Green Room

Forgetting Wilson (Reply to Jonah Goldberg)

posted at 6:08 pm on May 15, 2010 by

Much as I might enjoy debating the comparative progressivism of President Warren “Racial Amalgamation There Cannot Be” Harding; much as, armed by biography, I’m ready to stand up for Professor President Thomas Woodrow Wilson against the dextrosphere’s leading anti-intellectual intellectuals, I’m happy to accept Jonah Goldberg’s suggestion that we look instead to larger and more pressing issues:

The reason why it is both important and necessary for conservatives to tackle the progressive era is that that’s where the assumptions of 20th century liberalism begin… If Wilson isn’t the best poster boy for Progressivism, tactically or substantively,  I’m open to alternative nominations. But the notion that conservatives are wasting energy in assaulting the progressive era strikes me as exactly wrong. We’ve wasted time in not attacking until all too recently.

In the process of quite correctly characterizing my prior defense of Wilson as not “all that powerful” (I was seeking balance, not apotheosis), Mr. Goldberg also gives his own view on relevant context (emphasis in the original):

A big chunk of [MacLeod's] critique boils down to an argument I’ve heard many times: Wilson (or this or that progressive) merely reflected the prevailing ideas at the time. Well, that’s sort of my argument, you know? That these were the prevailing ideas at the time: Collectivism, eugenics, militarism (both as a mobilizing metaphor as well as the real thing), nationalism, statolatry, technocracy and – in America – a desire to “Europeanize,” often on Bismarckian lines,  political institutions and arrangements. And while these ideas were popular in all sorts of places, their champions were the Progressives.

As volunteer conservative left deviationist progressive apologist, I have previously composed my own lists of to me less obviously bad progressivisms, seeking to highlight those Progressive Era reforms that I judge as integrated with American life, but, even if we stick with Goldberg’s version, we’re still left with perhaps the largest question:  Why were the Progressives able not just to champion these things, but in championing them gain control of American politics, and set the country and the world on a course they’ve been on ever since?

Some might want to attribute the Progressives’ vast political success to the diabolical genius of charismatics, conspirators, and tricksters, but much more persuasive explanations are readily available.  They often start with statistics on American life from the middle of the 19th Century to the first decades of the 20th (Wilson’s lifespan, one point for posterization) regarding employment, urbanization, production, immigration, communication, transportation, fertility, income, and on and on.  For example:  Population:  More than quadrupled, 50% of the increase through immigration.  Proportion receiving wages and living in urban settings:  From small minority to vast majority.  Communication:  speed of horse to speed of light.

It was in relation to such changes that Goldberg’s favorite scholar, Ronald Pestritto, was questioned by his colleague Jean M. Yarbrough, in the conclusion of her review of Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism and Woodrow Wilson: The Essential Political Writings:

[O]ne wishes that Pestritto had extended his analysis to the presidential years to see how Wilson’s academic theories fared when confronted with political reality. Although [Roots...] touches briefly on the 1912 election and beyond in a concluding chapter, this question goes largely unexplored. Finally, one wishes that Pestritto had given his political imagination a bit more scope and had tried to envision what solutions to the novel problems of industrialization, urbanization, and mass immigration, as well as the old problems of racial injustice and growing economic inequality, the founders might have devised.

Yes, indeed, one surely might so finally wish – for these are exactly the problems that Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, numerous lesser politicians, sundry intellectuals publishing relatively late in the Populist-Progressive Era, and, more important, millions upon millions of Americans not only set themselves to solving intellectually, but were confronting everywhere, everyday, without a century to ponder possible over-dependence on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and regardless of how much they might have preferred to live in a Jeffersonian agrarian republic, a Bellamyite super-commune, or, equally unreachable, the largely pre-industrial America of Wilson’s early childhood.

