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Word for Wednesday Repost: Progressive

July 25th, 2007

Back in the Triassic Era of blogging, I ran for a while a weekly feature called Word for Wednesday, loosely modelled on Raymond Williams Keywords. I thought I’d repost one entry in response to this interesting debate starting with Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber

Progressive Definition 1: In its political sense, progressive means ‘on the side of progress’. This incorporates a factual assumption that history is moving in some definite direction, and a political program aimed at accelerating that motion and overcoming obstacles to it. Antonyms are ‘conservative’ and ‘reactionary’.

Until about 1975, the facts seemed to be consistent with the idea of steady movement towards some form of democratic socialism. After this, economic and social policies moved substantially in the opposite direction for the rest of the 20th century, with large-scale privatisation and deregulation in many countries. This movement in turn seems to have ceased and even to have partially reversed in countries such as the UK and NZ.

In the 1990s, a new version of progressive rhetoric came into use, focusing on the notion of globalisation as an irresistible force for progress in the direction of free-market liberal democracy. Fukuyama’s End of History was the big text, while Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree was a successful popularisation. Many proponents of this account were unaware of the basic historical fact that world markets were more liberal and globalised in 1900 than in 1970. When this was pointed out, the notion of globalisation as inevitable progress went into decline, although it still has its proponents. The wave of financial crises from the late 1990s reminded people of the fact that unregulated capital markets are the result of policy decisions that may have been mistaken, not the product of inexorable technological forces.

If no clear direction can be discerned in history, or if reversals lasting for decades are possible, the whole idea of ‘progressive’ politics becomes incoherent. Unfortunately, the idea is deeply embedded in political rhetoric and is therefore hard to get rid of. As long as the term ‘progress’ is taken to imply ‘progress towards something better’, people will try to attach its positive connotations to their political programs. Even the connotation of ‘something not necessarily good, but irresistible’, has a lot of rhetorical power, as in ‘you can’t stop progress’ – Marxist historicism is the extreme example of this. Former social democrats like Paul Keating justified adopting the political program of their opponents by appeals to progressive rhetoric, treating current trends as both irresistible and desirable simply by virtue of their currency. At this level, though, ‘progressive’ politics is little more than adherence to prevailing fashion.

It may be possible to salvage some use for the term ‘progressive’ by defining ‘conservative’ as ‘opposed to rapid programmatic policy change’, without reference to specific policy programs, then defining ‘progressive’ as an antonym. I plan to explore this next week.

Progressive Definition 2: In tax policy, a progressive tax system is one in which the proportion of income paid in tax is higher for those on higher taxes. The antonym is ‘regressive’. As I noted in an earlier post, most actual tax systems are based on a mixture of progressive taxes like income taxes and regressive taxes such as payroll and consumption taxes, with the total effect being roughly proportional.

The term ‘progressive’ here, is basically derived from the mathematical fact that the rate of tax increases (progresses) with income, but also gains some support from the fact that progressive taxes are pro-poor and therefore progressive in the sense of Definition 1. This creates problems when we try to assess the distribution of benefits of public expenditure. Mathematically, an expenditure program would be progressive if the benefits flowed disproportionately to those on high incomes – this would mean that progressive taxes and progressive expenditure worked in opposite directions.

In practice, a messy compromise has prevailed. Expenditure patterns are typically compared to a starting point where the benefit is the same for everyone (this is fairly close to the actual situation in most countries). If programs that favor the poor (such as means-tested benefits) predominate, the system is described as progressive. If programs that favor the rich, such as protection of property, predominate, the system is described as regressive.

A bit extra Working out the final incidence of tax and expenditure programs is very complex. But here’s a rough illustration of what happens when you have proportional income taxes and equal expenditure per person – this, and the numbers used, are not too far from the actual situation.

Suppose we divide the population into quartiles by income, and suppose that the bottom quartile gets 10 per cent of all market income, the next quartile gets 20 per cent, then 30 per cent and the top quartile gets 40 per cent. Now suppose there is a proportional tax that collects 40 per cent of national income, and the proceeds are spent in such a way that everyone gets an equal benefit. So the bottom quartile pays taxes equal to 4 per cent of total income, and gets benefits equal to 10 per cent, ending up with 16 per cent. Similarly, the other quartiles end up with 22 per cent, 28 per cent and 34 per cent respectively. So a 4:1 ratio in market income ends up as a roughly 2:1 disparity in final income (including publicly provided goods and services).

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  1. jstrocch
    July 25th, 2007 at 14:14 | #1

    Pr Q says:

    In its political sense, progressive means ‘on the side of progress’. This incorporates a factual assumption that history is moving in some definite direction, and a political program aimed at accelerating that motion and overcoming obstacles to it. Antonyms are ‘conservative’ and ‘reactionary’.

