The Left's aggrandizement of power at the expense of individuals, states, and civil society.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
“Brights” was the term popularized by evangelical atheists Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett to describe people who think like them: materialist determinists who scoff at faith and traditional wisdom, and proclaim their devotion to rationalism, science, and critical thought. The label was mocked to death for its smug narcissism, but the idea behind it is still a foundational assumption of progressives. The irony is much of the superiority progressives claim based on their “respect for science” is an illusion, reflecting instead scientism and ideology.
Indeed, as a political movement now over a century old, progressivism was founded on the belief that new knowledge of human nature and behavior required a revision of the American political order. Herbert Croly, founder of the New Republic and a leading progressive theorist, wrote that a “better future would derive from the beneficent activities of expert social engineers who would bring to the service of social ideals all the technical resources which research could discover.” This faith in “science” was embraced by progressive president Woodrow Wilson, who wanted to discard the Constitution’s popular self-rule filtered through divided government and checks and balances, and replace it with administrative bureaus staffed by the “hundreds who are wise” who would guide and control the thousands who are “selfish, ignorant, timid, stubborn, or foolish.”
Wilson’s vision succeeded, which is why today we have a bloated federal government with 2.5 million workers and a nearly four-trillion-dollar budget, two-thirds of which is committed to entitlement spending. Thanks to Wilson, today we are subjected to a regulatory regime that “covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate,” as Alexis de Tocqueville prophesized. This technocratic rule has diminished our freedom and autonomy, compensating for that loss by redistributing money through various entitlements that corrupt character and create dependency on our government overseers.
The ancients called this “tyranny,” a consequence of human nature’s lust for power and domination that frightened the founders and explains the structure of the Constitution. The progressives just added a new twist to the old tyrannical modus operandi: the claim that not greed or ambition for personal power or aristocratic honor, but the truths of science were the bases for their political innovations and concentration of power into their hands.
But psychology and sociology and other “human sciences” progressives based their social engineering on are not true sciences, for there is no science that can explain human nature and behavior with the rigor of physics or chemistry. We exist beyond the “complexity horizon,” and so, as Isaiah Berlin wrote, cannot be understood merely by materialist methods:
For the particles are too minute, too heterogeneous, succeed each other too rapidly, occur in combinations of too great a complexity, are too much part and parcel of what we are and do, to be capable of submitting to the required degree of abstraction, that minimum of generalization and formulization––idealization––which any science must exact.
This mistake lies at the heart of progressive pretensions to technocratic expertise wielded by what Stalin called “technicians of the soul.” And it explains the serial failures of their policies. Between 1900-1940 “Scientific racism” and the eugenics it spawned were considered “settled science,” and “eugenic ideas were politically influential, culturally fashionable, and scientifically mainstream,” as Thomas C. Leonard writes. “The elite sprinkled their conversations with eugenic concerns to signal their au courant high-mindedness.” Eugenics, of course, was a monstrous, inhuman failure, which inspired forced sterilization and gave scientific cover to Jim Crow segregation.
It also inspired Adolf Hitler, who wrote, “I have studied with great interest the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock.”
Or consider the Great Society programs and the “War on Poverty.” Social science that reduced human behavior to material environmental causes and ignored questions of virtue and free will provided “scientific” support for these programs. Fifty years and $20 trillion later, poverty rates are about where they were in 1965, and broad swaths of many communities have been ravaged by the character-destroying dependency and lack of responsibility this government largesse has fostered. And don’t forget climate change, another “settled science” that has elevated a hypothesis into scientific fact, despite the huge holes in our understanding of how global climate works, and the mountains of countervailing evidence. Yet “climate change” also is “politically influential, culturally fashionable, and scientifically mainstream,” despite its encouragement of policies that threaten our economy and well-being with schemes to reduce the carbon-based energy on which the global economy and global development depend.
And who can leave out the lunatic “science-based” policies ruining California? Based on dubious environmental “science,” during the drought billions of gallons of Sierra snow-melt––1.6 billion every 24 hours–– were dumped into the Pacific Ocean to protect a two-inch bait-fish, and to encourage salmon to return to the San Joaquin River. Meanwhile, farms are abandoned, farmworkers thrown out of work, reservoirs that could capture this year’s unprecedented snow-melt are left unbuilt, and California has some of the highest rates of energy poverty in the nation. The same environmentalist voodoo lies behind the “high-speed rail” boondoggle. It started out costing $32 billion, but the bill has doubled to $68 billion. Work on the first stretch of track, the flattest and easiest of the whole route, is years behind schedule and will cost $10 billion, if it’s even built. Meanwhile, there’s no money for fixing California’s decaying infrastructure like Highway 99, a Road Warrior nightmare with the distinction of being the bloodiest highway in the nation. These are policies and projects an illiterate farmer in 1850 would have known are stupid.
Turns out the Dems aren’t that “bright” after all, since their dogmatic, uncritical acceptance of any idea wrapped in pretensions of science and flattering their ideology, usually leads to unforeseen, often disastrous consequences. Worse yet, their claims to be beyond ideology have given cover to their aggrandizement of power at the expense of individuals, states, and civil society.
Unfortunately, many Republicans accept the assumption that issues dependent on human character and free will can be solved solely on the basis of knowledge and techniques wielded by politicians and government agencies staffed by “experts.” The fiasco of Obamacare and the Republicans’ failure to “reform” it are a case in point. That metastasizing problem is not one to be solved by replacing or discarding a few cogs and wheels in the Obamacare Rube Goldberg machine, which as the House Republicans just demonstrated, “the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate.” The hard, messier truth few politicians want to face is that getting voters used to receiving other people’s money creates a malignant dynamic nearly impossible to change without suffering political punishment. Easier just to kick the can down the road and let our children and grandchildren pay for our profligacy.
As Rudyard Kipling wrote in “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” the policy of “robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul” results in a world in which “all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins.” In a political order that gives individuals broad freedom for their choices but doesn’t hold them accountable for the consequences, this is a recipe for bankruptcy and decline, no matter which party is in power.