““Good” is anything which advances the Progressive Program; and “evil” is anything which threatens it.” and “For Progressives, politics is everything, the essence of human behavior. And it is worth any cost, any desperate measure, to maintain political control. Indeed, to fail to lie, cheat and steal in order to keep political control would be unethical.”, among others, are amazingly close to the goals and ideals of Islamists and their beliefs.

    In short, Progressivism, like Islam, is another form or totalitarianism. Let’s hope that a new awakening can help save the GAE.

  9. james gaulte says:

    In regard to the left-right dichotomy not capturing the essentials of what distinguishes various political-ideological groups, I find Arnold Kling’s formulation more useful.He talks about three points on an ideological triangle, with progressives at one point,conservatives at another and libertarians at the other. He describes it here (http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2009/08/the_libertarian_1.html).Libertarians would let the market fix problems as the default position,conservatives realize the value of the evolved use of information to solve problems and would overthrow traditions with great caution.Progressives believe technocrats know best and their opinions should trump markets and tradition.An over simplification perhaps but seems a useful way of looking at things realizing that most people’s opinions don’t lie on the points but to varying degrees between them.

    • DrRich says:

      Dr. Gaulte,

      I also find Kling’s formulation very useful, especially as a way of distinguishing among the three major political philosophies. What it does not do (to my satisfaction, at least) is to explain all the real world behavior of true Progressives – which I find to be far more zealous than one could easily explain with a mere political philosophy. Progressivism is more than just the notion that things would be better with a set of intellectual elites running things; it is that the job those elites have been tasked with is the inherent, necessary, and indeed sacred end of achieving a perfect society, by whatever means necessary, because that is the fundamental reason for mankind’s existence. This sacred goal justifies, even demands, any behavior necessary to achieve it. Kling is good on libertarianism and conservatism, but to my tastes misses the zealotry inherent in progressivism, and thus fails to fully explain what we see in the wild.


  10. james gaulte says:

    I agree the zealotry of progressivism is a frightening force and Kling’s formulation does not give capture that characteristic adequately.It is hard to capture all of reality in bottle or any brief categorization.

  11. Mister Ex says:

    I applaud your thoughts, and have independently come to similar conclusions.

    One thing I do take issue with, is the idea that somehow, the Constitution is incompatible with Progressivism, also known as collectivism. On the contrary, the document itself is littered with collectivist thought. The first sentence, after all, says “We the People…”; what people were they talking about?

    The document that celebrates individual rights is the Declaration of Independence. And even that stops short, when it talks about incoherent concepts of “Government by the consent of the governed.”

    Govern also means control. Substituting control for governend, we get “Control by the consent of controlled.”
    Does that make any sense at all?

    • DrRich says:

      Mister Ex,

      Collective action does not equal Progressivism. All coordinated efforts (such as ratifying the Declaration of Independence and fighting the Revolutionary War) require collective action. That does not make the founders proto-Obamas.

      The founders recognized that organized human activity was necessary in order to guarantee the natural rights conferred upon mankind by the Creator, and indeed, that governments were necessary for this purpose. (That, they told us, was the only legitimate role of government). That is, the autonomy of the individual was primary.

      Progressives, on the other hand, find individual autonomy to be fundamentally a hindrance to their program, which is to devise a perfect society (a goal which inevitably requires a strong central authority and the coercion of individuals).

      The basic ideas of the founders and of Progressives are entirely incompatible with one another, despite that both advocated collective action to one extent or another.


  12. Mister Ex says:

    Dr Rich:
    “Collective action does not equal Progressivism. All coordinated efforts (such as ratifying the Declaration of Independence and fighting the Revolutionary War) require collective action. That does not make the founders proto-Obamas.”

    I know, this is the fairy tale we have been taught, but it is fails when examined more closely.

    Acceptance of this premise — the need for “collective action”, which you elaborate so well, is why “limited government” proponents, and “conservatives” always lose — they AGREE with the collectivists on this very idea. It is only a matter of time before “necessity” is trotted out by government hacks to justify anything under the sun.

    “Collective” action, “social” justice, etc. is (borrowing a phrase from Wittgenstein):

    The bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.

    “Collectives” don’t act. Individuals do. And there are individuals who have “bewitched” other individuals to do their bidding, via threats and/or bribery, justifying it as “the Will of the People.”