Once we accept that, for better or worse, the Progressives were responding to Something Real, then it’s clear that the task for conservatives isn’t to find good reasons to “condemn” Wilson or anyone else, but to develop alternative, additional, or ameliorative responses, if any, to that manifold Something Real – still with us, 100 years more real and manifold, and greater in extent by circumferences of the planet, at least, in multiple dimensions.  If, like a commenter at HotAir, you’re happy to dismiss the Federal Reserve System, Anti-Trust legislation, and the Federal Trade Commission as “junk, junk, junk,” then just how do you propose to distribute capital equitably and productively in a complex modern economy, and to preserve competitive and entrepreneurial opportunities for small and medium business? Before you answer:  Remember to achieve the same thing in relation to the globalization of raw economic and political power that Americans of the Progressive Era accomplished on the national level.  The same burden must be lifted or off-loaded for every other aspect of Progressivism and post-Progressivism that you, radical-constitutional anti-statist anti-prog to your toes, must be ready to dispose of instantly, as so much junk, junk, junk.

As the scope of our inquiry thus widens to encompass the present day, it naturally circumscribes the further past as well, but Goldberg demurs:  Responding to his friend US News writer Scott Galupo, Goldberg rejected the idea in a manner that resembles his rejection of that un-powerful mitigation defense of mine discussed above:

If you want to claim everything stemming from the Western Enlightenment tradition as “progressive” you’re free to do so. But analytically, where does that get you? By this logic we’re all progressives—and by all, I mean conservatives, libertarians, Bolsheviks, liberals, anarchists, and Maoists—because we’re not Medievalists.

Maybe it gets us this far: The Progressives were not an aberration.  They represent continuity, under radically transformed circumstances, in the same direction as the Founders’ historic statement to the ages, which has been succinctly translated into modern vernacular by historian Gordon Wood:

The illimitable progress of mankind promised by the Enlightenment could at last be made coincident with the history of a single nation.  For the Americans at least, and for others if they followed, the endless cycle of history could finally be broken.

It was much the same promise that Tommy W. Wilson, 24 years old, could embrace in 1881, when he associated himself with a “younger generation of Southern men… full of the progressive spirit.” It’s the same promise all Americans still have available to them more than a century later – among other things:  to progress beyond Progressivism, and to expose today’s nominal progressives as the regressive, reactionary anachronisms they too often are.

For the space of an extended epoch, men and women of the progressive spirit re-defined America because Americans increasingly voted for them to do so.  Compared to the socialists, communists, anarchists, and, later, the fascists, all representing varieties of panic in the face of industrialism and its discontents, the Progressives qualify as relatively and meaningfully conservative.  Whatever they perceived, thought, and did wrong, they conserved enough of the American possibility for us still to be arguing about it today – in their day no certain prospect.

No one sane has a way forward that won’t still leave us in their shadow for the foreseeable/imaginable future.  Their mere negation may have seemed a tenable political position at the dawn of the Age or Episode of Obama, but is less so under approaching responsibility, in perilous times.  I differ with Robert Laird/Instapunk on particulars, but I like how he frames the needed discussion in his own post on Wilson – away from “him” or “them,” toward “us” (original emphasis):

The potential destruction of America and its constitution is not a predestined outcome of a plot hatched by Woodrow Wilson and his racist, anti-semitic Princeton football cronies. It’s a possible outcome of our inattentiveness, our indifference, our poor decision making, our short-sighted thinking and convenient memories. It’s nice to know where dangerous and contemporarily destructive ideas originated. But it doesn’t absolve us of our responsibilities. Which are located in the here and now, with absolutely no room for evasion or delusion.

In other words: Forget Wilson. He doesn’t really matter.

Of much more concern: The deep improbability that the bromides of yesteryear – sung over a chorus of “NO!” – can do more than motivate a fickle segment of the electorate for a short while, or to any great purpose.  This assessment seems to haunt the hated, hunted pundits and office-holders who decline the path of least immediate resistance to the Tea Party and its hosts. Meanwhile, the hard right’s anger with the “traitors,” with the progressives, and with the Wilsonian Progressives – not the disagreement, the annihilating anger – derives first from their self-imposed isolation from the American project, but also from fearful uncertainty, no clear idea what the dog will do with the rambling wreck if he catches it; and from fearful certainty, of the compromises and betrayals to come, forced on imaginary purisms by consensual mass democracy.

