The Strange History of a Radical Idea

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

While reading this book, I mused quite a bit about history, and what it is that historians do. On this particular topic, you wouldn't think the facts are much in doubt. Progressivism's origins are relatively recent, not lost in the rubble of ancient societies. Everyone was paying plenty of attention at the time, and wrote down what they thought and observed. The facts wouldn't seem to have been much in doubt. And yet…

It turns out (and I should have realized) that historians are interpreters of history. They need to filter out important and pertinent from the trivial and irrelevant. And (since they are human) they are prone to the same failings as the rest of us: biases, hubris, laziness, …

I'm not a historian, not even close, and this book seems to be aimed at historians. But I trudged through it anyway. It's a very scholarly tome, one contribution to one side of a contentious (but slow-motion) debate, and (important disclaimer) I may have missed some things, and badly misinterpreted others.

Watson briefly discusses the origins of progressivism, making the interesting point that it incorporated two main new ideas. The first (typified by Woodrow Wilson in the late 19th century) was advocacy that American politics should break away from the stale old "Newtonian" framework described by the Declaration and the Constitution set up by the Founders, instead moving to a "Darwinian" approach of the "fittest" state surviving due to constant adaptation to dynamic social conditions. Darwinism being the new cool paradigm of the day.

Even though the "Darwinian" label was slapped on progressivism by Wilson and others, they seemed to ignore that actual evolution proceeded by sheer dumb luck; the progressive vision of preferred political/social development was very much an "intelligent design" deal, under the centralized command and control of wise bureaucrats guided by a president with powers unforeseen by the Founders.

The other thread was (somewhat surprisingly, given all the Darwinism) from many of the Protestant religious leaders of the day. Watson'a prime example here is Richard T. Ely, trained as an economist, but also the founder of the "Christian Social Union" which advocated "the application of Christian principles to the social problems of the world." Very much into "immanentizing the eschaton", if you know what I mean.

But (bottom line) these disparate visions both advocated diligent state-directed social engineering, full of the hubris that implies. "We know what the future should look like, so toss us the keys, we're driving."

Despite the subtitle, book proceeds to not discuss very much the actual history of progressivism from its intellectual origins. (For example, Robert M. La Follette does not even rate an index entry.) Instead, Watson proceeds to review what other historians said about the Progressive Era. His main point here seems to be that those historians swept the underlying anti-Founder tenets of progressivism under the rug. (To a large extent, they agreed with that.) And there's little discussion of the general illiberalism of the early Progressives. You'll have to read Thomas C. Leonard's Illiberal Reformers for that sordid story.

Watson finishes up with a look at the "revisionist" Claremont/McKenna scholars who corrected this tilted view somewhat. (I think Watson himself is in this group.)

Again, Goodreads encourages me to rate the book subjectively, and except for the early stuff I found it (overall) less than interesting.

URLs du Jour


[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

  • But I don't erroneous data. Chris Edwards at Cato tells us about the latest: Piketty’s Erroneous Data.

    Many people are interested in the distribution of income and wealth and how it may have changed over time. But there is no single and undisputed source for such data. Rather, economists construct historical time series using partial information and many assumptions.

    French economist Thomas Piketty and colleagues have for years been publishing data showing extreme changes in top 1 percent income and wealth shares in the United States over the decades. Many news outlets report the information unquestioned, despite evidence that Piketty is sloppy with data and makes bad assumptions that throw his calculations off.

    The other day in the Wall Street Journal, Phillip Magness and Vincent Geloso described errors in the top 1 percent income data of Piketty and his colleagues. The Cato Institute published a collection of essays critiquing Piketty’s theories and data in 2017. Alan Reynolds has been finding flaws in Piketty’s data since 2007.

    One of Piketty's assertions is that once "past a certain threshold", the wealth of the superrich grows "at extremely high rates", allowing them to outpace The Rest Of Us. But there's good reason to doubt that. For example:

    In the Cato Journal, Robert Arnott and coauthors examined the Forbes lists and found that of the 400 individuals on the 1982 list, just 69 individuals or their descendants remained on the 2014 list. They found that the wealth of those 69 people had grown far more slowly than if they had simply invested passively in stocks and bonds in 1982 and let their holdings grow. They conclude that “dynastic wealth accumulation is simply a myth.”

    Similarly, the Tax Foundation’s William McBride looked at changes in wealth for the 400 individuals on the 1987 Forbes U.S. list through to the 2014 list. He calculated the growth in wealth for the 73 people who stayed on the list, and he estimated the growth for those who dropped off by assuming that the drop‐​offs had barely missed the wealth threshold for the 2014 list. With that assumption, he found that the average annual real wealth growth rate over 26 years for the people on the 1987 list was at most a meager 2.4 percent. By contrast, the average annual real return on U.S. stocks over the decades has been about 7 percent.

    I realize that a lot of people think wealth inequality per se is bad; I disagree. Poverty is (of course) bad; but poor people aren't poor because rich people are rich.

  • Speaking of billionaire-smearing… Anyone can do it, and they don't have to make sense. Robby Soave notes a particularly poor attempt: Robert Reich Smears Elon Musk's Vision for Twitter as 'Dangerous Nonsense'.