    In describing progressivism, you write:
    “The duty of mankind is to strive for the perfect society. The chief tool by which mankind is to achieve this program is man’s intellect and logic. It is axiomatic that only a minority of people will have the intellect and logic necessary to direct the program of mankind. Therefore, Progressivism fundamentally relies on an elite corps of individuals to guide our progress toward a perfect society. The perfect society will not just happen, it must be engineered by those who are gifted enough to lead.”

    Tell me, how exactly is this different from what “Founding Father” George Washington wrote to John Jay:


    “We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation. Experience has taught us, that men will not adopt and carry into execution measures the best calculated for their own good, without the intervention of a coercive power.

    Many are of the opinion, that Congress have too frequently made use of the suppliant, humble tone of requisition in applications to the States, when they had a right to assert their imperial dignity and command obedience….If you tell the [State] legislatures they have…invaded the prerogatives of the confederacy, they will laugh in your face.”

    Lysander Spooner had it right. Either the Constitution is powerless to have prevented the descent into tyranny, or it has enabled it. Either way, it deserves no respect from anyone who values individual liberty.

  13. Jupe says:

    Dr Rich,
    I’m leaving this message in good faith, as you seem to be a critical thinker who I have a deep respect for.

    The average self-identifying “progressive” knows that a vast majority of our “leaders” are wolves in sheeps clothing. If you want to know what progressives think, you can read “our” blogs, like firedoglake and the Daily Kos. We’re roughly as comfortable with our alliance with the Democratic party as serious intellectual conservative are with the Republican party’s alliance with the religious right.

    The far left and far right in the US share one important thing in common – we’re serious about civil liberties. In some ways the far right is more willing to toss libery to the wind, and in some ways the far left is. But in both of our philosophies we deeply value freedom, for real.

    With professional progressives (politicians) here’s my alternative hypothesis:

    People who are power and control hungry are better at working their way into positions of power and control. Some of them might be functional sociopaths. In the political left, they are extremely good at co-opting nice, benign ideas (like some form of UHC) and warping them into means of control. I doubt any of them believe society can be perfected into “perfectness”. I’ve never met anyone that stupid (sans members of the religious right who expect some invisible man to show up and perfect society after a rapture or whatever.)

    • DrRich says:


      I largely agree with what you are saying here, especially about average self-identifying progressives, most of whom aren’t working relentlessly toward some notion of societal perfection, but rather, are simply working toward an idea of more fairness. I sympathize with this goal. In fact, I believe that unfettered capitalism would be (nearly) as bad as unfettered progressivism, and if I were alive during the 1890s, what with sweat shops and child labor, etc., I would have lined up with Teddy R.

      But we have learned a lot in the last 100 years about where socialism inevitably takes a society. Any political movement that relies on a fundamental change in human nature will fail. And because human nature is what it is, progressive leaders evolve from believing that the public needs to be educated, to believing that it needs to be controlled, to believing it needs to be culled out. As I listen to our President over the past week or two, he has already evolved to the stage where his political opponents are “enemies” that need to be punished (his famous efforts at education having failed to bring us along).

      Your alternative hypothesis nicely explains why powerful leaders always tend to nasty excesses. But it does not explain the basic philosophy that motivates the progressive movement. If you read the early progressives, the notion that mankind should (and must) evolve to something like societal perfection is strong – this is why Darwin was their intellectual hero. And it is this notion that utterly requires an elite leadership that directs the rest of us lesser folk to “right actions,” and indeed, it explains why eugenics has been such an inherent and recurrent theme within progressivism. The utter disdain and hatred which today’s elites publicly and passionately express toward the tea party (which, in truth, is just plain folks) tells me that we’re not as far away as we may think from the next culling of the herd.

      Since at its base, in order to achieve optimal “fairness,” capitalism relies on billions of individually-motivated interactions, whereas progressivism relies on centralized control of individual actions, I have come down on the side of capitalism (which must be “fettered” to be sure) as the best of a lot of imperfect choices.


  14. Jupe says:

    The basic philosophy that motivates the progressive movement is that “progressive taxation for the purpose of increasing fairness is morally good”.
    We are not socialists who wish to create a class-free society. We’re just fans of the way other industrialized countries use tax money to grant people legal “rights” to things like maternity leave and health care.