Conservatives will, by definition, look to the past for inspiration and instruction.  The 18th Century British politician and essayist Edmund Burke, a man whom Jonah Goldberg likes to call the founding father of modern conservatism, had much sage advice, but his idioms will strike many Americans as obscure.  Fortunately, the United States produced at least one major interpreter of Burke’s conservatism for un-conservative times (my emphasis):

Questions of government are moral questions, and … questions of morals cannot always be squared with rules of logic, but run through as many ranges of variety as the circumstances of life itself. … The politics of the English-speaking peoples has never been speculative; it has always been profoundly practical and utilitarian. Speculative politics treats man and situations as they are supposed to be; practical politics treats them (upon no general plan, but in detail) as they are found to be at the moment of actual contact.

As for that Burkean – his name, what else he had to say – I think we just agreed to forget him, though I’m willing to re-consider.

cross-posted at Zombie Contentions

Recently in the Green Room:

Blowback

Note from Hot Air management: This section is for comments from Hot Air's community of registered readers. Please don't assume that Hot Air management agrees with or otherwise endorses any particular comment just because we let it stand. A reminder: Anyone who fails to comply with our terms of use may lose their posting privilege.

Trackbacks/Pings

Trackback URL

Comments

Comment pages: 1 2

“Socialism hasn’t worked in 6,000 years of recorded history because it didn’t have me to run it.” – Ted Kennedy

Evil never dies.

Speakup on May 17, 2010 at 3:00 PM

AshleyTKing on May 16, 2010 at 11:48 PM

Thanks for the links… looking through them now.

Aquateen Hungerforce on May 17, 2010 at 3:30 PM

Golly, CKM, other than you being a Nazi, I was particularly surprised to hear it implied that anyone or anything “distributes” capital at all.

The Federal Reserve doesn’t “distribute” capital. It doesn’t even distribute capital. No one distributes capital. There’s no Great Capital Warehouse in the sky from which the Guardians of Ur-Oz periodically withdraw Capital in a wheelbarrow and then head out with a delivery list, industriously checking it off.

Capital is generated. It is represented in different ways. An individual’s capital may be his capacity to work for more remuneration than he needs to live on. The excess he earns he can invest — take risks with. Capital may be extracted from net wealth, as when Americans use equity in real property to fund business start-ups.

Capital may be borrowed, against the promise to pay a loan back from future earnings. But nothing becomes capital until someone has the intent to invest it for a profit, whether through active business application or passive (dividend-yielding) investment.

The existence of the Federal Reserve doesn’t “make sure we have capital,” nor is it a method of distributing capital. It was sold to the people as a means of ensuring a sound currency, and monetarists still hold that that is its primary function. Manipulation of the discount rate, in their view, is properly focused on holding down inflation rather than encouraging borrowing.

Where there is some legitimacy to your criticism of the Fed’s most vociferous critics, I think, is in the historical fact that people in all situations in the past have prized a reliable, centrally managed currency. Before there was a Fed in the US, what Americans leaned on, along with most of the trading world, was the reliability of the centrally managed British pound.

The Fed’s critics are 100% right that the Board’s machinations should stand up to intrusive inspection by the people’s representatives at any time, including spot inspections in the middle of the night. Audit the Fed. Now. Its forays into buying up US paper and its own securities are a very bad practice as well. No entity with as much power as the Fed should operate without critical oversight.

But it isn’t inherently a diabolical plot to institute world government for there to be a central body chartered with managing the currency. The use of currency has always implied the guarantees of a central government. The issues for different forms of government revolve around how best to regularize the guarantees.

If our shipmate RCAR were here he’d shout “Gold!!” right about now. And I’d have to explain to him once again that the value of gold would collapse, for all immediate purposes, with the central government anyway. If the US dollar goes the way of Banana Bucks, take your gold to China and see what you can get for it there. But don’t expect too much. There’s a good chance you won’t even survive the trip, because everything else will have gone to hell with the value of the $$$.

J.E. Dyer on May 18, 2010 at 8:21 PM

Didn’t say the Fed “distributed capital.” Said the Fed Reserve System (as well as other aspects of Progressive Era economic legislation), was set up to help ensure that capital is distributed (passive voice) (more) equitably and productively (than otherwise – i.e., without such a system). The concept was put in the original post in terms of a question to the commenter who had declared the system junk – how do “you,” the commenter, distribute capital equitably and productively, obviously an expression not meant literally, since I don’t expect the commenter to run around the country like Santa Claus leaving money on doorsteps.