    [Reich] attracted attention on social media on Tuesday for writing a particularly awful column titled "Elon Musk's Vision for the Internet is Dangerous Nonsense." It ran in The Guardian.

    Reich begins by condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin's authoritarianism: how he hides the truth from the people of Russia by outlawing dissent, jailing protesters, and prioritizing government propaganda over independent media. Reich then turns his attention to former President Donald Trump, writing that the decisions by social media companies to ban the president "were necessary to protect American democracy."

    But wait a minute: Why does silencing a political viewpoint protect democracy? How is that any different than Putin saying his silencing of dissenters is necessary to protect Russia? Reich doesn't seem to realize that he is condemning one kind of tyranny while lionizing another, which leads him into a very, very odd attack on Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who recently became the largest shareholder of Twitter after buying a 9 percent stake in the company.

    We last saw Robert Reich using his free speech rights to bash toothless West Virginians.

  • Most likely explanation: the truth hurts. Emma Camp takes to the pages of Persuasion to explain Why My NYT Article Inspired So Much Fury. (If you'd like to check out that article, here you go: I Came to College Eager to Debate. I Found Self-Censorship Instead. It's good!)

    Being deliberately misunderstood—having your words read in the least charitable possible way by an audience completely unwilling to consider your argument before attacking your character—is maddening. Resistance is, of course, futile. Attempting to defend yourself on the internet is, as the aphorism goes, like wrestling with a pig. You both get dirty. And the pig likes it.

    So I didn’t defend myself. I gritted my teeth and did nothing. I watched as the internet crafted its fantasy of me—scheming yet weak, friendless yet socially powerful, rendered completely inept by Asperger’s yet an expert manipulator. I was incredibly hateable—the cloying white girl only able to publish in the Times because of an imaginary family connection. I was somehow both the mean-girl bully and the awkward freak who deserves what’s coming to her.

    The vicious rage in reaction to the article is telling. It shows, with biting efficacy, what happens when you don’t self-censor. If there was no real problem of illiberalism on college campuses, or our broader culture for that matter, then thousands of people wouldn’t have clamored to decry a college student as everything from a whiny child to a white nationalist. If there was no real problem, then my article wouldn’t have registered as that much of a threat.

    Ms. Camp will be working at Reason in a few months. She already has a few articles there.

  • I'm listening. At Quillette, Robert Zubrin explains How We Can Get Clean Energy—Fuel and Human Progress. It's the first of a three-article series.

    There are only two ways that modern industrial society can be powered: fossil fuels and nuclear power. The mastery of wind, water, animal, and solar power (via biomass), moved humanity from the Stone Age to the Enlightenment. It enabled global commerce under sail, the creation of metals, ceramics, glass, paper, and numerous other artificial materials (and all the devices and instruments that they enable,) and provided the mechanical energy to liberate the large majority of people—particularly in the West—from enslavement to lives of manual labor. But by the 19th century, these sources of energy were no longer sufficient to sustain the further growth of the very society that they had created.

    That society, however, had the tools to give birth to a new one. Equipped with access to global knowledge, printed books, and literate populations wielding that science along with steel tools, drills, and other mechanisms, it was able to invent the technologies required to unleash the power of fossil fuels. Thus liberated from the limitations of pre-industrial energy sources, humanity was able to grow exponentially further in numbers, power, and knowledge—in sum creative capacity—to the point where it was able to discover and invoke the laws of chemistry and electricity. These, in turn, not only allowed the creation of new materials ranging from gasoline, plastics, fiberglass, aluminum, and silicon to uranium, but of scientific instruments unveiling deeper laws of nature, and, with them, new and still vaster powers hidden within the last of these.

    Fun fact for folks pining for a "carbon tax":

    All sales taxes are regressive, but because they target basic goods, and do so on the basis of mass, rather than cost, carbon taxes are ultra-regressive. A $50 discount store dress incorporates the same amount of carbon in its production as a $500 high fashion dress. A conventional sales tax would hit the expensive dress 10 times as hard. A carbon tax would increase the cost of both by the same amount. So really, carbon taxes are just a scam for transferring the tax burden from the rich to the poor.

    And the folks griping about "inequality" don't seem to mind that much.

  • Among the many things Biden can't do… Veronique de Rugy focuses on one of them: Biden Can't Shield Us from "Billionaire Tax" Fallout.

    There are many problems with this tax. For instance, it is unclear that taxing wealth as opposed to income wouldn't face constitutional problems, as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia pointed out to the president. In addition, as we have learned from other wealth taxes, it will be administratively prohibitive. This is why most of the European countries that previously had wealth taxes eventually abandoned them.

    In addition, it would likely raise very little revenue. This is precisely because capital is mobile and would soon fly to other, less-restrictive countries to escape the tax. Alternatively, the owners of the assets in question could be forced to sell — often to foreigners — also leaving less to tax.

    More importantly for the purpose of this article, it would reduce U.S. saving and capital formation, which would have consequences for everyone else who isn't a billionaire. The wealth of billionaires isn't held the way most believe it to be — stored as if in gold or cash under their beds. A lot is invested back into their own companies, meaning wealth taxes ultimately hurt their employees.

    Let's not forget that Biden rejected Sanders/Warren-style wealth tax proposals during the campaign. But he's probably forgotten about that.

Last Modified 2022-04-18 9:53 AM EDT