Why Are Progressives So Conservative?

I was driving with my daughter the other day when she asked, “Why do we have to pay for things?” I told her that there’s a cost to making things, so we have to pay that cost. She’s nine, so of course she asked another question, “But what about things that aren’t made? Why do we need money for those?” She could have been asking about raw materials, resources, land, food, or some other things. Rather than getting her to be more specific, which I thought would confuse things, I gave her a broadly Lockean explanation of property (Don’t worry, I know. She’s nine.) and then described how money acts as a medium of exchange.

She thought for a moment, then asked, “What if people didn’t make things?” I needed an explanation for this one. I wasn’t sure if she mean a service economy or something else. She clarified by saying, “If robots made everything, we wouldn’t have to pay for anything. The robots don’t need to be paid or own the stuff.” She talked for a while about how much she and her classmates like the lessons that are being taught by bots in online school (which surprised me). I pointed out that autonomous robots are really new technology and society hasn’t adjusted to the possibilities they bring. She responded to that with, “Why not?”

That’s a very good question and it took me a minute to come up with an answer. The thought did float across my mind that there’s still no such thing as a 100% autonomous robot. At some point in the manufacturing/programming/implementation of even the most sophisticated robots, there are human inputs and these humans have property rights and deserve compensation. I don’t even know if absolute autonomy will ever happen for machines. That’s not the right answer, though. Not for what my daughter was asking. Even if it’s technically true, it’s the lazy answer. There’s great variance between products and industries, but most of the time, the necessity/importance of human inputs is minimal and shrinking all the time. We’re not at all far away from there being billions more people than there are necessary jobs.

What my daughter was getting at, and she’s right about this, is that money is the traditional solution to a very old problem and that problem isn’t really a problem anymore. The reason we still need to pay for things is because most people lack imagination and it’s the way we’ve always done it. And that’s what I told her. We talked about why those are lousy excuses for maintaining the status quo, but that for now, at least, money is how we get things.

That’s kind of a long preamble, but I wanted everyone to know that I’m posing a serious question. I understand conservatives’ conservatism. That’s basically what conservatism is, resistance to change. I understand the moderates, too. They want changes to be slow and gradual. It’s the progressives that confuse me. Why are they so afraid of change? Why are they so unwilling to come up with imaginative solutions?

The most obvious example of what I’m talking about is in order to be considered at all progressive by other progressives, one must be anti-capitalist (the more vehemently anti-capitalist the better). For the vast majority of anti-capitalists, this means some form of socialism. That socialism can range from anarchy to communism, but it’s virtually always socialism. This is exactly what I mean when saying progressives are conservative. They are demanding change in about the most old fashioned way possible. Actual conservatives are often ridiculed for implying, if not saying, that things were much better in the 1950s than they are today. But progressives don’t see the irony in claiming that an untested (at best) 19th century idea designed to combat the ills of the industrial revolution is the perfect solution to 21st century information age problems. Socialism has become almost synonymous with progressivism, and god forbid any progressive break with such a longstanding tradition.

Progressives being conservative in their progressivism is a problem. It’s not a problem because it might prevent a progressive agenda from getting enacted. It’s a problem because it almost guarantees a conservative agenda will remain in place. It makes the progressives look confused and out of touch while making the conservatives appear more moderate than they actually are. I plan on writing more on this later, but since most people are moderate, progressivism is working against itself.

The world has changed radically in the last fifty years. There are people thinking about the new issues (John Danaher (@JohnDanaher) is one that I like. I don’t even know if he considers himself a progressive, but progressives could learn a lot from him.), but not only are they nowhere near the mainstream, they are buried under Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) and his ilk who are the face of progressivism. (Speaking of progressives’ conservatism, I’m constantly amazed at how much current Bernie reminds me of the Clintons in 1993 before they got their first smackdown from the Republicans.) If self-proclaimed progressives are unwilling to look for new solutions for new problems, it’s going to be really, really hard for society to move forward.


p.s. I’ve purposely stayed away from specific proposals as they aren’t relevant to the point I’m trying to make. But if you want a flavor, the progressive push should be for a 15 hour work week rather than a $15 minimum wage.

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