I came across a small debate on the web last week about what it meant to be ‘progressive’, and that’s as good a place to start as any about the themes in the coming election campaign. ‘Progressive’ comes from the Latin, and its literal meaning is to walk forward. Similarly ‘retrogressive’, as with the incidence of a tax, means something that in a sense walks backwards. While we’re on it, ‘reform’ means literally to change the form or shape of something. In the 19th century ‘reform’ had the flavour of  ‘progressive’ about it. It still has, for many people, though those who talk about the ‘Dawkins reforms’ in higher education usually imply that these changes were retrogressive.

Then let’s look quickly at today’s Australia, 23 million strong in people, who are on the whole well off, well housed, healthy, well fed, well educated and well travelled, relative to most other nations in the world. Despite what we hear on the news, the levels of crime and violence in our society are not high, either in terms of our past or in terms of what obtains in other other countries. We enjoy a responsible, representative democracy that has been going for more than one hundred and fifty years, and works tolerably well, with a decent level of efficiency and low levels of corruption.

What would ‘progressive’ policies be about in such a society? The usual answer is that they would be designed to bring up to an adequate level those who aren’t well anythinged: improve their health, nutrition, housing, education, and so on. You could add some similar higher-level policies about people in the rest of the world — ‘climate change’, foreign aid, internationalism generally, the UN, boat people (because that has an international as well as a local context), and so on.

Inside such policies are assumptions about the ‘structural’ causes of these deficiencies. That is, people are poor, or poorly educated, or in poor health because they are disadvantaged — they lacked the advantages of those who are doing well. If they’d had the advantages they’d be well off, healthy, properly fed, too. There’s a structure to advantage — and there’s something in that, of course. Without a school nearby children are deprived. With one, they all have the possibility of an education. But even when they have one, some kids do better out of it than others. Perhaps their parents encouraged them. Perhaps they just liked it more.

It seems to me that every difference in the conditions of people contains a mixture of structural and personal  factors, and governments cannot provide ‘equality’ in anything, even before the law, where money tends to win. The best they can do is even things up a bit, but that does not lead to Paradise. Families can also have a cultural context that pushes them into high levels of aspiration for their children, as seems to be the case in both the Jewish culture and the Chinese. Some families have a cultural legacy of working hard. Others don’t. Governments can’t do anything much about these differences, and in my opinion shouldn’t ever try. Democratic governments are are responsible to the electorate, and the electorate is made up of many cultures and of very many families.

When I was deeply involved in higher education it was plain to me that migrant children were over-represented at university, the native-born under-represented, and children of British immigrants the most under-represented of all. On the whole governments seemed to approve of these differences. But shouldn’t there have been some kind of rescue attempt of the British-born? No one showed any interest in doing so, and the British-born didn’t lobby for it.

The dream of a society of equals is important, and very old. And it comes with an account of history that says that slowly but surely we are moving in the right direction. That view is known as ‘the Whig interpretation of history’, and has been popular for at least a couple of hundred years. It lends itself to moral judgments, goodies and baddies, and high-sounding rhetoric; and is popular within parties of the Left. Indeed, it has some similarities with Marx’s view that history moves in stages, with capitalism to be followed by socialism and then by communism, when all will finally be equal.

I am sceptical at least about the speed of the movement. It seems to me that each great stride in the march towards equality, fought against by conservatives, has had equivocal outcomes. Education for everyone, adult suffrage, women’s suffrage, mass higher education — these ‘advances’ have not much changed the reality that people live lives in which politics is for the most part a peripheral matter. At the moment, it seems to me, most want government on the whole to leave them alone to get on with their lives. They don’t seem especially interested in notions of ‘equality’. Those who feel disadvantaged think something should be done for them by ‘government’, at the expense of the rest. It has always been like this. While there have been real and important gains in quality of life in the last sixty years, they have not made us all more ‘democratic’. Australia is a much more individualistic society than it was in 1950.

‘Progressive’ policies, like giving computers to every child in school, or protecting lower-income families from the pressures of a carbon tax that was unnecessary in the first place, or subsidising housing, or providing family benefits to those with children, have an attractive sound to them. Yet so often they seem like bandaid solutions, and not to have been at all well thought through. Some families have already provided computers to their children; some control their spending to make sure that they can afford what they want; some look after their health and their fitness. Where does disadvantage end and personal responsibility begin?

We’re going to get a good deal of the progressive rhetoric. I am much less attracted to it than I was when I was young.

Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • Peter Lang says:

    To be an ideological ‘Progressive’ means do everything in your power to block progress.

  • dlb says:

    Don, I don’t doubt we are more individualistic now than in the 1950s, but I’d like to know why you think we are?

  • PeterE says:

    Well put. The term ‘progressive’ should never be confused with the word progressive. It is a term calculated (along with the phrase ‘peer review’) to induce repulsion.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    For dlb: Much of What Was It All For? (see the books on the home page) directed itself to this question, and a whole chapter, ‘From We to Me’ was devoted to it. You need to read it, really, but the shortest possible answer is that two wars and an intervening depression brought out the communitarian values of ‘let’s stick together’, ‘keep your head down, ‘don’t volunteer’ and so on. Six subsequent decades of increasing wealth have allowed people to do quite a lot of what they would like to do. Values are to a considerable degree determined by circumstances.

  • […] was correct up to a point, but throwing money at disadvantage doesn’t necessarily fix it. I wrote about that the other day. Lyndon Johnson thought he could end poverty by throwing money at […]

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