The Progressives Are On The Wrong Side Of History

by Burt on August 26, 2014

Who is “on the wrong side of history,” progressives or conservatives? Progressives often insist they are “on the right side of history,” but their ideas failed 100 years ago.

Today, for example, progressives have opposed fracking and have halted the building of the Keystone Pipeline to bring cheaper oil from Canada through the United States. As a result, gas prices at the pump have been over $3.00 per gallon for years. One hundred years ago progressives also stopped the flow of oil. They used new antitrust laws to break up the Standard Oil Company; and, as a result, no American company had the venture capital to pursue the foreign drilling that might have prevented shortages today.

On taxes, President Woodrow Wilson gave us the first progressive income tax. He and his progressive friends said raising tax rates would not hinder investments. But the year President Woodrow Wilson left office, the U.S. had a top tax rate of 73% and unemployment had skyrocketed to 12%. Because of high taxes, entrepreneurs refused to invest, the national debt spiraled upward, and the number of Americans reporting $300,000 in income declined from almost 1,300 in 1916 to fewer than 250 in 1921. High taxes chased away wealth and stifled growth.

Today, progressives have recently raised tax rates on entrepreneurs, on capital gains, and on dividends—and they are surprised to see economic stagnation and record debt levels. What didn’t work a century ago is also not working now.

In foreign policy, progressives today shun commitments to promote stability in the world. President Obama has wanted to withdraw U.S. influence from the Middle East whenever possible. ISIS, President Obama insisted, was no serious threat; they were merely a junior varsity team trying to dress up like they were in the pros. When ISIS then began rampaging through Iraq and part of Syria, the president still preferred inaction. When they next beheaded James Foley, an American journalist, the president criticized this action, but then went back to another round of golf.

In foreign policy almost 100 years ago, progressives led the charge for isolationism after World War I. Senator Hiram Johnson, who ran for president in 1912 with Teddy Roosevelt, and Senator Robert LaFollette, who ran for president in 1924 on the Progressive ticket, believed that talk instead of action would abolish war forever. They supported the Kellogg-Briand Pact, signed by dozens of nations, which declared war to be illegal. The U.S. and other nations agreed to “condemn recourse to war for the solution of international controversies, and renounce it as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another.” When running for president in 1924, Robert LaFollette wrote in his Progressive Party platform that he “promote[d] firm treaty agreements with all nations to outlaw wars.”

The progressive idea here is that if a problem exists, we can pass a law and the problem will go away. In the real world, however, we often have negative unintended consequences. By everyone signing an agreement to outlaw war, for example, nations that knew better were lulled into complacency. Germany rebuilt its military in the 1930s with almost no resistance. Like ISIS, Germany could have been stopped early but progressives believed their rhetoric, they abhorred foreign intervention, and an evil threat to world order went unchecked.

For progressives to dismiss ISIS, or any other group, because it is “on the wrong side of history” creates two problems. First, even if true, it ignores the damage caused by inaction. Second, it assumes a “progress” in human affairs that our Founders did not assume. Human nature, our Founders believed, was not to be trusted. Power needed to be dispersed because even good people could not be trusted with much power. And ISIS today is similar to the Ottoman Turks almost 100 years ago who killed more than 1.5 million Armenians primarily because they were Christians. Evil never thinks it is on the wrong side of history.

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