Progressivism: What Is The Limiting Principle?

Yesterday’s semi-official launch of the Green New Deal has done a big favor for our national political debate: It has finally put squarely on the table the fundamental question that needs to be addressed, yet never is addressed, namely, what is the limiting principle of the progressive project? Or really, is there any limiting principle at all? Let me illustrate.

Always (or at least, always before now) the progressive proposals to make the world perfectly just and fair have been presented one by one. Wouldn’t the world be so much more fair if we only had free (government paid) college for all? Many people look at such a proposal and think, sure, that would make things a little more fair; I guess I could get on board with it. Then, wouldn’t the world be so much more fair if we had universal (government paid) health care for all. In isolation, same reaction. Separately, wouldn’t it be great to “save the planet” by getting carbon emissions under control (by some form of government subsidy and/or command)? Addressed separately, and with no context of what other proposals may be coming, many people find themselves nodding along. With your attention diverted from the big picture, any of these proposals might get your support.

As an example of a progressive cynically playing this game, we might look to yesterday’s New York Times column by Official Manhattan Contrarian Worst Economics Writer Paul Krugman, title “Trump Versus the Socialist Menace.” Krugman accuses Trump and some members of his team (e.g., Mnuchin) of using what he calls the “trick” of labeling any and every proposed new government initiative as “going back to socialism”:

The trick — and “trick” is the right word — involves shuttling between these utterly different meanings [of the word “socialism”], and hoping that people don’t notice. You say you want free college tuition? Think of all the people who died in the Ukraine famine!

Hey, we’re just asking here for a few tweaks to make the system more just and fair! It’s not fair to accuse us of some kind of government takeover of the entire economy!

Unfortunately for Krugman, his piece landed on the very same day as the launch of the GND. A few tweaks? I gave a few samples from the GND proposals in yesterday’s post, from the bare beginning of replacing all electricity generation (of course), and on to “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States, . . . spurring massive growth in clean manufacturing in the United States, . . . working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution, . . . overhauling transportation systems in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. . . . “ And I hadn’t even gotten to some of the wackiest proposals, many only peripherally related to the whole climate change/carbon emissions thing, like doing away with air travel, blanketing the country with high speed rail (even Alaska and Hawaii?), getting rid of cattle, universal health care (why not, while we are at it?). And wait a minute, where’s free college? Of course, that must be added! (You can find it over in the FAQ.) How about reparations for blacks? That’s probably under the category of “promot[ing] justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth (referred to in this resolutions as ‘frontline and vulnerable communities’). . . .”

In short, in the aggregate, this would be the total takeover of all economic activity in the United States.

So, are the mainstream Democrats and progressives — say, the presidential candidates and other leaders —only proposing a few tweaks to make the system more fair and just, or are they all signing on to the GND and the total economic transformation that it represents? There was an FAQ released yesterday morning with the proposed GND resolution. According to that document, the following candidates or potential candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination support the resolution: Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Jeff Merkeley, Julian Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders, Tulsi Gabbard, and Jay Inslee. So far, I have not seen a one of them disavowing the support.

Out there in the progressive press, a few are beginning to notice that this great reveal is not going to sell. For example, Bloomberg has a piece by Noah Smith headlined “The Green New Deal Would Spend the U.S. Into Oblivion”:

The plan thus appears to combine a federal job guarantee, free college and single-payer health care. Depending on how one interprets the guarantee of “economic security” to all those who are “unwilling to work,” it might also include a universal basic income — something that was mentioned in an earlier Green New Deal proposal. The guarantee of universal affordable housing is, to my knowledge, new.

So OK, if it’s going to be anything other than absolutely all of this, you can’t avoid the fundamental question, which is: What is the limiting principle? Is there any basis on which to say, we are going to do some (say, A, B, and C) but not the others (D, E, F, G, . . .)? Is there any way of prioritizing, or are they all on a completely equal footing?

Is any single Democrat ever going to say, for example, I support universal single payer health care as our first priority, and therefore, let’s be honest, we’re never going to also have total transformation of the energy system, free college, reparations, high speed rail everywhere, universal job guarantees, universal housing guarantees, and all those other things? I’ve never seen it.

I haven’t seen any Democrat, or any spokesperson for the progressive side, ever mention this issue or offer any limiting principle. Isn’t it time we started to get some answers here?