Progressivism Is An Imposter

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” This became an often-repeated popular line after its use in the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke. A 1950s Florida prison warden (played by actor Strother Martin) says those words after an insolent remark by one of the prisoners (played by Paul Newman) results in the warden lashing that prisoner with a whip.

In the film, the message the warden is clearly trying to get other prisoners working on a chain gang to understand is that if you do not do as you are told or if you talk back to those with physical power over you, there will be consequences. Words, in other words, do matter, and you better make sure you understand what they are saying.

But being sure what meaning or message that words convey is not always unambiguous. This becomes a problem in any exchange of ideas when what you think the other person means by the words they are using is not what they have in mind. And sometimes the ambiguity surrounding the use of a word might even be intentional.

Imposter-Terms Like “Progressive” Confuse Our Understanding

The classical liberal author Albert Jay Nock (1870–1945) published an essay in the February 1936 issue of the Atlantic Monthly on what he called “Imposter-Terms,” that is, words that are used in ways meant to confuse or misdirect understanding. He actually took the phrase from the famous utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), who coined the term in his Book of (Political) Fallacies (1824).

More precisely, imposter-terms are words that are used to make more acceptable some idea or fact that would be viewed far more negatively if expressed in a more direct and clear manner — that is, something that would be doubted or even rejected as undesirable if described in words that capture the true nature of the subject or object. Imposter-terms, therefore, as explained by Bentham and Nock, may be intentionally applied precisely for purposes of deception and misunderstanding.

One instance of this, may I suggest, is the political use of the word “progressive.” Now, clearly, it originates out of the word “progress.” According to the Oxford Dictionary, progress refers to “forward or onward movement towards a destination,” or “development towards an improved or more advanced condition.”

“Progressive,” then, means “happening or developing gradually or in stages.” The dictionary makes clear that a progressive movement to a “more advanced condition” can be either positive or negative, as in the worsening severity of an illness. It also says that a “progressive” is someone who is “an advocate of social reform.”

Now, rightly understood, who can be against human and social progress? Who would not like a progressing decrease in poverty, or a progressing increase in literacy and longer, healthier lives for humankind? Who is not for progress toward more respect and regard for every person as a distinct individual with only one life to live? Who is not for all of these and far, far more than could be listed and lyrically expressed about the world and all those who live in it?

There have been a few who have called for an ascetic existence, a renunciation of anything but the mere essentials of human life, with no care for the material things of this earth. But the vast majority of those who have lived during every generation of human beings on this planet have wanted and wished for a material and social life better, richer, and healthier than the one that preceded them, and hoped that their children would have an improvement over theirs. For most people to think this way is, well, just human nature.

Classical Liberals Saw Human Progress Through Freedom and Markets

The question is, what are the best means and methods to achieve it? The classical liberals of the 18th and 19th centuries argued that the best hope for mankind in this “progressive” direction was for the elimination of political control and command over people’s lives.

The guiding classical liberal principles were: recognize and respect every individual’s right to freely and peacefully live his life as he personally chose; have the requirement that all human relationships be based on voluntary association and mutual agreement in the marketplace of exchange and in the area of civil society; make the narrow and primary duty of a limited government be the protection of each individual’s right to their life, liberty, and honestly acquired property, and the enforcement of all voluntary agreements among them. With the establishment of this type of social environment, the most will have been done that would be conducive to the possibilities for human progress.

This, also, was considered to be based on an appreciation of human nature. Individuals basically know their own circumstances and abilities better than any other who would presume to plan and direct their life for them. This was concisely stated by Jeremy Bentham in his Manual of Political Economy, written in the 1790s:

The interest which a man takes in the affairs of another, a member of the sovereignty for example in those of a subject, is not likely to be so great as the interest which either takes in his own; still less where that other is a perfect stranger to him….

In not one of these particulars is the statesman likely to be more than upon a par with the individual whose choice relative to the subjects in question he is so ready to control; in almost all of them he is constantly and necessarily inferior beyond all measure….

