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Columbia Spectator Staff

Ever since the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s, the term "liberal" has steadily lost its popularity in the lexicon of the American left, becoming replaced by the more positively connoted word, "progressive." At Columbia, we see many different kinds of progressives, ranging from the moderate members of the College Democrats to the radical leftists of Students for a Democratic Society. Given that progressivism seems to be such a powerful force on Columbia's campus, one naturally has to wonder: what is it that unites these disparate chains of political thought? If you ask someone who self-identifies as left-leaning, he or she will probably tell you that progressives believe in social justice, non-violence, civil rights, and environmental stewardship. However, I want to explore the philosophical underpinnings of progressivism—how progressives see society and the individual's relation to it. Sadly, i is only after looking at progressivism in this new light that we are able to see its more insidious roots and dangerous conceits. At the heart of progressive thought is the idea that the government exists as a powerful force for social and economic change. This notion was upheld by Teddy Roosevelt's original progressive movement and obviously plays a major role in President Barack Obama's policy ideas. Thus, it is only natural to begin our discussion of progressivism with an examination of the institution that allows it to exist. Max Weber famously defined the state as the entity that maintains a monopoly over the legitimate use of force in a given territory. This point, while seemingly abstract, is in fact one of the clearest explications to date of the role that government plays in society. While the government may have broken its original Lockean bounds of providing for the common defense and enforcing property rights, Weber's definition still holds true. Understanding the government in these most basic terms, we can now begin to look at progressivism in a new light. Fundamentally, the progressive ideology is one based on the use (or threat) of violence by the state against its own people. I realize that many moderate readers will likely be taken aback by this assertion, but I challenge them to temporarily put aside their pre-existing beliefs and to follow my logic for the next few hundred words. The sad (but true) fact of the matter is that there are scarcely any progressive economic policies that can be enacted without the use of government force, or threat thereof. If you remain unconvinced, just consider for a moment if taxation were voluntary—which it seemingly is for Obama cabinet nominees. Who would pay, and how would the welfare state support itself? In my opinion, what makes progressivism so dangerous is the nobility of its causes. When taken in the abstract, for instance, there are few who would disparage the importance of progressive priorities such as health care and education. The difference between progressives and conservatives, however, is that progressives consider these issues to be matters of "social justice," thereby necessitating government provision. Politically, we often see progressive policies gain more traction because it is easier to create massive deficit-financed entitlement programs than to ask people to make spending sacrifices in their own lives. This makes intuitive sense since whatever money the government borrows needs to be paid back by future generations. Therefore, we can almost think of the government as a hidden financing mechanism for American households. Yet, while progressive policies might seem attractive—since they allow Americans to collectively finance social programs via low interest government debt—they ultimately require people to pay a much higher cost: their own freedom. That is, every time we expand the government's mandate, we effectively socialize private rights, especially those pertaining to property. At this point, we can return to Weber's definition of the government as a coercive entity, and see how it is applied to the progressive agenda. If we lived in a society where taxation was equal, the use of government to provide various services might be beneficial since the link between spending and taxes would be clear to everyone. The problem, however, is that because of the progressive tax system in America, the wealthiest 10 percent of people pay 70 percent of taxes. Combining this fact with democracy yields a situation in which the majority votes to spend the minority's money. Ultimately, these two factors—unequal taxation and the progressives' desire to expand government—will inevitably lead to a new form of serfdom as the majority of Americans continuously vote to use the power of the government to extract more wealth from the minority. Eventually, the productive elements of our society will be taxed out of existence, leaving us with a government that has unprecedented power and an economy with no ability to grow—all in the name of progressivism. While many readers may see my words as little more than libertarian scare tactics, I challenge them to think seriously about the philosophical implications of left-wing government policies. The famed economist Friedrich Hayek once wrote, "If we wish to preserve a free society, it is essential that we recognize that the desirability of a particular object is not sufficient justification for the use of coercion." His words, I believe, still hold true today. Although progressivism may offer some very attractive short-term gains, we must always consider where it leads, and what it costs. Jon Hollander is a Columbia College junior majoring in economics. Reasonably Right runs alternate Thursdays. opinion@columbiaspectator.com

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