Richard Epstein on "The Trouble With Progressives"

The Trouble With Progressives
Richard A. Epstein
February 9, 2010

John Judis' "The Quiet Revolution" in The New Republic lauds Barack Obama for taking steps to restore America's administrative agencies to their former New Deal grandeur. In purple prose worthy of People Magazine, he writes:

"The old-time progressives who fashioned the regulatory state rested their hopes on what could be called 'scientific administration.' Louis Brandeis and Herbert Croly--to name two of the foremost turn-of-the-century progressives--believed that the agencies, staffed by experts schooled in social and natural science and employing the scientific method in their decision-making, could rise above partisanship and interest-group pressure."

Dream on. Judis offers no scientific and neutral evidence in support of his bold proposition, chiefly because there is none to offer. Expert scientists let their work speak for itself. It's political actors who flaunt their impeccable credentials as a convenient cover for their partisan motivations. Progressives are of course not the only ones who commit the political sins--the nation does have a Republican party, after all. But the distinctive progressive conceit is that they really do walk one step ahead of the unwashed crowd.

Brandeis is one excellent example of this intellectual self-promotion. His opposition to laissez-faire rested on his deep conviction that world of Adam Smith died when small traders in preindustrial society gave way to the large corporations of the gilded age. At root he was suspicious of technological advance and hostile to large aggregations of human capital. Exactly why markets cannot work in this new environment was never explained. Technology reduces the costs of communication and transportation. It generates the tools and equipment that increase the productivity of labor, and through that, overall wage levels. From his dour rhetoric, you would never know of the large increase in life expectancy, the decline in hours worked, the increased participation of women in the workforce and the decline of child labor that marked the era in which progressives decried the sins of capitalism.


Richard A. Epstein