The Two Progressive Impulses

Among cultural-political “progressives” (or liberals, if you prefer this label) there are found two apparently contradictory impulses: a libertarian impulse and a totalitarian impulse.

On the one hand, progressives are great believers in personal liberty and great haters of restrictions on personal liberty. They denounce, for instance, almost all restrictions on sexual liberty. They concede of course that there must be some social and even legal restrictions. Thus one must not commit rape or any other form of sexual assault. To be morally licit, as the progressive sees things, sex must be purely voluntary on the part of both partners.

Another restriction on sexual freedom that progressives agree with is that no adult should have sex with an underage child. However, progressives have no agreement at to where the line should be drawn between sexual adulthood and sexual childhood. Perhaps the line should be drawn wherever this or that state establishes the age of sexual consent? But this would mean that the line would vary from state to state, and it would ignore the fact that some children are sexually mature at an earlier age than other children. One girl might be able to give informed consent at the age of 14 while another girl might still be incapable of this at the age of 19.

At all events, all progressives agree on the abstract proposition that an adult should not have sex with a minor, but they cannot agree in telling us what a minor is.

It should be noted in passing that progressives have a very “mixed” attitude toward enforcement of the two restrictions mentioned above. They believe that colleges and universities should be very strict in enforcing rules against rape and sexual assault. But they don’t believe that Planned Parenthood or other abortion facilities should report to the police obvious cases of statutory rape – for instance, when a 15-year-old girl arrives to abort a pregnancy caused by her 25-year-old boyfriend.

Apart from these two restrictions – on sexual assault and sex with children – progressives favor complete sexual freedom: freedom of premarital sex, homosexual sex, same-sex marriage, casual sex, promiscuous sex, polyamory, and polygamy. They even approve of prostitution. But they don’t call prostitutes “prostitutes” (a dirty judgmental word). They call them “sex workers.” And while they deplore certain inessential aspects of sex work (e.g., pimping and violence and drug addiction), progressives have no objection in principle to sex work provided it is quite voluntary on the part of the sex worker. Ideally, it will be like any other commercial transaction, e.g., like selling a loaf of bread.

The Rebuke of Adam and Eve by Domenicino, 1626 [National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.]

But sexual restrictions aren’t the only restrictions on personal liberty that progressives oppose. Restrictions on recreational drugs are another. Why shouldn’t an adult be free to use whatever drugs he or she wishes to use? If those drugs do harm, it’s only harm to the user. Shouldn’t a person be free to do that? Progressives are at the moment pushing for legalization of marijuana. But unless you’re not paying attention, you know where they mean to go after that: legalization of all “recreational” drugs.

And they believe there should be no restrictions on the right to euthanasia. At the moment, of course, they are not going quite that far in their demands. The country isn’t ready for that right now – just as a few years ago the country wasn’t ready for same-sex marriage. So progressives (e.g., President Obama) pretended to be opposed to same-sex marriage; but those who were not naïve knew where they were headed. At present progressives are demanding no more than physician-assisted suicide. But can anybody doubt that they will next demand voluntary euthanasia?

It goes without saying that if you’re a liberty-loving progressive you have no love for institutions such as traditional marriage, religion, and the police, for all these institutions are in the restriction-of-liberty business. Nor would you have much sympathy with colleges that say that a student must study ancient history or Shakespeare or Newton’s laws of motion. Who are school authorities to dictate what students, almost all of them legal adults, must learn? If this is not academic tyranny, what is? Why should I be forced to study something as boring as Wordsworth’s poetry when I want to learn how to be a disk jockey on radio?

But then there is the opposite progressive impulse, the totalitarian impulse. Progressives believe that government, in particular the U.S. federal government, can solve all our problems. Maybe it cannot solve these problems overnight, but it can solve them in the long run, given enough time and money and good will – plus elections that give power to progressives.

What problems do we Americans have? Poverty, racism, bad schools, crime, mental illness, AIDS, drug addiction, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, misogyny, global warming, and a few more – well, if you’re a progressive, you believe there must be some action by the federal government that can solve these problems: some law, some agency, some program.

Some of these problems are the result of progressive libertarianism – the most obvious of these being the consequences (e.g., crime, a poor work ethic, a poor school ethic, drug addiction) that follow from the destruction of the married two-parent family, a project of destruction progressives have been working at for decades now. We need a progressive totalitarian federal government to clean up the mess created by the other side of the progressive coin, progressive libertarianism.

For the progressive, personal liberty is not an end in itself. It is a good thing because it leads, or at all events is supposed to lead, to happiness. But in many cases it does not lead to happiness; it leads to the opposite. How then are we to be happy? By the action of an all-powerful federal government, a benign totalitarianism that will eliminate crime, poverty, AIDS, global warming, stupidity, and all the other ills that afflict Americans.

There you have it: the two (apparently contradictory, but not really contradictory) impulses of progressivism.

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.