    Progressive is still worth keeping as a “success” word. But it should be reserved for technological changes that are measurable and indispuably good. Rather than the more controversial sociological ones.

    Thus increases in the length of life, the value of wealth and the stock of knowledge are all unarguably good. Healthy, Wealthy and Wise. That is progress.

    “Contragressive” would be the appropriate antonym. But somehow I cant see it catching on.

    I suggest that attitudes towards the pace of change be characterised as obdurate (slow), moderate (medium) and celerate (fast).

    I suggest attitudes towards the direction of change be characterised as reactionary (backwards), reformatory (contemporal) and revolutionary (forwards).

    Pr Q says:

    It may be possible to salvage some use for the term ‘progressive’ by defining ‘conservative’ as ‘opposed to rapid programmatic policy change’, without reference to specific policy programs, then defining ‘progressive’ as an antonym. I plan to explore this next week.

    Conservatives are definitely “opposed to rapid programmatic policy change”, at least the kind that operates on grand sociological scales.

    I have doggedly argued that the appropriate antonym for conservative is “constructive”, where this is taken to mean default support for “rapid programmatic policy change”. This is something I took from Hayek, who was keen to conserve the virtues of traditional liberalism from being sullied by the unwonted attentions of its constructivist suitors.

    The notion of constructivism at least has the merit of capturing the institutional affinity between financial and cultural elite commotions over the past couple of generations. Elite constructivism has very much turned insitututions into a conspiracy against the public.

  2. July 25th, 2007 at 14:33 | #2

    increases in the length of life are unarguably good?

    i’ll argue.

    not if old age is impoverished and or crippled.
    not if you are enslaved.
    not if the money to raise and educate children is diverted to keeping useless old people alive to watch the blip on their heart rate monitor.

    “nothing in excess”, even life.

  3. wmmbb
    July 25th, 2007 at 20:44 | #3

    The progressive conservative parties in Canada give a new twist to pc. I am not sure whether they support progressive income tax, although I doubt it.(Sometimes the surname is just apt)

    It seems to me that the GST since consumption may be related to income is a progressive tax, a factor in revenue generation but not tax rebates.

  4. July 25th, 2007 at 22:05 | #4

    It may be possible to salvage some use for the term ‘progressive’ by defining ‘conservative’ as ‘opposed to rapid programmatic policy change’, without reference to specific policy programs, then defining ‘progressive’ as an antonym. I plan to explore this next week.

    I would have thought that the obvious antonym for “conservative” would be “radical”.

    Now suppose there is a proportional tax that collects 40 per cent of national income, and the proceeds are spent in such a way that everyone gets an equal benefit.

    If I understand this correctly it seems to be an example that sounds a lot like the LDPs 30/30 tax policy. With a little bit of mathematical rearrangement the 30/30 policy could be articulated as a flat tax of 30% on all market income with every adult also getting an annual tax free grant from the government of $9000 which is not means tested and comes without strings (except a requirement for citizenship). Of course the LDP 30/30 policy also entails the ellimination of minimum wage laws to ensure that market income is accessible to all but the most serverely disabled.

    I’m not personally a fan of income tax because I think any measures to address concerns about social equity are best dealt with via spending policy not tax policy and income tax lends itself too readily to unwieldy and complex formulations. However beyond that I don’t actually have a huge problem with progressive taxation so long as it entails low EMTRs. High EMTRs is a major failing of our current system.

  5. July 26th, 2007 at 00:14 | #5

    PrQ,
    From memory, you have previously called yourself a Burkean conservative. If you also believe yourself to be a “progressive” would this not be a clear contradiction if you accept that one is an antonym of the other.
    I would tend to agree with Terje, that a better antonym pair is conservative:radical, or perhaps conservative:revolutionary.
    To me, the best antonym of progressive would be regressive, both in politics and taxation. As you allude to, though – the question is progress towards what?

  6. mugwump
    July 26th, 2007 at 01:14 | #6

    If programs that favor the rich, such as protection of property, predominate, the system is described as regressive.

    Therein lies the fallacy of socialism. Without property protection there is little incentive to produce and everyone is worse-off.

  7. mugwump
    July 26th, 2007 at 01:28 | #7

    Why not define progress in terms of global welfare?

    Progressives are those who favour increasing global welfare, regressives are those who oppose it.

    Before widespread public education, reasonably universal health insurance, and other such social programs, the left were progressives by this definition. However, many socialist policies are also ultimately regressive by this definition: nationalization, bureaucracy bloat, over-regulation, punitive taxation, ideological education curricula, reduction in property rights, etc. So conservatism is progressive when it fights against the left on these fronts.

