January 15, 2010

The Glitch in Progressive Software

Justin Katz

One sees an uncomfortable degree of reflection in Fred Siegel's article about early progressive author Herbert Croly. Here, for example, one can't help but see Rhode Island:

Croly hoped to see geographic representation, with its accompanying two-party system, replaced by syndicalist-style functional representation. In Croly's ideal, government would not be built around states (which would be dissolved into the federal authority) but organized in terms of "associations of businessmen, of farmers, and of wage earners ... of civic societies, voters' leagues, ballot associations, women's suffrage unions, single tax clubs and the like." Croly's goal has, in fact, been partly achieved, helping to cause the current fiscal crises of the deep-blue states. In California and New York, for instance, politics has been partly syndicalized, with virtual representation by racial interest groups and the public-sector unions to a degree displacing the old moderating ideal of geographic representation, under which a variety of interests had to be considered.

And here, we see the federal government:

In Croly's scheme, echoes of which can still be heard in demands to abolish the Electoral College, local parties and their bosses would be bypassed through plebiscitary democracy based on the ballot-initiative, referendum, and recall processes, with power concentrated in the hands of the national executive. The executive, in turn, would govern through commissions staffed by experts--an idea that endures in Obamacare. The commissions, in anticipation of the New Deal, would serve as what Croly called the "fourth department," or fourth branch of government. "The planning department of the progressive democratic state is created for action." What sort of action? "It plans," wrote Croly, with his customary vagueness, "as far ahead as conditions permit or dictate. It changes plans as often as conditions demand. It seeks above all to test its own plans, so as to discover whether they will accomplish the desired result."

That last part highlights the fatal flaw in the progressives' governance software: Sometimes what works — the necessary change to The Plan — is not to plan, not to regulate. Of course, planners who allow themselves to conclude that the society would benefit without their ministrations cease to be planners (and they cease to have the power progressives crave). Unfortunately, it's easier to sell supposed solutions than to encourage trust in each other and in the nature of the world.