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Politics Not The Way To Progress

Progressivism is the idea that progress can be made by using political power to force people to do good, things that benefit society rather than the individual. Even those who say “This is for your own good” generally do not care about the individual or his or her rights, but only about the collective benefit or, as we often hear, the greater good. This has resulted in all sorts of intervention in our lives for the last century, and for millennia before that under different names.

In 1955, Anthony Fisher founded the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, England, and later became the president of the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, Canada. Both of these institutions, among many others, have been influential in promoting the benefits of free people, free markets, and free association, and warning of perverse affects from their absence.

After World War II, the British Labour party won an overwhelming majority, which they took as a mandate to impose socialism, resulting in a couple of decades of decline and social decay. At that time, Fisher wrote a book, subsequently published in the United States as “Fisher’s Concise History of Economic Bungling,” compiling the disastrous, self-defeating episodes of government interference in economic matters over the course of recorded history.

His writing and speaking are often credited with at least some of the success of the Margaret Thatcher administration in the 1970s, which turned to freedom and markets and subsequently released the vitality and energy of the economy for several decades. Fisher makes reference to Mary G. Lacy, a librarian for the United States Department of Agriculture after World War I. She wrote a history of government interference in prices and economic life entitled “Food Control During Forty Six Centuries: A Contribution to the History of Price Fixing.” Her conclusion was that, when governments try to help people, they only exchange one set of woes for a different, worse set.

Progressivism has always been about using government to perfect the people, to force them to be better, to make progress by electing smart, effective politicians who, in turn, establish efficient bureaucracies of trained social engineers, those who know the problems and how to fix them. It is the mentality of socialism without some of the historical baggage. Those politicians were, however, and still are, human beings. They are not angels, nor do they suddenly become superhuman on election day or when they are hired by the vast octopus of bureaucracy. Even if they are brilliant, highly-trained thinkers and visionaries, they are as corruptible, as unwise, as self-interested, and as subject to tunnel-vision as anyone. Progressivism is actually regressive, hearkening back to a time when the population was under the thumb of the ruler, a so-called benevolent dictator who supposedly knew what was best.

Real progress, on the contrary, comes not from politicians or their bevy of trained experts. It comes from free people interacting through voluntary association. As long as they can protect their rights to life, liberty, and property, such commerce and social interaction lead to prosperity, not just for the individuals, but for the collection of individuals called society. This is borne out throughout history. Innovation and its resulting prosperity arise in societies that embrace the rights of individuals to exchange freely, based on how it benefits them personally. Such benefit is not simply money exchanged for value. Money is only a rough approximation of value, and every person values time saved, charitable feelings, family responsibilities, and many other such things when making decisions. With incentive to create, to save, and to build for the future, society prospers and grows. Politicians do not create wealth, but can only make it easier or harder for people to earn and keep their own prosperity.

Dan McLaughlin is the author of “Compassion and Truth-Why Good Intentions Don’t Equal Good Results.” Follow him at daniel-mclaughlin.com.

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