Belmont Club

The Progressive Story Hits a Snag

According to adherents of historical materialism, the story of humanity can flow in only one direction.   That makes progressive politics not only feasible but mandatory.  The one-way nature of history means milestones once passed are in the rearview mirror forever.  Barack Obama could think of no greater put-down than to accuse Mitt Romney of questioning the certainty of progress.

“Gov. Romney, I’m glad you recognize al-Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what is the biggest geopolitical group facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaida,” Obama said. “You said Russia. And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back. Because the Cold War has been over for 20 years. But Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policy of the 1950s, and the economic policies of the 1920s.”

In this view, progress is like a ratchet, once it advances a tooth it can never go back.

Thus when “progress” actually retreats it causes no end of political embarrassment, not simply because it admits the possibility of fallibility, but it disproves the inevitability of “progress” itself. When China decided to reverse it’s “one child policy” to avoid a demographic catastrophe, as Bret Stephens explains, it did more than repeal a Politburo decision, it admitted that the most advanced idea of the day was a crock of s**t.  It is such a disappointment to progressives.

They loved it, in part, because it had been their idea to begin with. Paul Ehrlich helped get the ball rolling with his 1968 blockbuster “The Population Bomb,” which begins with the words: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Mr. Ehrlich, a biologist at Stanford, had no scholarly credentials as a demographer or an economist. But that didn’t keep him from putting a scientific gloss on a personal prejudice.

From “The Population Bomb” there came Zero Population Growth, an NGO co-founded by Mr. Ehrlich. Next there was the United Nations Population Fund, founded in 1969, followed by the neo-Malthusian Club of Rome, whose 1972 report, “The Limits to Growth,” sold 30 million copies. In India in the mid-1970s, the Indira Gandhi regime forcibly sterilized 11 million people. Then-World Bank President Robert McNamara praised her for “intensifying the family planning drive with rare courage and conviction.” An estimated 1,750 people were killed in botched procedures.

The fall of the ZPG driven One Child policy was bad because the principle falsum in uno, falsum in omnibus suggested the progressive faith might be elsewhere fallible.  At stake in such a monumental reversal, Stephens continues, was the integrity of the faith itself:

What matters, rather, is the strength of the longing. Modern liberalism is best understood as a movement of would-be believers in search of true faith. For much of the 20th century it was faith in History, especially in its Marxist interpretation. Now it’s faith in the environment. Each is a comprehensive belief system, an instruction sheet on how to live, eat and reproduce, a story of how man fell and how he might be redeemed, a tale of impending crisis that’s also a moral crucible.

In short, a religion without God. I sometimes wonder whether the journalists now writing about the failure of the one-child policy ever note the similarities with today’s climate “crisis.” That the fears are largely the same. And the political prescriptions are almost identical.

Once the smoke of doubt enters the temple it is not so easily expunged.  American domestic politics, for example, has stirred more uneasy feelings. Responding to Republican Matt Bevin’s gubernatorial victory in Kentucky, the New York Times exasperatedly writes: how could anyone elect a Tea-Party Republican?

In beating his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Jack Conway, Mr. Bevin, 48, shocked people in his own party, who believed that the climate in Kentucky was ripe for a Republican but feared that Mr. Bevin, a charismatic conservative with a go-it-alone style, was too far out of the mainstream and too inexperienced to win. …

Of the six statewide offices in Kentucky, Republicans currently hold one; Tuesday’s results mean they will hold four — and Mr. Bevin’s running mate, Jenean Hampton, will make history as Kentucky’s first African-American to hold statewide office.

But they did.  David Wiegel of the Washington Post, faced with this fact, could only explain events by adding epicycles to his cosmology, hypothesizing that the Kentuckians had temporarily gone mad and voted against their own best interests.

When people called Greg Stumbo to talk “Obamacare,” it was usually to say they were against it. The Democratic speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives knew just what to say. President Obama had nothing to do with their health care, not really. They were eligible to find insurance on KYnect, the exchange created by popular outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear (D-Ky.). …

The disconnect between Obamacare and KYnect was one of the great paradoxes of American politics. In polls, Kentucky voters rejected Obamacare at roughly the rate they rejected the president, 2-1. But they were fond of KYnect, which Beshear created by executive order, bypassing a gridlocked Kentucky legislature. Month by month, Kentuckians took advantage of the state’s Medicaid expansion or the plans offered on the exchange, and the state’s uninsured rate plummeted from 20.4 percent to 9 percent. Beshear predicted that “the Democratic nominee will make this a major issue and will pound the Republicans into the dust with it.”