A first Lord of the Treasury … of a Trade, or any other member of the Legislature, is not likely in the instance of any one of the many thousands of trades existing in the world, to form relative to the best mode of carrying on that trade a choice so good as that would be formed by a person embarked, or intending to be embarked, on the trade in question; still less in the instance of everyone one of those trades.

Freedom Produced Progress in America

Following the principles of freedom and free markets succeeded, wherever they were reasonably recognized and respected, and slowly but surely brought about a progressive improvement in the social and economic conditions of those respected in their personal liberty and in their peaceful and voluntary associations with others for mutual gain.

The idea and growing reality of human progress in improving or bettering social, cultural, and material conditions of mankind was one that most reflecting individuals were delighted to point to when making observations as the 19th century progressed. For instance, in his 1867 Harvard lecture, “The Progress of Culture,” the noted American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82), asked:

Who would live in the stone age or the bronze or the iron or the lacustrine? Who does not prefer the age of steel, or good, or coal, petroleum, cotton, steam, electricity, and the spectroscope? …

Consider, at this time, what variety of issues, of enterprises, public and private, what genius of science, what masters, each in his separate province, the railroad, the telegraph, the mines, the inland and marine explorations, the novel and powerful philanthropies, as well as agriculture, the foreign trade and the home trade . . . manufactures, the very inventions, all on a national scale.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the destructive events of the American Civil War that had ended only two years earlier, Emerson wondered at and was enthused about the continuing material improvements for so many that surrounded him in the United States at that time — though he was very far from being an uncritical observer of American political, social, and cultural life.

His references to coal and petroleum may shock some today, but it needs to be remembered what wonders of industry and communications, and gains in the quality of everyday life, were made through these means of supplying energy for reducing the exhaustion of physical labor and increasing the output of every worker’s daily efforts.

Coal and oil were and have been liberators from the niggardliness of seemingly uncooperative nature, that have assisted in lifting humanity from its natural condition of poverty. It has been forgotten how really nasty, brutish, and short human existence was for almost all those on earth before these energy engines of material progress. (See my article “Preserved Primitivism Versus Freedom and Prosperity.”)

Socialism and Impatience With the Speed and Forms of Progress

But some were impatient about the degree and directions of all this progress. They questioned the ethics of its forms and distributions. They wanted and wished for the political power to redirect its content and benefits. In the early and middle decades of the 19th century, many such individuals called themselves socialists or communists. Of course, they differed among themselves about how they saw a future of “progress” recast, but they mostly shared certain ideas about the means to bring about their, respective, images of a better collectivist future.

Almost all of them believed in the abolition of most or all private ownership of the means of production and ending private enterprise determining the direction of production. This would be transferred into the hands of the state, manned by those claiming to speak for the “true” and “real” interests of “all the people,” and not for only a handful of profit-oriented private businessmen narrowly guided by antisocial self-interest.

These new social engineers speaking and acting for humanity would set all things straight in the world. Production would be for “need” instead of “greed.” Wealth would be redistributed according to an asserted egalitarian justice that the central planners just knew to be the right and good one.

Critics of Socialism Warned of a Frightful and Violent Future

But soon voices were raised warning that with government economic control to do things for the people would also come the power by those in control to do things to the people — that is, to make all in society live within and conform to the designs and demands of those holding the levers of government authority in their hands.

For all of the nice-sounding words and promises, another word came to mind at the same time: tyranny! What freedom would remain when everything produced and every opportunity to work and live one’s life was dependent on an omnipresent and omnipotent government, from which there existed no autonomous area of escape for an independent and self-governing personal life?

The famous German poet and essayist Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) gloomily warned in 1842:

Communism is the secret name of the dread antagonist setting proletariat rule with all its consequences against the present bourgeois regime. It will be a frightful duel. How will it end? No one knows but gods and goddesses acquainted with the future. We only know this much: Communism, through little discussed now and loitering in hidden garrets on miserable straw pallets, is the dark hero for a great, if temporary, role in the modern tragedy….

Wild, gloomy times are roaring toward us…. The future smells of Russian leather, blood, godlessness, and many whippings. I should advise our grandchildren to be born with very thick skins on their backs.

