The Right and the Left, in a Nutshell
Introduction to Conscience of a Progressive, a book in
March 14, 2006
By Ernest Partridge, The
of us who are at middle age or beyond have lived through a revolution
in political and economic theory and practice, a revolution so profound
that few of us can even begin to appreciate its significance, much
less its peril.
Future historians, however, will understand and appreciate this
revolution and will wonder at the passivity of the public today
and the ease with which those who instituted this upheaval achieved
their success. The same historians, I would venture, will be equally
or more amazed at how this moment played out. But this we cannot
know, for their past is our immediate future. We are the agents
of that still-to-be written history. The United States of America,
in this year of 2006, is at a hinge of history. Our fate, and that
of our successors, rests directly in the hands of all of us who
are politically alert and active today. As Edward R. Murrow famously
said, "we can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot
escape responsibility for the result."
Those factions and interests now in control of the United States
government declare that their policies, which they choose to call
"conservative" and I prefer to call "regressive,"
are an advancement in the course of human history. Those who disagree,
and the pollsters tell us that they are a majority of the American
people, believe that in the past five years, and arguably in the
past twenty-five years, the people of the United States and their
government have suffered a grievous setback.
I count myself among this dissenting majority. In my book, Conscience
of a Progressive, now nearing completion, I attempt to articulate
that dissent, criticize the foundational dogmas of the regnant,
"regressive" regime that now controls our country, and
justify the principles of "progressivism" – the political-economic
ideology that distinguished and honored our past, and if we are
both determined and fortunate, may once again guide and enrich our
Here, briefly, are the "players" in this political contest.
To begin, it is important to note that the regressivism that controls
and supports our present government is not a unified political doctrine.
Rather, it is a coalition, some factions of which are in strong
disagreement with others, most notably "the libertarian right"
and "the religious right."
In general, most regressives tend to believe that the ideal society
is merely a collection of autonomous individuals and families in
voluntary association. In fact they assert that strictly speaking,
as Dame Margaret Thatcher once proclaimed, "There is no such
thing as a society - there are individuals and there are families,"
and Ayn Rand, "There is no such entity as 'the public' ...
the public is merely a number of individuals." It follows that
there is no such thing as "public goods" and "the
public interest," apart from summation of private goods and
interests. Moreover, there are no "victims of society."
The poor choose their condition; poverty is the result of "laziness"
or, as the religious right would put it, a "sin."
Each individual, by acting to maximize his or her personal self-interest,
will always act "as if by an invisible hand" (Adam Smith)
to promote the well-being of all others in this (so-called) society:
that which is good for each, is good for all. Accordingly, the optimal
economic system is a completely unrestricted and unregulated free
market of "capitalist acts by consenting adults." (Robert
Nozick) Moreover, private ownership of all land, resources, infrastructure,
and even institutions, will always yield results preferable to common
(i.e. government) ownership and control. Finally, the regressives
firmly believe that because economic prosperity and growth are accomplished
through capital investment, the well-being of all is accomplished
by directing wealth into the hands of "the investing class;"
i.e. the very rich, whereby that wealth will "trickle down"
to the benefit of all others.
The libertarian right insists that the sole legitimate functions
of government are the protection of the individual's unalienable
natural rights to life, liberty and property. The libertarian's
demand for individual autonomy and government non-interference entails
a tolerance and respect for privacy, and thus the libertarian has
no use for sodomy and drug laws, for laws prohibiting gay marriage,
abortion, voluntary euthanasia, and least of all for government
endorsement of religious dogma or enforcement of religious practice.
Thus the libertarian fully endorses John Stuart Mill's pronouncement
that, "over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual
is sovereign." In general, the libertarian advocates the fullest
possible freedom of the individual, consistent with equivalent liberty
of all others. In these respects, there is much of libertarian thought
that should be attractive to the progressive.
The religious right, of course, vehemently rejects the libertarian's
uncompromising tolerance and insistence that the government has
no right whatever to interfere in the private life of the individual.
The religious right, to the contrary, believes that the government
is entitled to enforce moral behavior and even to support religious
institutions and "establish" religious doctrines in the
law. In the most extreme cases, the religious right advocates the
establishment of "biblical law" in place of our present
system of secular Constitutional law.
With the exception of the dispute between the libertarians and
the religious right regarding private behavior, all the other tenets
of regressivism share this characteristic: They all lead to policies
that benefit wealth and power ("the masters"), to the
disadvantage of all others; i.e., the "ordinary citizens."
"Progressivism" is essentially the "liberalism"
of most of the twentieth century, as promulgated by both Roosevelts,
by the Kennedy Brothers, and by many Republicans, such as Dwight
Eisenhower, Jacob Javits and Earl Warren. "Progressivism,"
to put it simply, is "liberalism," free of the slanderous
connotations heaped upon it by contemporary right-wing propagandists.
In general, progressives endorse the political principles of our
founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution,
as well as the fundamental moral precepts of the great world religions
and the ideas of many secular moral philosophers – precepts most
familiar to the American public through the moral teachings of Jesus
Accordingly, progressivism is founded on enduring "conservative"
principles. Thus the familiar "liberal vs. conservative"
dichotomy is a hoax. Moreover, the Right, far from being "conservative,"
in fact endorses a radical political doctrine, with policies designed
to return society and the economy to a condition of autocracy, wealth
and power for the privileged few, and servitude, poverty and ignorance
for "the masses" – a condition which, until recently,
was generally believed to be permanently discredited and relegated
to the distant past. Hence my preferred term, "regressive."
