Progressives [pro-greh-sives] (noun): A Group That Seems A Lot Like Liberals


Arnold Kling:

I am going to write down what I think progressives believe. If I’m creating a straw man, then y’all can correct me where you think I need correcting. You believe that:

1. Unfettered free markets nearly always produce sub-optimal outcomes.

2. When economists or other technocrats know how to use public policy (taxes, spending, regulation) to improve outcomes, they should be given the authority to do so.

3. Technocrats know how to improve outcomes in many areas.

4. Therefore, it would be wise to cede authority to technocrats in many areas.

5. Conservatives and libertarians disagree with (1) and (2)

(5) is something that I am suggesting that progressives believe. However, if progressives believe this about me, they are wrong. I disagree with (3) much more than I disagree with (1) or (2). I think markets nearly always produce sub-optimal outcomes, and I think that if technocrats know better they deserve a shot. However, I think that most of the time technocrats know far less than they think they know, and I think that markets are often better at self-correcting than technocrats are at fixing them. Hence, my Masonomics line is that “Markets fail. Use markets.”

If as a Progressive you believe (1) -(3) but think (4) sounds totalitarian, then that is your dilemma, not mine.

Tyler Cowen:

Arnold Kling asks this question, so I thought I’d try a stab at it, but trying to cast progressivism in the best possible light.  Of course my answer is not exclusive to Arnold’s, as we might both be right about the elephant.  From an outsider’s perspective, here is my take on what progressives believe or perhaps should believe:

1. There exists a better way and that is shown by the very successful polities of northwestern Europe and near-Europe.  We know that way can work, even if it is sometimes hard to implement.

2. Progressive policies offer more scope for individualism and some kinds of freedom.  Greater security gives people a greater chance to develop themselves as individuals in important spheres of life, not just money-making and risk protection and winning relative status games.

3. Determinism holds and tales of capitalist meritocracy are an illusion, to be kept only insofar as they are useful.

4. The needs of the neediest ought to be our top priority, as variations in the well-being of other individuals are usually small by comparison, at least in the United States.

5. U.S. policy is not generally controlled by egalitarian interests,  So it is doing “God’s work” to push for such an egalitarian emphasis at the margin.  At the very least it will improve the quality of discourse, even if the U.S. never actually arrives in “progressive-land.”

6. Limiting inequality will do more to check bad governance than will the quixotic libertarian attempt to limit the size of government.

7. Skepticism about the public sector is by no means altogether unwarranted, yet true redistributive programs are possible and they can work and be politically popular; we even have some here in the United States.

8. We should support free trade, more immigration, and more foreign aid, but the nation-state will remain the fundamental locus for redistribution.  That means helping the poor at home more than abroad; a decision to do otherwise would destroy political equilibrium and make everyone worse off.

9. State and local governments are fundamentally to be mistrusted (recall segregation) and thus we should transfer more power to the federal government, which tends to be bluntly and grossly egalitarian, when it manages to be egalitarian at all.  That is OK.

10. The United States has to struggle mightily to meet the progressive standards of western Europe and we should not equate the two regions in terms of their operation or capabilities.  Yet there is an alternative strand in American history, if not always a dominant one, showing that progressive change is possible.  Think Upton Sinclair and Martin Luther King and the organizers of early labor unions.

11. The evidence on economic growth is murky and so it is not clear that doing any of this carries much of a penalty in terms of future growth.  In some regards it will enhance the especially beneficial sides of economic growth, even if it does not boost growth overall.

Matthew Yglesias:

Tyler Cowen’s attempted characterization of American progressive politics involves at several points basically the claim that American progressives want to make the United States more “like Europe.” There’s clearly an extent to which that’s true, but I do think it should be resisted to some extent. Progressives normally talk about issues where we’d like to see things changed, and some of us like to cite positive examples from abroad to demonstrate that we’re not just making things up, but there are lots of things that we do better in the United States.


Progressive politics is the politics of liberals, who through long tradition are active seekers of knowledge and information, both old and new. In addition to generating new ideas, progressive politics seeks out good ideas from anywhere and everywhere to transform and adapt to 21st Century American problems. Of course, liberals find much to admire about European cultures and societies: there is much greatness there. That in no way means we want America to be “like Europe.” Of course, liberals find much to admire in Athenian democracy. That in no way means we want America to be “like ancient Greece.”

Ezra Klein:

Put simply, markets fail.

That’s one thing I’d add to Tyler Cowen’s list of progressive beliefs. He focuses quite intently on the rationales for redistribution and the welfare state. But a similarly important element of contemporary progressivism is the belief that markets are powerful and important and beneficial but that failures are common and visible and, in many cases, correctable. The plight of the bluefin tuna is a good example. Without some structure on the market, the species will go extinct. That will be bad for the fish, yes, and the people who like to eat the fish, and the ecosystems that depend on the fish, but it will also be bad for the market.

Health-care reform, incidentally, follows a similar logic. Left unchecked, the actual market of people who can afford insurance will shrink radically and quickly. You might respond that new insurance products will emerge that are cheaper. That’s true. But they’ll cover less. This is the meat of my argument with Megan McArdle. If you believe that innovation is driven by demand, then innovation would be dealt a devastating blow if Medicare and Medicaid and subsidies for employer-based insurance and all the other policies propping up demand disappeared. The question is not whether we should structure the health-care market, it’s how we should structure the health-care market.

Ron Chusid:

I might be the wrong person to respond with regards to progressive beliefs as I personally avoid that term. One problem with defining political labels is that a wide variety of people tend to fall under the handful of labels in common use. I tend to divide liberals and progressives into at least two groups (with considerable overlap and some who this division doesn’t work well) as I discussed in this post.

In general I would use progressive more for those on the left who are stronger proponents of big government projects (and market intervention) while I use liberal for those of us who concentrate on issues such as individual liberty and turn to government more as a necessity than something we inherently support.Therefore my first problem with the definitions by Kling and Cowen is with making views on intervention in the economy as the defining factors. Other areas, such as protecting civil liberties, limiting the power of government (as opposed to dwelling on size of government), and protecting separation of church and state are of greater significance to me.

Besides a stress on liberty (while allowing for some restrictions which libertarians might not support), I would also define liberalism as primarily a reality-based view of the world which encompasses a wide variety of views in contrast to the anti-scientific biases of the current conservative movement which relies upon religion as opposed to science and reason to explore the universe and solve problems. While conservatives are often blinded to reality by their fundamentalist theological views and other delusions,  many libertarians treat the free market in a similarly religious manner.

UPDATE: Yglesias tries to define libertarianism

Julian Sanchez on the effort

UPDATE #2: Cowen and Kling and what conservatives belive.

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2 responses to “Progressives [pro-greh-sives] (noun): A Group That Seems A Lot Like Liberals

  1. Pingback: How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us « Around The Sphere

  2. is the most informative site since the invention of the computer

    scrambled minds think alike:
    I apologise, but, in my opinion, you are mistaken. I can defend the position.

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