Why I'm not a progressive
By Scott Sumner
I am a utilitarian. Many (most?) utilitarians are progressives. So why am I not a progressive?
I recently ran across three news articles that help to explain my skepticism of progressivism. First I’ll briefly summarize the key takeaways, and then I’ll explain what I believe they tell us. Here is the New York Times on building infrastructure in New York:
The Times observed construction on site in Paris, which is building a project similar to the Second Avenue subway at one-sixth the cost.
The review found evidence for one of the issues cited by the M.T.A.: Because most countries have nationalized health care, projects abroad do not have to fund worker health insurance. That might explain a tenth of the cost differences, contractors said.
But the contractors said the other issues cited by the M.T.A. were challenges that all transit systems face. Density is the norm in cities where subway projects occur. Regulations are similar everywhere. All projects use the same equipment at the same prices. Land and other types of construction do not cost dramatically more in New York. Insurance costs more but is only a fraction of the budget. The M.T.A.’s stations have not been bigger (nor deeper) than is typical.
The Times article is very long and quite revealing. It seems there is massive corruption in New York, with contractors, unions and consultants basically just looting New York City’s taxpayers.
Here is the NYT on social spending in various developed countries:
For me, the takeaway is that US public spending on social programs is similar to the spending levels in places like Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Switzerland, Ireland and Iceland. Notice that these countries don’t have the sort of inequality that we see in America. And they have living standards comparable to countries with more public spending.
And here is the Economist, showing that America spends more money educating poor pupils than richer pupils:
So what does any of this have to do with progressivism? I see the progressive worldview as being based on these assumptions:
1. America’s “savage inequalities” can be addressed by spending lots of money on social programs.
2. American’s education inequalities can be addressed by equalizing spending between poor and rich school districts.
3. America’s poor infrastructure can be addressed by spending more money on infrastructure.
My view is that (at the current margin) more government spending does not solve these sorts of problems, it just ends up being wasted. Rather we should focus on boosting the efficiency of the economy. Education vouchers may not improve test scores (which is a poor measure of education quality in any case) but they do allow us to deliver the same lousy test scores at much lower cost. A Singapore type health insurance system would improve efficiency in health care, as would open borders for doctors and nurses. Privatizing infrastructure would allow New York to build 6 times as much subway for the exact same cost. For instance, the projects might be contracted out to a French firm, using French and Chinese workers. Removing zoning restrictions would boost living standards for low income Americans, by making housing more affordable.
Some progressives might respond “why not both?” My response to that is let’s see where were are after improving efficiency. When New York can build subway lines at the same cost as Paris, then we can better evaluate how many more lines they need.