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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Reaping the Whirlwind of Progressivism, Part I

How much more can we take?

When I recently criticized an editorial cartoonist for slamming libertarians — he said a libertarian “lifeguard” would let everyone drown — he wrote back claiming that libertarians would abolish numerous federal departments and agencies, like the Department of Education and even the Federal Reserve. In other words, the cartoonist repeated the litany of Progressivism that we have heard all our lives.

Like most Americans who took an American history course or two, I was told that the late nineteenth century was a time of rapacious monopolies and growing poverty. Businesses like Standard Oil were strangling the American economy and individual Americans, giving them unsafe products and higher prices.

However, like the knight on the white horse, the Progressives rode in to change the destructive course of this country. Men like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson exercised their powers and even exceeded their constitutional authority – all to the good of this country. Progressives in Congress passed laws regulating the economy and created commissions and agencies with the authority to regulate unsafe and “unfair” business practices. Taking the mantle of “can-do Americanism,” they directed the economy to “serve the people” rather the wealthy.

We have read of how the Food and Drug Administration made food safe and ensured we had safe and effective pharmaceuticals. The Fed “wisely” regulated the nation’s “money supply,” and the Federal Trade Commission, with its centerpiece Bureau of Competition, intervened to make the U.S. economy competitive once more. Armed with newly acquired “scientific” knowledge, the people who populated these departments and agencies would be able to detect immediately what needed to be done, as opposed to the slow and monopoly-dominated the free market.

Centralized Curricula

In more modern times, we are told the Department of Education, through its efforts to centralize school curricula and more, is going to make this country more “competitive.” As for the environmental realm, pollution was becoming worse and worse until the “people” declared they had suffered enough. So the government created the Environmental Protection Agency, which will save us from the ravages of “climate change” through its regulatory policies.

And so it goes. Thus anyone who even questions this litany about the growth of the “reformist” federal government is at best an ignoramus and “mossback,” and at worst is an “enemy of the people.” If we raise even a peep, it is obvious we want Americans to die of food poisoning, suffer birth defects (via Thalidomide), have rivers catching fire, and see child labor and low wages. To modern Progressives the only thing separating us from this hell on earth is the list of federal agencies, so anyone who wishes to abolish these agencies either is utterly ignorant of history or wants everyone but the “rich” to live in misery.

Unfortunately, because such beliefs have become institutionalized in our body politic — to the point where the mere mention of an agency is a declaration that it actually does what it is “supposed” to do —  it is hard for people to understand that the opposite is true: Our current standard of living is considerably lower than it would have been had the Progressives not taken power.

Yes, such a statement runs counter to what “everyone knows,” especially people in education and the media, where Progressivism made its strongest inroads. But what “everyone knows” isn’t so. As the economy continues to falter in the aftermath of the housing and financial meltdown, the housing market is still laden with government incentives to promote home ownership, particularly in finance, the very portion of the economy that had the worst crisis.

Look at the legacy of Progressivism. From numerous wars (to promote “democracy” abroad) to the current depression, we see the imprint of government intervention. In future columns, I will explain why Progressive government has been a disaster not a savior.

  • Dr. William Anderson is Professor of Economics at Frostburg State University. He holds a Ph.D in Economics from Auburn University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.