The Progressive Paradigms Lost

by Bruce S. Thornton // FrontPage Magazine 

The progressive mind functions in terms of fossilized paradigms into which every crisis and problem are fitted, no matter how many qualifying or contradictory facts are left behind. These paradigms are part of a worldview, a picture of human existence that gives it coherence and meaning, and a narrative that gives people an identity and a morality. With these paradigms we can sort out the good from the bad, the saved from the damned, the political goals we should pursue, the ones we should avoid––and who gets the power to decide.

Every human community from the most primitive tribe to the most advanced civilization functions in terms of some sort of worldview. For nearly 2000 years Christianity provided the dominant paradigms of Western civilization. Modernity, however, developed a new and dangerous twist on this eternal human behavior. With the rise of the natural sciences, people began to dream of a new paradigm based on science, not the irrational myths and superstitions of religion. Whole new disciplines arose to teach and institutionalize these new “scientific” truths about human identity and behavior. Soon anthropology, psychology, sociology, and political science displaced the old philosophical, traditional, and theological understanding of human life.

Isaiah Berlin describes this historical process and its consequences: “The success of physics seemed to give reason for optimism: once appropriate social laws were discovered, rational organization would take the place of blind improvisation, and men’s wishes, within the limits of the uniformities of nature, could in principle all be made to come true . . . The rational reorganization of society would put an end to spiritual and intellectual confusion, the reign of prejudice and superstition, blind obedience to unexamined dogmas, and the stupidities and cruelties of the oppressive regimes which such intellectual darkness bred and promoted.” The progressive worldview is easily recognizable in this description. Just let technocrats armed with science and backed by the coercive power of the state take over the organization of society from the myths of religion and the superstitions of tradition, and we will achieve the utopia of prefect freedom, justice, and equality.

This whole notion, of course, is itself a myth, one whose bloody consequences stain every page of modern history with genocides and gulags. Humans are not material things in the world that can be understood by the laws of nature so reliably that people can be organized and controlled like the cogs and wheels in a watch. People are too complex and intricate, too mysterious in their motives, too spontaneous in their actions, and too unpredictable because of their radical freedom to chose. Yet from Freud and Marx down to today’s evolutionary psychologists, this myth of the “human sciences” is marketed as real science, beyond discussion or qualification as much as the laws of gravity or the heliocentric solar system.

Whenever progressives address an issue, one is subjected to these mythic paradigms dressed up in spurious science, and delivered with the arrogance of the “enlightened” who patronize or demonize their opponents as ignorant or evil or both. Of course, these attitudes bespeak the mythic origins of the paradigm, its source in faith rather than reason, its tenacity resulting from the careful selection of evidence that confirms it, and the equally careful discarding of evidence that challenges it. In this respect many progressives resemble the members of a cult, with the same demand for orthodox dogma never to be challenged, the same uncritical deference to scientific authority, and the same intolerance of heretics or infidels who dare to question that orthodoxy and refuse to conform to its revealed truths.

The random perusal of any daily newspaper or cable news show will provide numerous examples. The great feminist myth holds that sex identity is a socio-political construct. The traditional behaviors and preferences of men and women, once understood to reflect their different natures, have been imposed on women by men whose power depends on the “patriarchy” that subordinates women in order to serve male power and privilege. Hence any disparities between men and women must reflect not nature, but the lingering effects of this unjustly constructed sex identity. Given that modern “science” has unmasked this regime of oppressive power, the state must be enlisted to rectify the inequalities “patriarchy” inflicts on women.  The government must create laws and use its coercive power to punish those who break them. Any challenges that contradict this paradigm must be silenced, shunned, or demonized, for they concern not just disparities between men and women, but violate an important metaphysical belief of the left––radical equality, the notion that equality of result is more important than equality of opportunity available to all, which traditionally was defined as the freedom for people to rise as far as their particular talents and virtues can take them.

