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One of the most shocking reads from the past couple of years has been Thomas Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers. The book goes through, in gulp-worthy detail, the history of the rise of the “Progressive” movement’s support for various labor market interventions and immigration policies. Almost all of it is hard to reprint here, but the idea that the early Progressive movement was merely a populist wave aiming to improve the conditions of all Americans pretty much goes out the window even if only a fraction of what was in the book is true. Many of the leading Progressives, including the founders of the American Economic Association, the President of the United States, and many, many, many influential people were outright racist bigots, and authoritarian elitists and they implemented a wide range of policies to act upon their beliefs.

Now, if one reads this book and is sympathetic with the modern Progressive movement (I would think that this is how most modern liberals would describe themselves at a cocktail party), it is very easy to make the argument that, “well, that was 100 years ago, and the actions and beliefs of THOSE progressives ought not taint the actions and beliefs and positions of today’s modern progressives.” To that argument I’d like to suggest that I can buy that argument if it were in fact applied consistently, and if the ideas that fomented the rise of the Progressive movement were combated directly:

  1. How many folks who would make that argument would also be interested in granting the same dispensations to modern Americans who had ancestors who were responsible for some bad things in American history? For example, many white-Anglos were responsible for the brutal mistreatment of American Indians and of course for the brutal mistreatment of slaves. Many modern whites actually came to the US well after these atrocities, and of course there are many modern Americans who descended from the people who did these things. Why is it that modern Progressives are able to suggest that today’s Progressives not be tainted with the brutal practices and ideas of their intellectual forebears but that everyone else is not afforded the same dispensation?
  2. What about the time dimension is important? If we agree that today’s Progressive’s ideas are not harmful on their face because of the intellectual and actual history of the progressive movement, and that there ought not be “guilt by association” then how come that idea is not regularly applied when we collapse the time dimension? Or to be much clearer, I cannot tell you how many interactions I have had in the past year or two that have started with, “well, modern conservatives are racist, fascist bigots.” Or a popular reaction from people I talked to who have read this book is that, “I never realized that it wasn’t just the conservatives that were awful human beings,” etc I seriously have had people say this. But while in one breath it woudl be argued that the modern progressives ought not be tainted with the awful ideas and actions of their ancestors, why do we not see the same idea applied contemporaneously? Obviously there are some “conservatives” out there that seem to be authoritarian syndicalists, racists, etc. But by that virtue, anyone who adheres to more traditional Burkean conservative views must obviously be tarred with those views? To see if this is a decent thing to do, how about we do the following. We somehow manage to elect a new President on populist grounds, and then have them proceed to commit a series of unspeakable atrocities on the American people. After doing so, he tells everyone that he is a Progressive. Would you jump to the podium now arguing that all progressives are evil?

What is different about the time dimension that allows us to easily treat ideas and actions individually and not collectively, but changes when we are talking about how we treat our contemporaries? Finally, I do not think the actual and intellectual history of a movement ought to be ignored … it tool the Marxists about 70 years from the revolutions of 1848 until they were able to achieve a measure of political success, violent and awful as it was – but one reason they achieved success was that the acolytes of Engels and Marx vigorously promoted those ideas for 70 years and they were there for the picking when the time was ripe. A bad idea is a bad idea, and it must be remembered as such.

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