Day By Day

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Progressive Pecksniffianism

George Will has a nice piece on the two most distressing aspects of progressivism -- their naive faith in "science", and their desperate determination to control every aspect of the lives of others [here]. He writes:
Progressivism is a faith-based program. The progressives’ agenda for improving everyone else varies but invariably involves the cult of expertise – an unflagging faith in the application of science to social reform. Progressivism’s itch to perfect people by perfecting the social environment can produce an interesting phenomenon – the Pecksniffian progressive. 
Will traces the impulse back to the 1950s congressional crusade against comic books and notes that since then we have been subjected by progressive legislators and bureaucrats to a staggering series of such scares, the response to which tended to increase governmental control over the lives of the citizenry. But the impulse goes much further back than that. Social control lies at the core of every major progressive reform in our nation's history. Think, for instance, of the nineteenth century antebellum temperance reform that moved rapidly from moral suasion to compulsion. It's goal was to "perfect" society by perfecting individuals and groups within it, an imperative that translated into a determined attempt to control the social behavior of specific groups within American society. Similarly, early efforts at educational reform aimed not so much at teaching students useful skills as socializing them to middle-class norms. In the Progressive Era a "purity crusade" aimed at eradicating a broad range of behaviors that the reformers felt were undesirable. And, let us not forget, Prohibition was a Progressive reform. Throughout our nation's history the urge to probe into and control the lives of others has been a prominent feature of our political culture.

What is relatively new is the "cult of expertise" and naive scientism invoked by pecksniffian reformers to justify their varied agendas, and that is really not so new after all. It emerged not in the mid-twentieth century but in the late nineteenth with the rise of the social sciences, and the invocation of scientific authority formed an essential aspect of reform efforts during the Progressive Era. The Progressive model for reform went broadly like this: muckraking journalists would expose problems; university trained experts would study the problem and issue recommendations for action; and progressive legislators would write those recommendations into law that would then be enforced by bureaucrats, commissions, and courts insulated from the democratic process.

So scientistic pecksniffianism was not new in the post-war era; it has been an important aspect of our political culture for more than a century. But Will is right to note that in recent decades it has become far more common and far more obnoxious than it once was. Belatedly we are beginning to have a serious debate over the relative benefits and costs of these reforms and the claims to scientific authority on which they are based. It's about time!

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