Hence Obama’s recent speeches on the lingering differences in income between men and women, in which he peddled the long-exploded canard that women make only 77% of what men make. The truth is, when one controls for type of job, length of service, hours worked, how dangerous the job is, and whether women have children or not, most of that disparity disappears. Indeed, educated women under 30 earn more than their male peers in most cities in the U.S. But those qualifying details don’t serve the paradigm that holds all people are equal and only fail to achieve equal results because of injustices in social, cultural, political, and economic structures. The authority for asserting this ideological, not scientific, position comes from the spurious “77%,” which implies a rigor and precision beyond discussion or challenge except by the evil or ignorant.

Another theme of Obama’s recent speeches has been income inequality, which he asserts is growing worse and unfairly limits the opportunities for advancement of the less privileged. This “crisis” is also about the dogma of radical equality. It reflects a pre-modern, zero-sum vision of wealth as fixed and limited, so that the abundance of one necessarily demands the penury of another. It also seemingly does not get the dynamism of capitalism, its “creative destruction” that generates and distributes new wealth, and that over time continually reshuffles people and families in and out of income levels as the talents of individuals find opportunities to better their lot and transcend their origins.

But, like the magical 77%, simplistic statistics are paraded as scientific evidence supporting an ideological preference. So we are told that the incomes of the bottom 90% of Americans grew $59 (adjusted for inflation) from 1966 to 2011, but the incomes for the top 10% rose by $116,071. But for most of those 45 years the people in each cohort weren’t always the same. As Stephen Moore and James Pierson point out, “The myth is that the super-rich stay at the top of the income ladder year after year, and few new entrants are allowed to break into the elite club. Wrong. The IRS found that only four of the 400 (1 percent) made the cut every year. There were 3,672 different taxpayers who made the top 400 list at least once over the seventeen-year period studied. Over half of them made the list only once or twice. Three quarters of the individuals who rose to the heights of this top 400 list were there for six years or less. There is no permanent upper class in America.”

As for the lower income cohorts, a Treasury Department study of income mobility between 1996 and 2005 showed that over half of taxpayers moved to a different income quintile, about half of taxpayers in the bottom quintile in 1996 moved to a higher income group in 2005, and only a quarter of the “super rich,” the richest 1/100 of 1% in 1996, were still that rich in 2005. What has slowed this movement is the historically sluggish economic growth that has followed the Great Recession, a consequence in large part of Obama and the Democrats’ statist and redistributionist economic policies. Implementing policies that spur economic growth obviously would help to restore the income mobility seen in times of high growth like the 1990s.

Yet all Obama can propose is raising the minimum wage, a symbolic gesture at best, and one repeatedly demonstrated to kill jobs for those most in need of work. We see again the progressive paradigm of radical equality dressed up as a rational response to statistical facts. As Thomas Sowell writes, “Only by focusing on the income brackets, instead of the actual people moving between those brackets, have the intelligentsia been able to verbally create a ‘problem’ for which a ‘solution’ is necessary. They have created a powerful vision of ‘classes’ with ‘disparities’ and ‘inequities’ in income, caused by ‘barriers’ created by ‘society.’ But the routine rise of millions of people out of the lowest quintile over time makes a mockery of the ‘barriers’ assumed by many, if not most, of the intelligentsia.” In short, serving the paradigm trumps growing the economy.

Radical equality is one of the key paradigms of the progressive worldview, a leftover leftist dogma based not on reason or the possible, but on a Manichaean worldview in which greedy capitalists unjustly appropriate more than their fair share of wealth, a problem to be solved by a technocratic government using its coercive power to redistribute wealth and punish the “malefactors of great wealth who defraud and exploit the people,” as the 1936 Democratic party platform put it. Those who challenge this dogma and the policies it engenders are vilified as selfish and evil, while those who champion it are anointed as the generous and good. The paradigm is in its D.C. heaven, and all’s right with the world of the progressives.

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