The Great Regressives


Like most other libertarians, I am not a trusting friend of democracy. I think Thoreau was right when he said, “That government is best which governs least.” Democracy is a means of putting limits on government, and providing the legitimacy of consent for the few state functions that remain. One reason I am not a progressive democrat (small or large “d”) is that the progressives’ century-long demand for people to use democracy to “control the conditions of their own lives” would mean, if it meant anything, the power of every momentary majority to control the conditions of life — or death — for everyone else.

It is therefore not surprising to me that leading advocates of progressive democracy have been self-willed, dictatorial personalities who systematically confused their own whims with the will of the people. Consider Rousseau. Consider the early 20th-century progressives with their lethal mixture of socialism, racism, and prohibition. Consider Bernie Sanders.

Progressives had invented the recall, a hundred years before, but as usual the progressive power structure resorted to every possible means to keep a recall from actually reaching the voters.

Further irony is provided by the fact that the progressives’ specific schemes have always taken a socially antidemocratic form. Socialized medicine means a monopoly that can be challenged only at the risk of your life. Laws providing for collective bargaining mean a corrupt and self-perpetuating union leadership. Empowerment through education means the oppression and banality of compulsory schools.

But if you try to use the means of redress that the progressives themselves came up with, they will call you undemocratic.

Such was the case in the late campaign to recall Josh Newman, a Democratic state senator from Orange County, California. I could tell you a lot about Newman, but it’s sufficient to say that he was a party hack who won election by a few votes in a district characterized by moderate politics and then proceeded to vote for every extreme measure of the state’s Democratic leadership. One of the things he voted for was a giant increase in the gas tax, an increase that will cost the average household $800 a year. Further, he provided the two-thirds majority necessary for the extremists to pass any other bill they might wish to pass.

When he voted for the gas tax, a movement arose to recall him. Progressives had invented the recall, a hundred years before, but as usual the progressive power structure resorted to every possible means to keep a recall from actually reaching the voters. They used lawsuits, union goons, and a sudden legislative change in the rules to put off the fatal day when Newman would appear on the ballot. The anti-Newman forces spent about $2 million; the Newman forces spent about $8 million.

These sentiments were shared and preached continually by the state’s political leadership.

Now here’s the joke. Newman’s campaign dwelt on two issues: the appalling cost of a recall election (about $3 million, allegedly, and you can compare that to the billions of dollars that Newman’s votes were pulling out of Californians’ pockets); and the undemocratic nature of the recall. After all, as Newman proclaimed in his terminally self-righteous speeches, he hadn’t done anything immoral; he had voted for the tax “in good faith.” The people therefore had no right to remove him. These sentiments were shared and preached continually by the state’s political leadership and by such supposed purveyors of news as the Los Angeles Times (now virtually bankrupt, but going down with all its false colors flying).

Newman’s last move was a legislative attempt to ban “bounty signature gathering,” his phrase for paying people to solicit signatures for recall petitions and ballot initiatives. Of course, the only way you can collect the multitude of signatures that progressive law demands is by paying people to get them — and why shouldn’t you? You know why. It’s because your use of the progressives’ democratic mechanisms would cost the progressives their power.

Now comes election night, June 5, and Newman is losing by almost 20 points, and here is what happened, in the words of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Newman spokesman Derek Humphrey said in a statement that "the early numbers are not what we were hoping for," but did not concede the loss in what he termed "an undemocratic special interest power grab."

Even a late endorsement by former presidential candidate and independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders wasn't helping Newman. Sanders recorded a 30-second Facebook ad urging voters to back Newman while praising his support for single-payer health care, education, the environment and immigrant rights.

Well, so much for Newman; he was recalled. This episode is just a footnote to the history of “progressives” and “democracy,” a history writ large in the bloated figures of the university presidents, tech CEOs, state-supported activists, and dynastic politicians who occupy the commanding heights of today’s political economy — progressives all, and despots as far as you permit them to be, each one of them exercising the power that can only be obtained by an undemocratic special interest power grab.

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Hi Professor Cox,

As always, I enjoy reading your perspective on certain topics because they diverge incredibly from my own.

I was wondering if you could elaborate on what you elaborate on seemingly dictatorial measures such as collective bargaining and compulsory education.

To be brief, the original spirit of collective bargaining was to improve working conditions for workers with little to no power. In my opinion, Management earn their incomes at the consent of their workers similar to how our government is at the consent of the governed, and collective bargaining is the tool a seemingly oppressed majority (in that majority's opinion) use to demand higher wages, and better working conditions because they feel destitute. Collective Bargaining can and sometimes is taken advantage of, but is the spirit of which collective bargaining springs for worth that?

And on compulsory education - why not require all people to have some basic education and literacy - especially when the success and development of a country is correlated into the investments that country puts in its citizens?

Stephen Cox

Thanks for your comments! Briefly: I'm not at all sure that our nation is more successful today, when it spends over 10,000 per student on K-12 education, than it was before such education became both compulsory and absurdly expensive. My comment about collective bargaining referred to the many powers that unions are given by the state.

Ricardo Vacilon

Even if one were to "require all people to have some basic education and literacy," compulsory education is not necessary. A simple test would suffice. There is something sinister about mandatory attendance in state-run schools.


"Democracy is a means of putting limits on government, and providing the legitimacy of consent for the few state functions that remain."

Ummm, no, it isn't. Democracy is populism by another name. In order to put a limit on government you need something beyond "the will of the people". Something like a constitutional republic. Remember that old "tyranny by the majority" thingie? Like Dred-Scott or "separate but equal"? Legislative and judicial responses to the will of the majority.

I didn't get very far past this statement, because if you get the basics wrong it is highly unlikely that you get the finer points correct.

Stephen Cox

Before you gave up my essay in despair, you might have noticed that I called democracy "a means," that is, ONE means, of limiting government. It functions in a mysterious way — by allowing people to vote would-be tyrants out of office. That's why every constitutional republic includes some form of it.

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