Nate Silver, proprietor of FiveThirtyEight, has an excellent post distinguishing between two different kinds of progressivism, what he calls rational progressivism and radical progressivism. Here’s how he distinguishes between them:
As you can see Nate’s stacked the deck by the way he’s distinguished between the two. Are his rational progressives really more rational or are they merely less radical? Contra Nate, radicalism as well as liberalism traces its philosophical underpinnings back to the 18th century. See, for example, Voltaire’s quip: The perfect is the enemy of the good, as fine a manifesto for radicalism as any I’ve seen.
I think better characterizations would be old fashioned liberals vs. radicals.
I can see that I don’t meet Nate’s litmus test for a progressive of whatever stripe:
It should come as no surprise that I regard myself as a rational progressive. I believe in intellectual progress — that we, as a species, are gradually becoming smarter. I believe that there are objectively right answers to many political and economic questions.
Is the notion that human beings, as a species, are improving rationally based or an article of faith?
I don’t think that the human species is becoming smarter. I don’t think I’m in any way better, smarter, wiser, or more virtuous than Socrates, Jesus of Nazareth, or Siddhartha just because I’m more recent. Or that I’m smarter or fundamentally better than my twelve times great-grandfather, for that matter. I do live in a better world than they did but that’s not because human beings are any better, it’s because technology is better.
I do think that we learn more over time by observing ourselves and the world around us, that social and political institutions are a technology, and that technology advances as we learn more. There’s efficient and appropriate technology and there’s inefficient and inappropriate technology. The Constitution continues to be an excellent technology, solidly rooted in the keen observation of human beings, their nature, and behavior which will continue to be effective as long as that nature remains the same and the same sorts of behaviors derive from that nature. Too bad we’re not employing that technology any more.
Frankly, I think that progressives unnecessarily handicap themselves. If we’re smarter than our predecessors how can we learn from them? If you’re tolerant of existing institutions and cautious to change them but willing to change them as new, manifestly better technologies are devised, you’re no progressive. You are, as I am, a liberal conservative.
It’s occurred to me that Nate’s formulation is Euro-centric to boot. Is it his position that the people living in the backwoods of Borneo, isolated from contact with the rest of the world, are gradually becoming smarter, too? What’s the mechanism? Or are the rest of us gradually becoming smarter while the folks in the backwoods of Borneo are stuck in the old pre-progress state?