Last Bastion of Progressive Optimism

Progressives once believed in bureaucracy.  A wise, enlightened civil service kept immune from the corrupting influence of politics would create Heaven on Earth.  That blind faith in government as a better means of advancing the public interest had many roots: a secular substitute for declining faith in traditional religion, a power grab by an expanding intellectual class, the innovations that (they thought) would ensure this result (the “independent agency,” supposed advances in the social “sciences,” and an impatience with the evolutionary gains made possible by the free market.  If spontaneous order could yield gains, think what a directed expert-led effort could achieve!

Reality has not been kind to the Progressives.  Their hope of a non-political politics rapidly went astray as their first model, the Interstate Commerce Commission, was first captured by the railroads and then by the shippers.  The ICC was soon a tool for suppressing competition, for rewarding special interest (the “regulatory capture” reality that the public choice school was to analyze much later).  Regulatory agencies faced a swiftly changing marketplace and found themselves time and time again out-maneuvered.  (It is, of course, always possible that somewhere in our society, there exists a handful of brilliant individuals who might be able to “regulate” a complex and changing marketplace, but it is highly unlikely that those individuals will be attracted to bureaucracy.)

As a result, Progressives have changed tactics.  They still favor elite control of America, but they no longer place their faith in agencies, in the “independence” of civil servants.  They have switched their allegiance to the Courts.  And, that change has meant that the courts have become much more politicized than even the most powerful Progressive institution, the Federal Reserve.  That point was alluded to in a recent Outlook piece in the Washington Post, Picking a Justice, Ignoring the Fed” by Matthew Yglesias commenting on the massive attention given the retirement of Supreme Court justice, John Paul Stevens, compared to that given the retirement of several key Fed Reserve governors.  Yglesias notes this is somewhat surprising since in many ways the Fed has even more influence over our daily lives than does the Court.  No surprise really: the ideas of Keynes still dominate at the Fed so the Progressives are content.  The Court is narrowly divided with Progressive ideology on the defensive.  It remains narrowly a Progressive institution – they’ll fight to the death to keep it so.