The Left Stole 'Liberal,' And Now They're Taking 'Progressive'

The Left Stole 'Liberal,' And Now They're Taking 'Progressive'
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The word progressive seems to have been kidnapped by the left. It is time to take it back, so at least it can be shared by everyone who regards themselves as progressive – which is almost everybody.

Who can truly claim to be a spokesperson for progress? Actually, the political philosophy in the history of the world that has been most successful in driving society forward – measured both in economic and social progress – has been classical liberalism, which on economic issues usually finds itself expressed today as a form of conservatism, or support for a free market. Progress is the process under which we improve the human condition through achievements in science, technology, economic development and social organization. How often do people calling themselves ‘progressive’ meet that bar, or even aspire to it?

Earlier this year, for example, New York became the first city in North America to put limits on the growth of Ubers – supposedly a temporary measure designed to give local authorities time to study the impact of the ride-sharing service.  This measure was driven by self-described progressives. But how progressive is it? Has it driven progress forward?

Imposing a cap on the number of Uber drivers – as the measure does – slows and even sets back the growth of a dynamic new technology. How progressive is it really to stop students from participating in a flexible job arrangement? Preventing New Yorkers from taking advantage of the technology may be a number of things, but it is hard to see it as a form of progress. Moreover, it is hardly progressive to make it more difficult for residents of New York’s outer boroughs – generally less wealthy than Manhattanites – to get around. This is especially the case regarding minorities, who have traditionally been avoided by cabbies in search of fares. For these people, Uber has been a breakthrough; seeking to curtail it is the exact opposite of progress.

Is it really progressive to try to prevent Amazon from investing in Queens? The leading-edge company can provide tens of thousands of jobs to bolster New York’s growing technology-based industry, attract and retain young people, and fatten the city’s tax base. It is hard to think of a better example of progress. Yet that hasn’t prevented newly-elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes from criticizing inducements to lure Amazon to Queens, citing the need to concentrate on health care, higher wages, and rent – all of which can be made more affordable only by pursuing economic growth, not by stifling it.

Opposition to NAFTA and TPP – is that progress or reaction? Free trade advances society, making it more prosperous as it makes nations less antagonistic. Opposition to it is hardly an example of progress, but many who oppose it claim the mantle.

More than anything, it is “progressives’” deep and frequently overriding commitment to extreme environmentalism that turned liberalism into reaction, driving out understanding that environmental measures, even when one sees them as necessary, diminishes the ability of an economy to create wealth – the one resource that is most essential to a cleaner environment, improved wages, better health care and education, and rising living standards, all of which are liberal goals and clear signs of progress.

The attempt to appropriate the word “progressive” reflects, more than anything else, a self-centered view among people on the left that their ideology is the only vehicle to progress. In fact, there are a number of potential – or at least arguable – avenues to reach that goal, many of them rooted in free market economics. People who call themselves progressive are in effect saying: My views drive forward the arc of history, while yours drive it back. But can any ideology claim to be the clear and uncontestable champion of human progress?

In the way the word progressive is being used by those on the left, we are seeing an old movie for the second time – one that we first encountered with the theft of the word liberal. Liberal stems from the word liberty. While modern-day liberalism has been a voice for liberty in some ways, such as pursuing cultural change (for example, same-sex marriage), in others it offers the very opposite of liberty, denying it to those seeking to participate in the economy based on choice.

Some may see the question of who gets to claim the mantle of progressive as pedantic, even picayune. But words have meaning; if they are distorted, they distort reality, rather than clarify it. Liberal, for example, became a dirty word to many, weakening the modern liberal movement. Indeed, that may be a big part of the reason why so many on the left have jumped aboard the life raft that the term progressive appears to offer.

Those who are committed to the free market should not abandon the field, nor yield a word that describes their philosophy and policies at least as well as it does those who oppose the free market. Progressive should be a description of those who believe in progress – a viewpoint that those who apply the self-description to themselves simply do not meet.

Allan Golombek is a Senior Director at the White House Writers Group. 

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