With August generally being a slow news month Arnold Kling has set up a discussion which could keep bloggers busy for the next several days. Kling asks what progressives believe and gave a few ideas. Tyler Cowen took the bait and gave a much longer list which presents views which I doubt very many actual progressives will identify with. See, for example, the responses by Matthew Yglesias, Tristero, and Ezra Klein.
Kling defined progressive beliefs around views of the market:
1. Unfettered free markets nearly always produce sub-optimal outcomes.
2. When economists or other technocrats know how to use public policy (taxes, spending, regulation) to improve outcomes, they should be given the authority to do so.
3. Technocrats know how to improve outcomes in many areas.
4. Therefore, it would be wise to cede authority to technocrats in many areas.
5. Conservatives and libertarians disagree with (1) and (2)
I might be the wrong person to respond with regards to progressive beliefs as I personally avoid that term. One problem with defining political labels is that a wide variety of people tend to fall under the handful of labels in common use. I tend to divide liberals and progressives into at least two groups (with considerable overlap and some who this division doesn’t work well) as I discussed in this post.
In general I would use progressive more for those on the left who are stronger proponents of big government projects (and market intervention) while I use liberal for those of us who concentrate on issues such as individual liberty and turn to government more as a necessity than something we inherently support.Therefore my first problem with the definitions by Kling and Cowen is with making views on intervention in the economy as the defining factors. Other areas, such as protecting civil liberties, limiting the power of government (as opposed to dwelling on size of government), and protecting separation of church and state are of greater significance to me.
Besides a stress on liberty (while allowing for some restrictions which libertarians might not support), I would also define liberalism as primarily a reality-based view of the world which encompasses a wide variety of views in contrast to the anti-scientific biases of the current conservative movement which relies upon religion as opposed to science and reason to explore the universe and solve problems. While conservatives are often blinded to reality by their fundamentalist theological views and other delusions, many libertarians treat the free market in a similarly religious manner.
With regards to markets I view the entire issue different from how Kling attempts to divide progressive and libertarian views. Kling seems to lean more towards the Adam Smith invisible hand view of the market in opposing government intervention, thinking markets work just fine on their own. Liberals and progressives are more likely to see markets as being a human creation, not something with mystical powers of its own.
Liberals and progressives believe markets require a certain amount of regulation to work. Of course this isn’t purely a liberal belief. For example, some conservatives such as Richard Posner have realized that the current economic crisis is a result of insufficient regulation of the financial sector. While markets are the best way of handling most tasks, there are areas where markets do not work. While the most extreme libertarians would turn the police and military over to the market, most of us fear that this would lead to abuse of power and would prefer to leave these functions in the hands of government (while also monitoring the government closely for abusing their power). Health care has provided another example of where the market has failed requiring the government to step in. Markets have led to a situation where insurance companies increase profits not by providing service but by finding ways to deny claims and eliminate their most costly beneficiaries, requiring government action to reform the system.
Tyler Cowen concluded his off target attempt to describe progressives with this challenge: “It would be interesting to see a progressive try to sum up an intelligent version of libertarianism.” This is difficult not due to a lack of understanding of libertarianism but because of the the wide variety of views which fall under that label.
Classically libertarians could be defined as opposing the initiation of force. To the most extreme/consistent libertarian this included taxation which is seen as theft. Such libertarians were divided between anarcho-capitalists who would rely on the market for everything and limited government libertarians. Many limited government libertarians continued to oppose taxation, turning to everything from user fees to lotteries to finance the very limited government functions they supported.
The problem with supporting limited government once you support some degree of taxation and restrictions on the individual (beyond restrictions on the initiation of force) is that it is possible for many to support a wide degree of government action while justifying this as libertarian. Those who use the libertarian label tend to concentrate more on economic issues as Arnold Kling and Thyler Cowen did in their posts. Many libertarians were fooled by Republican free market rhetoric, leading to the stereotype of libertarians as Republicans who have smoked marijuana. Other libertarians have seen through this rhetoric. This includes Will Wilkinson who wrote, “the great success of the GOP over the last eight years has been to destroy the reputation of free markets and limited government by deploying its rhetoric and then doing the opposite.”
Over the past few decades I have noted a wide range of acceptance of (generally) limited government activity by different people who call themselves libertarians. In general libertarians tend to support limited, if any, government intervention in the economy while (sometimes as a secondary position) also support civil liberties. Some who might be called libertarian stray further from a pro-liberty position. This was seen during the Ron Paul campaign as Paul, and to an even greater degree many of his supporters, backed portions of the agenda of the religious right. An even greater divergence from classical libertarian views is seen with some who call themselves libertarian while supporting the Iraq war and the associated restrictions on civil liberties in the Bush “war on terror.” The most extreme example of this are the “Libertarian Republican” views of Eric Dondero (aka Rittberg) who supports what would amount to a military dictatorship with elimination of civil liberties in order to fight the threat to liberty from “Islamo-Fascism.” (To be fair to libertarians, most libertarians I know laugh at the idea that he is a libertarian).
My real point in discussing the difficulty in defining libertarianism by noting the wide variety of views which it encompasses is to demonstrate the problems with such labels in a way which libertarians such as Cowen might acknowledge. Just as libertarianism contains a wide variety of views, the same is also true of progressivism and liberalism. To define liberal and progressive views based upon intervention in the economy misses gist of what liberals and progressives really believe in.