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The Crisis of Progressivism

Many have noted the irony that the public-employee crisis of 2011 is unfolding in Wisconsin, home of America’s original progressive movement. The irony is sharpened by the fact that Wisconsin is by no means in the worst fiscal shape among the 50 states. California, Illinois, New York – all face considerably worse debt problems. Governor Scott Walker is certainly correct that things will only get worse if adjustments aren’t made today. But the relative freedom Wisconsin has at the moment – the ability to choose a course rather than have it dictated by creditors and an empty public treasury – highlights the fact that Walker and the statehouse Republicans are making a choice. They are rejecting the quintessential idea of progressivism: that government is best managed by a cadre of public employees whose professional activities are (in theory) isolated from “partisan politics.”

The term “progressive” has been batted around in various incarnations over the last decade, but in its original sense in U.S. politics – the sense popularized by the Wisconsin Progressives and the spinoffs from their movement – progressivism was about enlarging the government’s supervisory role over society and entrusting the administration of that role to experts employed in public agencies.

Because political “factions” often objected to being regulated in the manner proposed by progressives, the creation of agencies was intrinsic to the progressive agenda. The agencies were sold to the public as a means of taking the corrupt politics out of issues that ought to be decided straightforwardly by disinterested experts. The progressive idea has always been that this stable of public experts should be insulated from the demands of interest groups – even if the interest group in question is a majority of registered voters.

The Wisconsin Republicans are challenging that idea directly. The vociferous political left isn’t wrong about that: the crisis in Wisconsin is a power struggle for the future of government, not just a clash of this year’s fiscal priorities. If the voting public can, in fact, deny professional autonomy – in this case, the option to organize for collective bargaining – to public employees, the essential premise of progressivism is badly undercut. Public employees, in their professional capacity, would not then have a “right” to anything the voters don’t choose to accede to. That would include the scope of their agencies’ portfolios as well as the terms of employment for government workers.

To applaud Scott Walker’s stand in the present case is not to suggest that government would function perfectly if only there were more partisan political squabbling surrounding our public decisions. No system is perfect. But progressivism has produced the opposite of its promise: its yield is a proliferation of government agencies funded by the taxpayers but in thrall to special-interest activism. If the Wisconsin Republicans can undo the progressive movement’s basic premise of an insulated public-agency establishment, the prospect of what may follow –a meaningful political dispute over the size and scope of government – will be a most welcome one.


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