    I’m not entirely sure the early US progressives weren’t actually closet totalitarian communists who thought Stalin et al had it figured out. Those were weird times. Today, we value freedom, democracy, human rights, and capitalism. Our elite preach these values, as well, but appear to be faking it more often than not in the long run. We shouldn’t be surprised, though. Most progressives don’t value honesty in politics (I think the argument goes something like “Well, the other side lies about everything, so we have to, too.” And yeah, probably some “People are too stupid to vote in their own long term self interest when issues are complicated, so let’s just argue emotional fallacies instead.”)

    From my POV, that’s the problem with the progressive movement. We’re willing to embrace (or at least ignore) dishonesty and deception when it seems to work in our favor, and then we’re surprised when our elected leaders turn out to be…liars. Shame on us.

  15. srp says:

    The main problem with your otherwise useful theory of progressivism is that it is precisely Darwin (and the great demon to Progressives, Herbert Spencer) that they oppose. Their whole idea is that unplanned social evolution prevents Progress; only an elite group of technocrats can “make kinetic change stable” as one historian described it. You might want to check out Virginia Postrel’s The Future and its Enemies, which covers a great deal about this, including the relationship between technocrats (e.g., Progressives) and reactionaries (e.g. radical greens), in detail.

  16. [...] DrRich’s Theory Of Progressive Thought Many Progressive intellectuals are fond of saying there are no absolutes, and so there is no such thing as inherent good and inherent evil. These intellectuals are wrong, even from within the Progressive paradigm. Because the Progressive Program – which, again, is to achieve a perfect society – is the innate agenda for mankind, there indeed exists a standard by which one can determine good and evil. [...]

  17. [...] DrRich is a conservative American, and has made plain the difficulties he has with the Progressive program in general and with Progressive healthcare reform in particular, at times he is forced to admit that, on [...]

  18. Vic Bloomberg says:

    Dr. Rich and the other heavy thinkers on this and similar medical sites seem to be engaged in what John Kenneth Galbraith called the oldest, best financed, most applauded, and, on the whole, least successful exercise in moral philosophy: the attempt to come up with a truly superior moral justification for selfishness.

  19. Andrew says:

    Dr Rich,

    Nice blog; I’ve enjoyed browsing and think you make many cogent points.

    As a nurse working in Canada—a hotbed of progressivism—and as a first-hand witness to the decaying infrastructure of a socialized health care system, I hold out hope for those on the side of freedom and individualism to succeed in this moral-intellectual battle. Our lives depend on this too (in Canada) as our socialized system depends on the advancements in medicine that are made possible due to the remaining elements of freedom in medicine and healthcare in the US—whether it’s someone being sent across the border to have an angioplasty, or due to the US being the last place make a profit on a cutting edge technology.

    However, I am dismayed by your negation of your argument for the supremacy of capitalism when you state,

    “In fact, I believe that unfettered capitalism would be (nearly) as bad as unfettered progressivism, and if I were alive during the 1890s, what with sweat shops and child labor, etc., I would have lined up with Teddy R.”

    Also, you state,

    “Since at its base, in order to achieve optimal “fairness,” capitalism relies on billions of individually-motivated interactions, whereas progressivism relies on centralized control of individual actions, I have come down on the side of capitalism (which must be “fettered” to be sure) as the best of a lot of imperfect choices.”

    What do you mean by “unfettered capitalism”? If capitalism is defined as a socio-economic system, based on the protection of individual rights—i.e. individuals to be free from the initiation of force by the arbitrary will of your neighbor or the gov’t, with the government’s role limited to police, military, and courts—then by what criteria should free individuals be “fettered”.

    Your haste in attributing sweat shops and child labor to capitalism, as if fundamental attributes, defies the fact that the degree to which capitalism was “unfettered” in the 19th century enabled the astronomical rise in living standards that made sweat shops and child labor obsolete. (Early forays into capitalism, whether in England, America, or the third world today, often did have miserable industrial working condition, progressively improving, with the “unfettered” ability for capital accumulation and increasing capital to labor ratio etc…) I am saddened by this (perhaps unwitting) acceptance of the leftist-progressive narrative on the nature of capitalism.