The Danger of Tyranny From Collectivist Control of Society

Forty years later, the classical liberal French economist Paul Leroy-Beaulieu (1843–1916) detailed what that collectivist future of government central planning would look like and lead to in his amazingly prescient treatise Collectivism (1885; English translation, 1908). He summarized its meaning for mankind:

The employee (and all will be employees) would be the slave, not of the state, which is merely an abstraction, but of the politicians who possessed themselves of power. A heavy yoke would be imposed upon all, and since no free printing presses would exist, it would be impossible to obtain publicity for criticisms or for grievances without the consent of the government. The press censure exercised in [Imperial] Russia would be liberty itself compared to that which would be the inevitable accompaniment of collectivism… And a tyranny such as has never been hitherto experienced would close all mouths and bend all necks.

And as if anticipating those who, today, say, “But it will be ‘democratic’ socialism,” Leroy-Beaulieu added:

How could human progress continue in a society subject to universal constraint and authority? Authority whatever its source, is always slow, pedantic, and a slave to routine; when derived from a democracy, these defects would be exaggerated; an immense bureaucracy would be established, and individuals who are exceptional in any way would be shouldered on one side and crushed by its complicated machinery…

Thus, collectivism implies a prodigious loss both to the individual and to civilization in general. At first a slackening of economic enterprise, then its complete cessation, soon to be followed by retrogression; these would be the inevitable consequences for humanity, or for any section of humanity that adopted this regime.

American Intellectuals and the German Historical School

How, then, could the socialist idea be saved from a growing inseparable connection to social and economic tyranny that would also threaten to end the progress seen all around the more liberal-oriented areas of the world, even if the speed of improvement and pattern of distribution in existing liberal society did not perfectly fulfill some people’s wishes?

Especially in America, where socialist ideas seemed particularly anathema to the spirit and beliefs of most people in individualism, free enterprise, and local and decentralized power and authority, how could the notion of greater government control and direction of social and economic life be successfully introduced?

The linguistic and rhetorical trick was to not use the term or minimize the negative connotations of what socialism would mean in society. This was brought about by an entire generation of American intellectuals who went over and studied at German universities in the last decades of the 19th century and in the first decade of the 20th century.

They came back to America after finishing their graduate degrees imbued with the conceptions of the German historical school, a group of German historians, political economists, legalists, and sociologists who insisted that the classical liberal ideas built on the classical economics of the first half of the 19th century were completely wrong. The classical economists insisted that there were universal and ever-present “laws of economics,” concerning supply and demand, and that there were social institutions invariably essential for human progress, namely private property, free markets, and a wide range of economic liberty.

The German historicists denied all of this. They declared that each time, place, and nationality had its own relevant “laws” of appropriate human relations and institutions that changed with the social, economic, and political evolution of each society.

In the words of American economist Edwin R.A. Seligman (1861–1939), in 1886, who did his apprenticeship at the feet of these German professors: “The economic theories of any generation must be regarded primarily as the outgrowth of the peculiar conditions of time, place and nationality under which the doctrines were evolved, and that no particular set of tenets can arrogate to itself the claim of immutable truth, or the assumption of universal applicability to all countries or epochs.”

Or as another important American economist and “progressive” of this period, Richard T. Ely (1854–1943), said at around the same time: “Political economy … is not regarded as something fixed and unalterable, but a growth and development, changing with society. It is found that the political economy of today is not the political economy of yesterday; while the political economy of Germany is not identical with that of England or America.”

A German or an American social reformist did not have to worry that the laws of supply and demand might challenge the likely effects resulting from government-fixed prices or mandated minimum wages. German economics was not the same as American economics. And, in addition, the “laws of economics” in the America of the 1850s were not the same as the ever-changing and relevant economic relationships and possibilities in the United States of 1895 or 1905 or 1925. (See my article “American Progressives Are Bismarck’s Grandchildren.”)

