Is Progressive Idealism Self-Defeating?

Like many liberals, I am encouraged by the new energy of progressives and the growing political support for progressive causes.  But I also share the common worry that the idealism of progressives is in danger of becoming self-defeating (see, e.g., Judis and Edsall for two recent discussions).  That’s a problem, because the stakes are high and we don’t have much room for error.

As I see it, progressive idealism today has two manifestations, one political, one economic.  Political idealism manifests itself in a reluctance to acknowledge the scale of the political challenges progressives face, the scorched-earth opposition that awaits us, and the need to find potential allies among the not-so-progressive and to design policies and arguments that can win them over.

On the economic side, idealism makes progressives reluctant to take policy design seriously.  For example, there is a big gap between progressives and economists (including progressive economists) on carbon pricing and other aspects of climate policy.  There is also a gap on fiscal and budgetary policy, and on many other issues.  To some extent, this simply reflects the unavoidable fact that non-economists always find economics counter-intuitive – if they didn’t, we wouldn’t need economists.  But the problem today goes beyond this.  There is a strong tendency to rely on moralistic thinking, to assume that every wrong has an easy remedy and that good intentions can solve any problem.  This goes along with a resistance to thinking about tradeoffs, costs, and market-oriented solutions like carbon pricing, and a tendency to favor command-and-control policies and to ignore fiscal constraints.  I suspect that we have right-wing economists and politicians to thank for this state of affairs, but whatever its cause the rejection of careful economic thinking on the left is real.

I plan on writing a few posts about this, providing evidence for the two forms of idealism noted above, explaining why I think idealism is self-defeating, and, hopefully, persuading some progressives that they can be hard-nosed and strategic while remaining dedicated to good causes and serious reform.  Or perhaps I’ll just persuade some of my progressive friends that I’m a neoliberal shill or a clueless jerk, as no doubt they always suspected . . .

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