Boudreaux on the Progressive Mentality
By Bryan Caplan
My dear colleague Don Boudreaux comments on my recent questions about the absence of libertarian/progressive cooperation:
As he so frequently does, Bryan here hits on its head an important nail solidly, cleanly, and with impressive force.
I suspect that the single biggest factor that distinguishes
“Progressives” from libertarians and free-market conservatives is the
simple fact that “Progressives” do not begin to grasp the reality of
spontaneous order. “Progressives” seem unable to appreciate the reality
that productive and complex economic and social orders not only can,
but do, emerge unplanned from the countless local decisions of
individuals each pursuing his or her own individual plans. Therefore,
“Progressives” naturally adopt a creationist view of society and of the
economy: without a conscious and visible (and well-intentioned) guiding
hand, society and the economy cannot possibly work very well. Indeed,
it seems that for many (most?) “Progressives,” the idea that a
spontaneously ordered economy can work better than one directed
consciously from above – or, indeed, that a spontaneously ordered
economy can work at all – is so absurd that when “Progressives”
encounter people who oppose “Progressive” schemes for regulating the
economy, “Progressives” instantly and with great confidence conclude
that their opponents are either stupid or, more often, evil cronies for
the rich and the powerful.
Don tells an interesting story, and he’s probably true in some cases. But ultimately, I think resentment of markets has little to do with incomprehension of “spontaneous order.” Key point: As Hayek emphasizes, markets are only one form of spontaneous order. Others include language, science, fashion, manners, and even informal hiking paths. In each case, individuals pursue their own plans with no central direction, yet a tolerably well-functioning social order emerges. And leftists rarely express resentment – or even worries – about the social value of any of these. So how can spontaneous order be the crux of the issue?
My preferred story is much simpler: Leftists look at the world of business and see greedy people leading and prospering. This upsets people of almost every ideology if they dwell on it. On an emotional level, human beings want people with noble intentions in charge. Who then are leftists? They’re the sub-set of humans who feel these emotions with exceptional intensity and durability – and accept a group identity that reinforces such emotions. Why is a power-hungry politician who bullies strangers with big plans and pompous speeches more “nobly intentioned” than a greedy businessman who woos strangers with fine wares and low prices? I don’t know, but clearly I’m in the minority here.
Well, at least I’m in good company.
P.S. I’ve also previously rejected the view that people dislike markets because their benefits are “unseen” rather than “seen.” Quick version:
To sell war, you’ve got to convince people that its non-obvious,
distant consequences are positively fantastic. Contra Bastiat, though,
it’s ridiculously easy to convince them of this. If you tell people
that the skies will fall if their country doesn’t fight, they believe it
– even though the worst case scenario is usually the loss of some
territory most people can’t even find on a map.
My best explanation is that Bastiat’s seen/unseen fallacy is not a general psychological tendency. Instead, it’s an expression of anti-market bias:
Since people dislike markets, they’re quick to dismiss claims about
their hidden benefits. When people are favorably predisposed to an
institution, however, they’re quite open to the possibility that it’s
better than it looks to the naked eye. Government’s a good example, but
so are religion, medicine, and education.