  8. jstrocch
    July 26th, 2007 at 05:53 | #8

    Andrew Reynolds Says: July 26th, 2007 at 12:14 am

    From memory, you have previously called yourself a Burkean conservative. If you also believe yourself to be a “progressive� would this not be a clear contradiction if you accept that one is an antonym of the other.

    The contrast b/w “conservative” and “progressive” must be the mother of all false antitheses.

    A conservative is against large scale, imposed structural change. He is not against change itself, so long as it is smaller scale and incremental.

    Progress is just a designation of a kind of change, namely change for the better. Obviously smaller incremental changes are more likely to work out as planned. And the plan is usely to get better.

    This is why I suggest that “constructivism” is a better antonmy to conservatism. The constructivist is generally in favour of large, fundamental changes, ie revolutions

  9. July 26th, 2007 at 12:48 | #9

    Yep, the “Conservative” – “Radical” antonym pair came to mind straight away. I guess is a bit older usage as can be found in some parts of the world with older “Radical” political parties. Growing up I always thought radical meant “old fashioned” or “grumpy old conservative” as most of those party members tended to be like, even if they believed themselves to be still radicals like in their youth, ha!

    I guess some people do like to label themselves, almost a bit like marketing, to define themselves in terms of a whole range of social contexts, their growing up, colleagues, local customs, etc. Even when people do change with age, the old labels remain stuck as part of usage, but also as part of people’s own self-image or identity.

    Hence the ALP still defining itself as ‘socialist’ and many right-wing politicians honestly considering themselves as ‘progressive’. Some do totally misuse the term, while others use it as a kind of useful marketing branding. Also, the Liberals in fact being anything but liberal, especially under hoWARd.

    Just to stir the pot a bit more about antonym pairs, how about the contrast between ‘progressive’ and ‘revolutionary’.

    Similarly to jstrocch’s point above, the focus here is the ‘rate’ of change, contrasting slower ongoing ‘progress’ with much more sudden drastic change or ‘revolution’. Hence the antonym ‘reactionary’.

    As the good Prof explained, the next layer of meaning comes from the mathematical concepts of ‘progression’ and ‘regression’.

    The key of all this discussion is the concept of ‘progress’, being at the root of the actual meaning, with all its historical baggage attached.

    From the latin progessus means ‘an advance’. By extension ‘progressive politics’ being defined as a ‘progress towards something better’, hence the talk of ‘journey’. In contemporary discussion ‘Justice’ and ‘Peace’ (with all their meaning issues and baggage) are at the epicentre of any definition of ‘progressive politics’, as the ‘goal or destination’ of the movement.

    So, just what ‘better’ means is crucial…
    Key questions are:
    ‘better than what?’, and
    ‘advancing towards what?’

  10. gordon
    July 26th, 2007 at 13:05 | #10

    I’m surprised that Prof. Quiggin pays no attention to the US Progressive Movement. “Progressive” politics in the US has a long history, and “progressive” is a word commonly used among centre-left bloggers in the US, as I’m sure Prof. Quiggin is aware. There is a Progressive Caucus in the US Congress which seems to have a fair number of members.

    The Wikipedia article (first link above) traces the history of US Progressivism from the late 19th Century. Part of the discussion of current Progressivism is: “The fourth and current Progressive movement grew out of social activism movements, Naderite and populist left political movements in conjunction with the civil rights, LBGT, women’s, and environmental movements of the 1960s-1980s.[7] This exists as a cluster of political, activist, and media organizations ranging in outlook from centrism to left-liberalism to social democracy and sometimes even democratic socialism…

    “Modern issues for “progressives” can include: electoral reform (including proportional representation and fusion candidates), environmental conservation, pollution control and environmentalism, universal health care, abolition of the death penalty, affordable housing, a viable Social Security System, renewable energy, gun control, “smart growth” urban development, a living wage and pro-union policies, among many others.”

  11. July 26th, 2007 at 15:51 | #11

    Gordon,
    The antonym would not be “reactionary” as this would be to oppose change. Surely, once you accept that there is something to progress towards, the antonym must be to move away from that, not stop still. I stand by regressive – all to the barricades!

  12. July 26th, 2007 at 22:22 | #12

    Andrew R,
    I tend to agree with your comment about ‘regressive’ being the much better antonym for ‘progressive’, as it denotes the same but opposite level of ‘movement’ while fully conveying the mathematical/economic/accounting meaning of both words.

    Hence, the other antonym pair is ‘reactionary’ and ‘revolutionary’.

    It’s so very funny though that those who do spouse any of those kind of views do tends to vigorously reject such clear definitions, and instead tend to define themselves as whatever the current popular fashion dictates, ie: Hillary calling herself ‘progressive’, to the shock of many. :-(

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