The Progressive Paradigms Lost

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.


Obama-teleprompter-speechThe 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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  • Sheik Yerbouti

    “Equality” is a code word for domination. They don’t want to be equal, we already have laws to that cause. All they want is complete power and ownership. The only reason they are so blatant now is because they think the momentum that put the imposter in the top seat will continue forever.

    Leftists don’t learn from the past because they always rationalize their way out of heir failures and blame someone else. Then they move on to the next campaign.

    • Steeloak

      Indeed, what they truly desire is a two class society. The first, the ruling class, made up of enlightened, wise, all knowing types like themselves who know what is best for all. The second – the rest of us, the great unwashed, incapable of living without their loving guidance – but utterly equal to each other.

  • TheOrdinaryMan

    Interesting article, as usual from Mr. Thornton. Did you ever get a job from a poor person? Or a poor company? Answering this question honestly puts the lie to the “Progressive” agenda, because the answer is a resounding NO. In days past, the “Progressives” managed to cloak their ideology, by pursuing beneficial goals, such as better working conditions, “Free” silver, etc. But that pursuit was always accompanied by a tendency to use violence to achieve their goals. And as Thornton points out, their agenda turned against the people they claimed they were trying to help, as per the 1936 Democrat party platform. Today their agenda, masked by several layers of lies, is completely destructive.

  • rbla

    The massive increase in inequality over the last 40 years is the result of two factors: the dismantling of manufacturing through outsourcing and mass immigration. And the liberals who scream most loudly about inequality are the ones who have supported the policies causing it (joined of course by greedy cheap labor types in the Chamber of Commerce).

    • AndyNY

      If you look objectively at the steel industry as an example, you will find that union contracts pushed wages up to globally noncompetitive rates, and fought against increased productivity. This caused steel production in the US to cease entirely because US companies could not compete in the world market. The steel companies didn’t outsource anything, they simply ceased to exist. The same almost happened to the auto industry, to the point where Bush and Obama had to use tax dollars to bail them out. Outsourcing is a symptom, not a cause. Government manipulation of markets is the cause. Companies outsource because in comparison to the rest of the world, unskilled and semi-skilled labor rates in the US are simply too high to stay in business because other countries make the same products in a global economy. “Greed” really isn’t a factor as much as you would like to think it is.

  • John Davidson

    I suspect HUD is using their power to stop seniors depending on the housing support to intimidate seniors as the IRS had already done prior to the 2012 election. I was told by one of their reps that if I didn’t like their new rules get off the subsidy program. Most of the former senior housing project here are being force to give higher priority to the new class of SSDI enrollees; primarily former drug addicts.

  • Gee

    This income “equality” sounds so similar to what the Communists preached during the Cold War. We saw how well that worked from the lines for basic products.
    Venezuela is also working on “income equality” – how many immigrants does Venezuela get?

    • objectivefactsmatter

      That’s because America is hogging all of the global wealth. That’s why communism only works when “the people” (collectively) have control over all of the globe’s capital.

      • AndyNY

        Then what happens to make Communism finally “work”?

        • objectivefactsmatter

          Deep REM.

  • http://libertyandculture.blogspot.com/ Jason P

    So where’s the “paradigms lost?” The leftist paternalism is fully entrenched. It’s on the rise. It’s not lost. Far from being a break with the past, as Thornton suggests, it is a return to the past. Robert Filmer’s “Patriarcha,” which John Locke demolished, has just been repackaged as the paternalism socialists so love. “Society” has replaced the King and Pope.

    “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear … Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it end in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue on the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others which it will procure for you.”

    That was written by Jefferson. It expressed the paradigm of America’s founding. Following Locke (the founder of British Empiricism) the Founding Fathers drew on the Roman tradition of rights to establish a liberal order. Like Aristotle (who studied all the constitutions in existence) the Founders studied history for enduring truths.

    Thornton, you’re describing the failure of scientism, not science. I’m afraid your average reader isn’t going to get the distinction.

  • nimbii

    If we could maroon each of these leftist radicals on their own private tropical island, in short order they would be organizing the bananas and pineapples against the coconuts because it would not be socially just for coconuts to be up higher and get the best views and the tropical breezes.

    In the name of social justice, they would cut down all the coconut palms.

    The island would no longer have shade and all the other plants would die due to exposure to extreme sunlight….but it would have social justice…

  • http://www.clarespark.com/ Clare Spark

    Yet another mad scientist narrative? Science is a tool that may be used for good or bad. Many power-hungry progressives have abused its tenets, thus arousing conservative opposition. But that does not mean that science is responsible for its deployment to advance pseudo-liberalism and over-reaching statism. See http://clarespark.com/2010/01/03/this-witch-is-not-for-burning-science-as-magic/. “This witch is not for burning: science as magic.”

    • ricpic

      If you weren’t such a smug, self-satisfied and lazy reader, Clare, you would have noticed that Mr. Thornton is not attacking science, he is pointing out that progressives like yourself equate religious dogma, such as egalitarianism and feminism, with actual hard science.

    • objectivefactsmatter

      Science has a crucial role in true progress, but it can be abused to justify destruction.

      In political terms, science is like a very sharp kitchen knife. Which I have and value, but am also careful not to abuse.

      And “mad scientists” do exist, but not all scientists are “mad.”

