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Why Are Progressives so Bad at Governing?

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Tags Taxes and SpendingU.S. History

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Paul Krugman declared that the Bush administration failed in its response to the flooding of New Orleans because the administration consisted of people, according to Krugman, who didn’t “believe in government.” One cannot say that about progressives who truly believe in government, and believe in unlimited government at that. Yet, it also is clear that when in power — and especially when they face no real opposition — progressives generally govern very badly. Why this is so — in direct contradiction to Krugman’s stated belief — requires an examination of the progressive mindset, something Krugman probably is intellectually and emotionally incapable of doing.

Mayor Bill de Blasio: New York’s Progressive Disaster

The first thing to understand about progressives in government is that they have a much different view of “progress” than most other people. For example, even though whatever positive changes New York made in the 1990s and 2000s has been waning during the terms of Mayor Bill de Blasio, de Blasio believes that future “progress” now must come in the form of something other than the decline of crime rates and business growth. Instead, de Blasio, who wears his socialist cap proudly declares that the real threat to New York’s future is private property. He says:

Our legal system is structured to favor private property, (but) people would like to have the city government be able to determine which building goes where, how high it will be, who gets to live in it, what the rent will be. If I had my druthers, the city government would determine every single plot of land, how development would proceed. And there would be very stringent requirements around income levels and rents. That’s a world I’d love to see.

Any competent (or even incompetent, for that matter) economist can tell us how such a scenario plays out in the long run, and the economic chaos that was the former Soviet Union stands as Exhibit A, while the New York of the 1970s and the 1980s is Exhibit B. Yes, even in the face of hardcore evidence against his position, de Blasio stands firm. In fact, an entire new wave of politicians in this country calling themselves “progressives” are trying to fashion a “new” economy, one based upon a “Green New Deal,” and other massive interventions into private economic activity. That the experience of socialism never matches its utopian rhetoric seems not to have changed a mind among this new generation of progressives.

If de Blasio is an example of modern progressivism (he even took his honeymoon in Cuba, taking a cue from Bernie Sanders who honeymooned in the USSR shortly before it collapsed), then his words and actions shed light on what progressives consider to be “proper” governance. Not only does de Blasio call for an end to private property and the total transformation of the economy via the “Green New Deal,” but he also has pushed “egalitarian” initiatives like ending charter schools in New York. (The fact that charter schools perform better than their regular public-school counterparts galls de Blasio and he believes they must be stopped.)

Progressive Failures Multiply

This year’s herd of nominees for the Democrats’ candidate for president are following in de Blasio’s footsteps in calling for a future of progressive governance. Like de Blasio (whom City Journal has nicknamed “Mayor de Bolshevik”), they call for highly-symbolic measures that by themselves will not make their alleged intended targets — poor and middle-class Americans — better off. However, progressives continue to push legislative initiatives, such as raising taxes to confiscatory levels, establishing socialized medicine, sinking vast sums of money into questionable public works ventures like the ill-fated “Bullet Train” in California, even though they are fiscal black holes.

Moreover, even what would seem to be an accomplishment — such as the building of a new bridge — turns out to be a progressive failure (if bilking taxpayers is seen as a bad thing). Take the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, in which the State of California built a new bridge to replace the cantilevered portion of the Bay Bridge, which was built in the 1930s. True, the new bridge finally is there, but not before it had cost overruns of more than 2,000 percent, the original price tag going from an estimated $250 million in 1995 to more than $6.5 billion at the time of its completion, and taking a dozen years to finish, which was much longer than the original bridge needed — and it lasted almost 80 years.

(The original bridge from Oakland to San Francisco was completed in 1936, with construction taking four years and costing an equivalent in today’s dollars of about $662 million. Only a Keynesian could love how progressive governance also escalates the cost of building anything.)

Writing about the vast cost overruns, California political writer Steven Greenhut notes:

The (bridge) project was plagued by scandal, including allegations of shoddy welds, questionable inspections, and, as a Senate committee explained (as reported by the Sacramento Bee), allegations that Caltrans “managers ‘gagged and banished’ at least nine top experts for the new $6.5 billion San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge after they complained about substandard work. …”

In New York, cost overruns and delays characterized the building of the Mario Cuomo Bridge, which replaced the aging Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River north of New York City. At last count, the recently-completed bridge would cost close to $5 billion, well above its original estimates. The original bridge, finished in 1955 after less than four years of construction, cost in today’s dollars about $765 million. The “New New York” website, which touts the so-called accomplishments of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, says that the Mario Cuomo Bridge (named after the current governor’s father) is “state of the art.”

However, the “New New York” site fails to mention that the state government also is partly in charge of the dilapidated subway system in New York City. Unlike the “New New York” “state of the art” projects, the New York Subway is anything but “state of the art,” with a switching system that has been unchanged for nearly a century. Conditions continue to deteriorate and the progressives that govern the state and city of New York seem helpless — or are unwilling to take necessary steps — to reverse the wreckage.

Progressives love to promote public transportation (while engaging in warfare against automobiles), but when it comes to maintaining public transportation, that is another story altogether. It is not just the New York Subway that is falling apart; the Washington, DC, Metro also is in peril. While DC and the surrounding area falls into the bona fide progressive category, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of governance, a dysfunctional public transportation system along with the massive traffic jams that characterize life in that area take a back seat to what seems to be the real focus of progressive governance: codifying the Sexual Revolution.

Progressive Government in California

If there is an Exhibit A of the combination of progressive and incompetent government, it is California, which outdoes even the progressive New York when it comes to outright fiscal folly.

Steven Greenhut of R Street Corporation and a former editorial writer for the Orange County Register has been covering California politics for many years and never is surprised at the latest outrage from the nation’s most progressive state.