On Tuesday night, it was the Democrats eating dust. Attorney General Jack Conway, who was expected to replace Beshear, lost in a rout to Tea Party activist Matt Bevin. Conway defended KYnect; Bevin called it a disaster. While his prescription for changing it shifted, he ended the race with a promise to undo Kentucky’s successful experiment. …

Bevin’s win, and the Republican victories in neighboring Virginia, were body blows to Democratic hopes of enforcing the Affordable Care Act. Virginia voters rejected a chance to hand the state Senate back to a party that would expand Medicaid; some Kentucky voters who had benefited from the expansion surely voted against the candidate who’d keep it as is. Bevin pulled some of his best numbers in Kentucky’s impoverished eastern counties, where enrollment had been highest. As the polls closed, the situation reminded author Thomas Frank of his thesis in “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” of voters striking out against their interests.

They must be crazy, why else should you vote against the god of progress? How can you reject Obamacare? One possible answer, which no progressive likes to hear, is uppercase God gave the lowercase gods the word: it don’t work.  “God”, for those who don’t mind the term, is a synonym for consequences. What forced the rollback of China’s One Child Policy?  As Chinese author Mei Fong explains in an interview with the New Yorker, it was consequences.

Q: Some scholars have said suggested that the one-child policy was as big as catastrophe as the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. Do you agree?

A: In terms of long-term effect, yes. The Great Leap Forward lasted three years, the Cultural Revolution, a decade. What we call the one-child policy—a set of regulations governing childbirth in China—is now thirty-five years old and still going on. Even though Beijing’s shifting to a nationwide two-child policy, the state is still regulating the womb. The side effects—a huge gender imbalance, a coming tsunami of old people with relatively few young to take care of them—are going to linger for at least a generation, if not longer. …

A lot of us make the mistake of crediting the one-child policy as a major factor in China’s rapid economic growth. In truth, it has had little to do with it. More people, not fewer, was one of the reasons for China’s boom. The country’s rise as a manufacturing powerhouse could not have happened without abundant cheap labor from workers born during the nineteen-sixties-and-seventies baby boom, before the one-child policy was conceived. Many economists agree that China’s rapid economic rise had more to do with Beijing’s moves to encourage foreign investment and private entrepreneurship than a quota on babies. Privatizing China’s lumbering state-owned enterprises, for example, spurred private-sector growth until it accounted for as much as seventy per cent of China’s gross domestic product by 2005. Arthur Kroeber, one of the most prolific and respected China economists, said, “Let’s say China grew ten per cent; I would be surprised if more than 0.1% of this is due to the one-child policy.”

Try as it might, even the Communist Party of China could not make one plus zero add up to two. This is an important factor to bear in mind for those conditioned to think Progressives will inevitably triumph, or worse, that the Republicans will stop them.   It is the sheer power of reality which wins in the end. What stands in Gramsci’s way are consequences, not John Boehner.

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post writes: “The 2015 election is over. (You may not have known it was even happening.) And it proved one thing: Republicans have an absolute stranglehold on governorships and state legislatures all across the country.” But why?  The Democrats were evicted not because of any superiority in Republican organization but because their program eventually went stale and fell apart.

All of a sudden there are stories everywhere suggesting that mindless political correctness may have reached its zenith: from accounts of British students refusing to attend “consent classes” to South Korea  deciding to stop issuing high school textbooks glorifying socialist North Korea and disparaging the capitalist south.  It may just be coincidence or it may be reality burning through the ECM dispensed by the likes of Sydney Blumenthal, but suddenly experience is getting a good name.

Perhaps the greatest damage that “progressives” inflicted on civilization was to make people doubt the reality of the facts, when it is of the ends that we are uncertain. It may be that progress actually consists not of following the verities of the Party Line but in doing the best we can at every instant of our lives.  Free men are content to endure the mystery of what happens when they do their best.  Only the progressives must have a worthless guarantee of success for incompetence.

We shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say.

But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually — their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on — and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same — like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in!

I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?

“I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?” So do I.

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