  • Consider

    So 2000 years of Christianity is “eternal human behavior”.
    And modernity developed a “dangerous twist”, by believing in science ” not the irrational myths and superstitions of religion”.
    It follows that it’s better to be led by irrational myths and supperstitions than by science.
    OK.
    Let’s pretend that earth is flat…

    • nomoretraitors

      Hey, maybe we can do away with the “irrational myth” that it’s wrong to commit murder

      • Consider

        Or adopt that one which require human sacrifice on top of a pyramid.
        (For a good harvest).

        • objectivefactsmatter

          Consider that you’re confused. Again.

        • nomoretraitors

          That’s a pagan, not a Christian. ritual. And we have plenty of human sacrifices, not on top of pyramids, but in abortion clinics across the nation

          • Consider

            Perhaps you prefer burning of witches.
            That’s Christian.

    • objectivefactsmatter

      “It follows that it’s better to be led by irrational myths and supperstitions than by science.”

      No, it follows that a more careful analysis will reveal that these “myths” are not so irrational as claimed by the left.

  • philbest

    Isn’t it so true that regimes that claim to base their “reason” on “science” over against tradition, inevitably are anti-science; relying on their own fabrications of what “science” is at all…… and ignoring tsunamis of inconvenient findings in actual science. For example, as the above article suggests, the difference between men’s and women’s brains. Or neuroscience findings regarding the mental development of infants with or without two parents. One could go on, but you get the point.

  • Hank Rearden

    It is outrageous that since Reagan came in with his tax cuts for the rich, fully ONE FIFTH of Americans have been in the bottom quintile of income earners EVERY YEAR! Think about that. One-fifth of the country is at the bottom!

    We need a government program to make sure that NOBODY is in the bottom quintile in the future.

    We can do it,

    Yes we can!

    • objectivefactsmatter

      We Must Eradicate Bottoms

    • Douglas J. Bender

      I love Math. And it looks like you do, too. :-)

      • Hank Rearden

        :-)

      • Guest

        OK, explain how cutting taxes can result in higher revenues with your math, because that is clearly what happened. You can do it, I know you can!

        • Douglas J. Bender

          Simple. Suppose the government taxed 100% of earnings. Would that mean that revenue would increase, or decrease? Technically, it might increase, for a while; but as people died off from starvation, or quit working and began living off the government dole, government revenue would DECREASE, even though it had raised taxes. Similarly, as government began cutting taxes from that 100% (assuming the same number of people were alive), government revenue would be INCREASING. But if they cut taxes to 0%, obviously revenue would DECREASE, as well. So, there has to be a point (or several points) of inflection — at some point, the government can begin taxing people at a rate which produces DECREASING government revenue; up to that point, increasing taxes will increase government revenue (but still might harm the economy). Thus, after that point, increasing taxes will DECREASE government revenue. Same as it ever was.

        • objectivefactsmatter

          How can excessive use of the brakes harm your gas consumption and travel velocity?

          Weird stuff!

    • Rdlake

      A government program from the Progressives like Welfare where 47% of Americans are on some form of gov. assistance. Government can’t do anything cost effective or efficiently. Over $200 billion wasted annually in fraud, abuse & duplication. This 1/5 of our population that happen to be poor, we’ve been helping for 50 years.

    • AndyNY

      Yet it was just reported a few days ago that tax revenue broke another record this year. Do you understand what that means? Even though Reagan (and Bush) cut tax rates, the economy grew exponentially and generated more revenue for the government. So explain to us how tax cuts have made people poorer when the Government now has more revenue than ever before.

      You imply that raising taxes would would lift the poor and middle class, presumably by creating more and better paying jobs I guess. How would that work? You make a business pay more taxes, and they make up for the loss by hiring more people and giving everyone raises? Explain.

      • Douglas J. Bender

        You missed Hank’s delicious sarcasm.

        • objectivefactsmatter

          Bottoms are innately unjust.

          Nothing short of social justice will do. Government is magic when benign dictators are given our full faith. We naturally look to the DP to first destroy all dissent and then finally build our American Utopia.

    • AndyNY

      You got me on that one, well played :-)

      • Hank Rearden

        :-)

  • Douglas J. Bender

    It’s unfair that Al Gore makes so much more than me. How can I make him “spread his wealth around” so that I get a goodly portion of it?

    • Debbie G

      Ick, his money his full of cooties.

  • WeroInNM

    Brainwashing in America: ‘WHY FEW DARE CALL IT CONSPIRACY”! (Part 3)
    http://teapartyorg.ning.com/profiles/blogs/brainwashing-in-america-why-few-dare-call-it-conspiracy-part-3
    “Food For Thought”
    Hello: When Are Americans Going To Wake Up-God Bless America!
    Semper Fi!
    Jake

  • Consider

    A cursory search of the web returns you readily the following:

    “Using Current Population Survey (CPS) data for 1979 and 1995 and controlling for education, experience, personal characteristics, parental status, city and region, occupation, industry, government employment, and part-time status, Yale University economics professor Joseph G. Altonji and the United States Secretary of Commerce Rebecca M. Blank found that only about 27% of the gender wage gap in each year is explained by differences in such characteristics.[20]”
    So 27% of 23% (100-77%) gives about 6% that means that 17% difference in earnings remain unexplained by the wisdom of the author.
    One may have objections to the above findings, but they nevertheless sound more convincing than the excuses given lightly by the author with the hand in his pocket.
    Even if one is to stick to the 77% figure wirhout reservations, questions could be asked: why women are under educated, why are they forced to take less paid jobs, why are they punished for having children etc.