“Progress” Required Political Paternalism and Governing Elites

Instead of generally using the word “socialism,” the advocates of moving away from limited government and free market liberalism — those American students of the German historical school — spoke of a new social or neo-liberalism, that could and should not be merely “negative” in protecting people in their older notions of life, liberty, and property, but should be “positive” in extending, securing, and guaranteeing certain opportunities in life that required regulating markets, redistributing income, and greater centrally directed planning for social development. The new social or neo-liberalism incorporated, therefore, the reasoning and rationale of an extensive and invasive interventionist-welfare state. (See my article “Why Neo-Liberalism Is Really Neo-Socialism.”)

But broader than simply the political agenda of this neo-liberalism was a conception of the wider requirements for human betterment. This was an outlook that transcended the now-declared atavistic ideas of self-interest, individualism, and personal autonomy. Mankind was evolving from the individualistic ethos to a larger and more inclusive societal sense of “community” that was greater than the mere person.

“Progress,” it was now said, was evolving from self-interest to social awareness and collective responsibility. The group was a transcendent reality over the individual. The increasing complexity of society could no longer be left to its own devices of “anarchistic” markets and decentralized philanthropy. There needed to be a centralized sense of purpose and direction, with those properly trained and guided by a higher sense of social responsibility leading the way and taking charge for the good of all.

“Progressivism” represented this social outlook, and the “progressives” who shared and advocated its vision were its standard bearers. There was an almost religious fervor in the enthusiasm of its proponents. For example, here is Richard Ely’s articulation, in 1895, of what this better “progressive” arrangement of society would require and look like:

Looking into the future we may contemplate a society with real, and not merely nominal, freedom, to pursue the best; a society in which men shall work together for the common purposes, and in which the wholesale cooperation shall take place largely through government, but through a government which has become less repressive and has developed its positive side.

We have reason to believe that we shall yet see great national undertakings with the property of the nation, and managed by the nation, through agents who appreciate the glory of true public service, and feel that it is God’s work which they are doing, because church and state are as one.

We may look forward to a society in which education, art, and literature shall be fostered by the nation, and in which the federal government, commonwealth, local community, and individual citizens shall heartily cooperate for the advancement of civilization…. We may anticipate an approximation of state and society as men improve, and we may hope that men outside of government will freely and voluntarily act with trained officers and experts in the service of government for the advancement of common interests.

Progressivism Has Served as the Imposter-Term for Socialism

This was and is the promise of the “progressives” well over a hundred years ago and today. Oh, the reference to a unity of state and church is no longer appropriately “politically correct,” and a declared focus on “great national undertakings” needs to be rephrased so that it doesn’t sound too, well, “Trumpian.” But the “progressive” message of then is still the same now: trained bureaucratic experts and elected officials who are only and always dedicated to nothing but the “public purpose” will guide the rest of society into the new promised land of paternalistic economic planning, coerced redistribution of wealth, and expected cooperation by all other members of society under this enlightened and superior leadership.

But what is this but the socialism and communism advocated in the 19th century and implemented in various places in the 20th century? For more than a hundred years, an “imposter-term” has been used to hide from view something through the rhetorical trick of not calling it by its real name.

“Progressivism” has been promises of something different and better than what exists under “capitalism” or market-oriented liberalism: with references to social ends that are higher than and superior to merely personal private purposes in the marketplace; with an implied denial that there are any economic laws reflecting an invariant human nature to stand in the way of undermining property rights, controlling markets and prices, and confiscating the wealth and income of some to give to others; and with an imposition of coerced plans on all in society while denying that it implies any loss of any important freedoms.

All of this has served and is serving the advancement of a socialist rearrangement of society without, most of the time, saying Heinrich Heine’s “secret name.” But now having persuaded so many over so many generations in America that a good and decent society requires all of these planning, regulating, and redistributing policies and institutions, it has come full circle.

All of this time, my fellow Americans, you have been listening to and incrementally been going along with, under the banner of “progressivism,” the premises and policies that when fully introduced and implemented reflect a socialist-type system imposed on society.

The imposter-term has done its job. We are nearly all socialists now, while not knowing it. And some of those who are still shocking us with the actual use of this term, though prefaced with the word “democratic” to still ease our conscience, are merely telling us the reality of the world and country we live in, and the beliefs too many of us now accept and cannot imagine life without.


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