    Furthermore, you (at least implicitly) accept that the leftist-progressive characterization that “fairness” is morally ideal; hence, your arguments for capitalism, like many of the right-conservative persuasion, are doomed. If “fairness” (whatever that means) is ideal, then why is it better if it is achieved by “individually-motivated interactions” or “centralized control”?

    I fundamentally agree with you when you say,

    “Any political movement that relies on a fundamental change in human nature will fail. And because human nature is what it is…”

    And that is why I agree with Ayn Rand, whose political idea about the ideal of capitalism was based on the fundamental aspect of human nature: his reasoning mind. The mind being an attribute of the individual (not the collective) requires that the individual mind be left free. For further insights, I highly recommend the collection of essays Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal.

    Cheers. Keep up the great work.


    • DrRich says:


      Thanks for your kind comments – and for your criticism. It is truly gratifying to have someone suggest that my major fault is being insufficiently conservative. I will be sure to show your comment to some of my liberal relations, and perhaps redeem myself in their eyes.

      I, too, believe that capitalism is the best economic system that has yet been devised – but I must stop short of considering it as a faultless ideal.

      To illustrate my point, I’ll go to the most extreme case I know of. That would be China. I have several business associates who are totally enamored with doing business in China, because the capitalism there is far less “fettered” than in the U.S. In addition to being able to make their products much cheaper there, they find the business climate much more amenable to re-investment, innovation, etc., than the regulation-bound system we are putting in place here in the U.S. They in fact are astounded at the degree of economic freedom they experience there.

      But China’s very successful (so far) capitalism is fundamentally based on what, by most definitions, would be hundreds of millions of slave laborers. If you talk to the successful young Chinese capitalists in the big cities, they are as horrified as is the Communist government at the very notion that these teeming masses would ever, under any circumstances, be permitted to vote, or in any other way become masters of their own destiny. Allowing such a thing would bring the whole system crashing down. (They of course express the most humanitarian of reasons for keeping the underclass down.) These dedicated and well-educated young capitalists seem to be in full support of their oppressive Communist government.

      You may say that in a few decades, or a few generations, the standard of living for the teeming masses of Chinese will become greatly elevated by the general economic climate, and then perhaps they will no longer be slaves. And you may be right. But in my view this does not justify the oppression of a generation or two of so many people. And even if it did justify it, one would have to admit (I think) that such a method of advancing the economic condition of a people is not exactly “ideal.”

      An individual’s freedom of action stops when those actions impinge on the natural rights of others to life, liberty and the PURSUIT of happiness. (Where I differ from Progressives is that they would say the GRANTING of happiness.) I think the sweat shops of the 1880s-1890s violated this precept, and I see nothing inherent in capitalism to keep it from happening again.


  20. Andrew Brannan says:

    Thanks for your follow-up; I find this discussion very interesting indeed.

    Again, I think your analysis is fundamentally correct. Unfortunately, I think you have adopted some of the common confusions regarding the nature of capitalism, and thus provide a perfect example of why proponents of capitalism should define their terms—and not allow leftists/socialists/progressives to frame the debate.

    You state,

    “I, too, believe that capitalism is the best economic system that has yet been devised – but I must stop short of considering it as a faultless ideal.”
    In the war of ideas, I don’t think there’s any long range hope for those that apologize for that which they are fighting for. This is common among advocates for capitalism, and one of the big reasons that—despite the profound empiric justification for free markets—decade after decade, we are continually on the defensive/losing side. Contrarily, the mind boggling evidence showing the abject failure of central-planning/socialism does not impinge on the media and intellectual establishment’s cheering for the implementation of at least some form of statist, anti-freedom measure—be it universal health care or a “green economy”. Our enemies have the advantage of viewing their system as ideal, hence they are winning.

    So, before one considers what makes capitalism an ideal, one must view capitalism as a socio-economic (or politico-economic) system. I think it was classical economist Jean-Baptiste Say who (was perhaps the first??) really emphasized the fact that economics (i.e. a free market) cannot be separated, or viewed as distinct from the political context in which it exists. It is a problem to view capitalism as purely an economic system (i.e. trade) without the political/institutional foundation of things such as property rights and freedom of expression.
    The fact that China most emphatically does not have a capitalist system is evidenced in the following statement:

    “If you talk to the successful young Chinese capitalists in the big cities, they are as horrified as is the Communist government at the very notion that these teeming masses would ever, under any circumstances, be permitted to vote, or in any other way become masters of their own destiny.”