Not only does California give us the ill-fated “Bullet Train,” but it also has become the national “leader” in homelessness, out-of-control housing prices, and regular natural disasters such as the huge wildfires that burned throughout the state in 2018 causing much death and destruction. And, unlike their predecessors — political liberals who at least championed freedom of the press and due process of law — progressives have no problem using police state tactics to muzzle journalists and suppress free speech.

Greenhut writes of three especially egregious episodes in which officials in very progressive San Francisco had police raid the home of a journalist to find how he had come into possession of what, frankly, was a public document that already should have been released. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is attempting to imprison independent journalists for undercover work in attempting to find wrongdoing at Planned Parenthood, which has become a modern symbol for progressive politicians, who almost to a person declare that they “stand with Planned Parenthood. He also has threatened to criminally prosecute reporters who publicize public documents even though the law supports the journalists. Greenhut writes :

Early in the year, reporters from UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program made a public-records request to the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training for a list of the 12,000 California police officers, police applicants and former officers who were convicted of crimes, many of them serious. POST did the right thing and provided the records.

When … Becerra found out, he threatened to criminally prosecute the reporters unless they destroy records that were provided by a public agency. Becerra claims the information is confidential even though it involves public records about official verdicts. And to reiterate, state law forbids prosecution of reporters merely for receiving records — and they received the info from an agency within Becerra’s own department. (Emphasis mine)

Greenhut also adds that many of these same progressives have condemned (rightly, in my view) President Donald Trump’s attack on the American news media but are silent on what Becerra and the San Francisco police have done. I would add that there is no contradiction here regarding what progressives believe and how they engage in such heavy-handed and legally-questionable antics: progressives for more than a century have opposed individual rights and have no problem using criminal law to imprison political opponents, including those that have committed no crimes.

Unlike the old-style liberal governance or even the kind of governance we see in Chinese cities, progressives govern with two main things in mind: ideology and personal advancement. For example, in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 flooding of New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of firefighters that had volunteered to do rescue work instead were kept in Atlanta hotels for several days to undergo “training” such as avoiding sexual harassment and the history of FEMA.

While no doubt we would like to avoid instances of sexual harassment, the promotion of an ideology took precedence over saving lives in the extremely-critical period right after the levees broke and flooding began. And one hardly could call the Bush administration “progressive,” yet progressive governance created a hierarchy of questionable priorities that the Bush government followed.

Progressivism Violates Human Nature

Murray Rothbard wrote that the egalitarianism that is a staple of progressive thought actually constitutes a “revolt against nature.” In the name of equality, progressives sacrifice everything else including what we might call “good government” and replace it with government that promotes “equality” while destroying the economic and social basis of the country, actions that will lead to more inequality. Writes Rothbard:

Let us proceed, then, to a critique of the egalitarian ideal itself — should equality be granted its current status as an unquestioned ethical ideal? In the first place, we must challenge the very idea of a radical separation between something that is “true in theory” but “not valid in practice.” If a theory is correct, then it does work in practice; if it does not work in practice, then it is a bad theory. The common separation between theory and practice is an artificial and fallacious one. But this is true in ethics as well as anything else. If an ethical ideal is inherently “impractical,” that is, if it cannot work in practice, then it is a poor ideal and should be discarded forthwith. To put it more precisely, if an ethical goal violates the nature of man and/or the universe and, therefore, cannot work in practice, then it is a bad ideal and should be dismissed as a goal. If the goal itself violates the nature of man, then it is also a poor idea to work in the direction of that goal.

Unfortunately, progressives have a different worldview. They claim that they can rejuvenate an economy by imposing confiscatory tax rates, regulating business decisions, and create a “fair and just world” by putting into law the latest pronouncements from the Sexual Revolution and enforcing those laws with an iron fist. That these things, as Rothbard puts it, violate human nature, then progressives must change human nature, and by force, if necessary.

This is the kind of “progressivism” that leads to totalitarianism, the kind of totalitarianism that wracked China during its Cultural Revolution. While I doubt that progressives will be able to create a Cult of Bill de Blasio as was the case with Mao and China, nonetheless they can make it difficult for people of opposing beliefs to find work in certain fields, like medicine.

For example, the Church Amendment says hospitals and medical entities receiving federal funds cannot force a medical professional to assist in abortions if such actions violate their consciences, yet the progressive Barack Obama administration refused to enforce the law. (The late Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, was an old-time political liberal, but was not a progressive.) Today, progressives seek to overturn the Church Amendment, and those people seeking to be medical professionals who are not amenable to doing abortions simply will not be permitted to choose medicine as a career. If they don’t agree to go along with every aspect of the Sexual Revolution, people will not be permitted to become licensed counselors and psychologists, and the list goes on and on.

This last point is instructive, for progressives not only believe that ideology trumps everything else, but that qualifications for entering academic and professional programs must take a back seat to one’s ideological viewpoints. People who believe this and are willing to use deadly force to make sure their viewpoints become law are not going to govern well.

California officials restrict housing, and the result is a massive housing shortage — and higher housing prices and rents than would prevail in a free market. When confronted with this reality, they double down on their ideology and blame private property owners. Wherever they govern, progressives repeat the same kinds of patterns: (1) Violate the very laws of economics and, as Rothbard says, nature itself; (2) Observe the consequences of their behavior; and (3) Double down on their original declarations and blame capitalism, religious believers, or anyone else serving as a scapegoat.

Progressivism is not a blueprint for governing. It is a blueprint for disaster. We have seen the wreckage in many places, but there is one thing progressives apparently need not fear: paying a political price for their misdeeds. As long as these electoral and governance patterns exist, progressives will expand their power bases — and continue to govern badly.

William L. Anderson is a professor of economics at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Maryland.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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