As mentioned in additional discussion above, prior to the Fed, capital tended to concentrate along with the capital markets. Monopolistic practices of other types independently embodied and and were thought to exacerbate this tendency – capital (and capitalism) increasingly available to big business, less so everyone else.

Focusing on the Fed, the system actually rather literally “distributes capital,” by making sure that sufficient cash and coinage are available for the public to conduct transactions – allowing capital to function. The Reserve Banks are tasked with moving cash into and out of circulation. There’s no “sky bank,” but there are real structures where are housed pallets of stacks of bills that get shipped out, or held in reserve (lots and lots and LOTS of that going on lately, if I’m not mistaken).

The uneven distribution of real money was actually a problem prior to the existence of the system, thus, among other things, the free silver movement as also mentioned above – and the regular occurrence of “bank runs,” which occurred when depositors demanded capital that banks were unable to provide. Additionally, maintaining the solvency and day-to-day liquidity of banks in each of the 12 districts and the associated branches rather literally enables a more equitable and productive distribution of (access to) capital.

As you are probably aware, the 1913 act was thought to have left too many banks outside of the system, and thus subject to runs and failures, until the situation was rectified (at a cost to moral hazard) by the Glass-Steagal Act and the FDIC during the Depression. As a result, the entire working capital of the United States of America could be said to be available in a more equitable and productive geographical and economic “distribution.”

As in past discussion of “redistribution” at other locations, you seem focused on a certain narrow, transitive definition of the word “distribute,” attached to a concept of wealth and its origins, and an understanding of capital and wealth that you believe leads people, especially leftists, into erroneous assumptions about we can and cannot do with wealth. Noted – all the same, though a more complex concept underlies the notion of the value of the paper bill in the stack of stacks shrink-wrapped and sitting on a pallet, if you had one of those pallets, you’d for the foreseeable future have pretty darn terrific working “capital” toward some venture. Instead of “making sure capital is equitably distributed,” we could say “ensure that liquidity was generally sufficient to enable monetary transactions in multiple dimensions relatively predictably across a wide geographical area and in depth,” but that would just be a long-winded way of referring to a “distribution” of those capacities.

CK MacLeod on May 18, 2010 at 9:53 PM

I focus on the transitive definition of “distribute” because it’s important to highlight the error of thinking that it’s not a transitive-distribution approach to imagine “ensuring that X is distributed equitably.”

If you propose to take any action — any at all, no matter how indirect — to change the distribution of X, then you are proposing to engage X transitively.

It’s illogical to suggest otherwise. I am well aware that there are different ways of defining distribution. One way applies to the realm of observation: documenting how a data set settles out. The “distribution” in this case is a noun representing the result of non-interactive observation.

But anyone who proposes to affect that distribution can no longer claim to be merely operating in the realm of observation. The mode of the concept has passed into the transitive at that point.

Some phenomena literally cannot be transitively redistributed, because they were not transitively distributed in the first place. Capital, the functional quantity in a market economy, is one of those phenomena. One can observe a distribution of it and even correlate the distribution to other phenomena — although the accuracy and utility of this process depends heavily on how capital is defined. But one cannot “redistribute” that which can only be generated on a voluntary, non-directable, non-controllable basis.

Talking in the political realm about ensuring equitable distributions is inherently a transitive concept that may or may not apply to the phenomenon in question. In the case of capital, it doesn’t. The whole premise is invalid.

J.E. Dyer on May 19, 2010 at 2:20 AM

Well, you beat me to it – I was going to try a different expression than “transitive,” but you seem to have gotten exactly what I meant to refer to. Maybe “instrumental” or “literal” would have been more accurate.

I don’t agree, however, that the “whole premise is invalid.” As I understand your view, you believe that “distribution” or “re-distribution” of wealth is false or misleading because it implies the existence of some static quantity available for re-division, the total wealth of society, when in fact the very act of so-called re-distribution inevitably affects the ability of society to produce wealth. Yet the quantity and its provenance don’t have to be perfectly static and known to the last penny for it to be generally subject, or not, to redistribution.

CK MacLeod on May 19, 2010 at 11:55 AM

Comment pages: 1 2