    While it is true that the communist leadership has loosened its grip on the ability for its people to engage in trade and accumulate wealth, the notion that Chinese individuals as such have inalienable rights is negated by the most perfunctory investigation. Capitalism proper, in the Anglo-American tradition, inspired by philosophers of the Scottish enlightenment (Locke, Hume et al.) and the founding fathers (Thomas Jefferson is a personal fav.), is predicated on the universal protection of individual rights.

    It may be true, for instance, that an American corporation can set up an industrial plant belching poisons into the air and employ child laborers (though I am skeptical about the data on this as neither Chinese gov’t reports or left-wing biased media reports can be trusted), much of the problem here is a consequence not of capitalism, but of its antithesis. Namely, those elements in the Chinese system that blend the capitalist elements of making money with the rights negating elements of communism create a quasi-fascist system. (In fact, China represents mercantilism in many ways.) Chinese individuals lacking property rights protection have no recourse when someone dumps toxic waste in their back yard (since cheap exports benefit the state); this is not capitalism.

    Since capitalism is ultimately a system of freedom in the economic and political sphere (as well as spiritual/religious, etc.) one has to remember that the standard of evaluation for this system (that by which we call it “perfect”) has to be based on reality. Not to be confused with anarchy (no government) or a system like in China (and increasingly in America, where some people’s “rights” mean trampling on the rights of others), capitalism truly is perfect. Remember by “perfect” we don’t mean everyone is guaranteed an MRI on demand, 3 square meals a day, and a happy fulfilling job; we mean exactly what you say here:

    “An individual’s freedom of action stops when those actions impinge on the natural rights of others to life, liberty and the PURSUIT of happiness.”

    One last comment on what you say here:

    “I think the sweat shops of the 1880s-1890s violated this precept [violating natural rights], and I see nothing inherent in capitalism to keep it from happening again.”
    There may be some valid arguments that are consistent with pure capitalism in which children (especially the very young) are protected from performing labor activities, especially when they are incapable of making a choice. However, it is important to remember that child labor disappeared not because of anti-child labor laws, but due to the natural progression of increasing wealth in a free and growing economy, where parents have an increasing surplus of wealth and the benefit of education far surpasses that of doing menial labor. While we can look back into history, or look at some squalid life of a third world child and feel horrified that the child worked in a dingy factory instead of going to school until he is thirty, living in his parents basement until 35, and then retiring from a gov’t job a 55, we must understand that in most cases the real alternative for that child is death in the absence of working.

  21. Andrew Brannan says:

    Just to follow up my comment with some data, an interesting overview of statistics is compiled in this PDF available book at the National Bureau of Economic Research titled “Health and Welfare During Industrialization”.


    There’s lots of interesting stuff to browse (if we only had the time, eh?), but check out the sections “Health Height and Welfare: Britain 1700-1980″ and especially the data on Belgium and Sweden. Why the latter? Because the data showing the dramatic decline in child mortality rates from around the 1750s to the 1880s (when the first child labor laws were implemented) are staggerring—e.g. about from about 60 per 1000 to 4 per 1000. The data is consistent across the industrialized world, throughout history.

    The point is that capitalism and industrialization should get the credit for improving the lives of children—even, and perhaps especially, child laborers—NOT the Johnny come lately welfare statists.

    Tangentially, a similar pattern is notable with regard to environmental laws: often environmental regulations are implemented after technological advances created in a free market have already done the job of improving the environment. In the usual post-hoc fashion, the statists can point to data showing how, after certain sacrosanct laws were passed, “child mortality improved” or “the air was cleaner”. Yet we all know that correlation does not mean causation.

  22. [...] DrRich is a conservative American, and has made plain the difficulties he has with the Progressive program in general and with Progressive healthcare reform in particular, at times he is forced to admit that, on [...]

  23. David Rathbone says:

    I disagree in that the Borg collective is made up of individuals with unique skill sets to maintain the collective. Their leadership is hinted at but never revealed.

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