Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Urge to mandate updated and cleaned up

Ironies make us think. And there are plenty of them. We know that in U.S. politics, "liberal" is now the opposite of its original meaning. We also know that people who would have claimed that label as recently as 20 years ago now prefer to be called "progressives." People who see themselves as "liberal" in the old fashioned sense now prefer the label "libertarian".

But, on examination, the original progressives of the Progressive Era were not the congenial folks we learn about in high school. Fred Siegel covers this ground in his The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class.  Thomas C. Leonard does much the same in his Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era. Most disturbing is the fact that, in the great desire to be be modern and scientific, the Progressives embraced eugenics. We now know how badly that ended.

Almost all of polite company these days favors raising the minimum wage in the service of "helping people." But the original Progressives were quite explicit about their motives. They also got their econ 101 right. Here is Leonard (on page 130): "Thus did many observers accuse inferiors of accepting low wages and undercutting the American workingman. Sometimes inferior workers were portrayed as explicit dupes of the capitalist. At other times they were portrayed as the capitalists' accomplices. Often they were made out to be both. In all events, the threat was the same: the low standards of inferior workers."

That sort of candor has been updated and cleaned up. It is now about "helping people." Trouble with that is it just ain't so. The Law of Demand, as they say, "takes no prisoners."

Don Boudreaux makes a similar point.