In contrast to the regressive, the progressive regards society
not as an aggregate of autonomous individuals but as an "emergent"
entity that is more than the sum of its individual human components.
In this sense, a society is like a chemical compound such as table
salt or water: substances with properties that are separate and
distinct from the properties of their component elements. It then
follows that there are "social goods" and "public
interests" that are demonstrably separate from the sum of private
goods and interests. Moreover, there are genuine "victims of
society" who are in no way responsible for their suffering
and poverty. (The illegitimate child of a teen-age heroin addict
did not choose her parents. The decision to "outsource"
a job was out of the hands of the worker who loses that job).
Because society (or "the public") is demonstrably distinct
from the sum of its component individuals, behavior that might be
good for each individual, may be bad for society as a whole; and
conversely, what is "bad" for the individual (e.g., taxes
and regulations) may benefit society at large. These fundamental
precepts: "good for each, bad for all" and "bad for
each, good for all" are of essential importance to the defense
of progressivism, and by implication to the refutation of regressivism.
The progressive is not "against" free markets, but rather
believes that in the organization and functioning of society and
its economy, markets are invaluable servants. But markets can also
be cruel masters. Thus, in the formulation of public policy, markets
should count for something and even for much, but not for everything.
There is a "wisdom" of the marketplace, but that "wisdom"
is not omniscient. Adam Smith was right: each individual seeking
his own gain might act, "as if by an invisible hand,"
to the benefit of all. But as Adam Smith also observed and regressive
economists tend to forget, there is a "back of the invisible
hand," whereby self-serving action by each individual can bring
ruin upon the whole – a warning that was vividly presented by Garrett
Hardin in his landmark essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons."
The progressives are so much in favor of a market economy that
they are determined to protect it from its excesses and from its
inborn tendency toward self-destruction. The progressive recognizes
that the natural tendency of "free markets" is toward
monopoly and cartels, which are, of course, the end of the free
market. Thus the progressive endorses anti-trust laws, which means,
of course, a rule of law enforced by government.
The progressive also recognizes that market transactions, especially
those by large corporations, affect not only the parties of those
transactions (the buyers and sellers), but also unconsenting third
parties, the "stakeholders;" for example, citizens who
reside downwind of and downstream from polluting industries, citizens
who are enticed by false advertising to endanger their health, and
parents whose childrens' minds and morals are corrupted by mass
media. "Stakeholders" should thus have a voice in these
corporate transactions, and the only agency with a legitimate right
to represent the stakeholders is their government; hence the justification
for regulation of corporations.
The progressive agrees that economic benefits "trickle down"
from the investments of the wealthy. But he also insists that the
wealth of the privileged few "percolates up" from knowledge
and labor of the producers of that wealth – the workforce – and
from the tranquility and social order that issues from a public
that is served well by, and freely consents to the rule of, its
government. The progressive insists that the workers are most productive
and prosperous when they participate, through collective bargaining,
in determining the conditions of their employment. The progressive
also recognizes that the productivity of that workforce results
from public education and from the publicly funded basic research
that might otherwise be neglected by private entrepreneurs.
In addition to the libertarian's defense of government's function
of protecting the rights of "life, liberty and property,"
the progressive believes that it is also the function of government
"to establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, ... [and]
promote the general Welfare." Critics of The Right, who choose to
call themselves "conservatives," should note that these
words are quoted directly from the Preamble to the Constitution
of the United States.
Also, along with the libertarians, the progressive endorses the
"like liberty principle" which affirms that each individual
is entitled to maximum liberty, consistent with equal liberty for
all. Likewise, the "no-harm principle," expressed in the
familiar folk maxim, "my freedom ends where your nose begins."
However, the libertarians fail to come to terms with the full implications
of these principles, for their program results in freedom for the
privileged few at the cost of the freedom and welfare of the many.
To put the matter bluntly, the progressive disagrees with the libertarian,
not because the progressive values liberty less, but because he
values liberty more.
The progressive insists that certain institutions and resources
are the legitimate property, not of private individuals, but of
the public at large. These include, first of all, the government
itself: the legislature, the executive, and the courts. In addition,
the natural environment – the atmosphere, the waterways, the oceans,
the aquifers, wildlife – can not be parceled out, marked by property
lines, and sold to the highest bidder. Language, the arts, literature,
the sciences, are common heritages which must be protected and nurtured
for the common good, and not be used and exploited exclusively for
Finally, the progressive demands that government belongs to the
people, and not exclusively to those interests that can afford to
"buy into" access to and influence upon the government.
"Governments," the progressive reminds us, "are instituted
among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,"
and that "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive
of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish
it, and to institute new Government." And if the (self-described)
"conservatives" find such sentiments to be treasonous,
they should again take note of the source. These words are from
the founding document of our republic: The Declaration of Independence.
Accordingly, far from being "traitors," as Ann Coulter
would have us believe, progressives are among the most authentic
This book, Conscience of a Progressive, needs a publisher.
If you are a publisher, an agent, or can direct me to same, please
contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the
field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He publishes the
Online Gadfly and co-edits the progressive website, The
Crisis Papers. Send comments to: email@example.com.
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