The Progressive Framework’s Standard is the Group

by | Apr 15, 2024

The individual, according to the Progressive intellectuals, existed, not for his own personal happiness, but to self-sacrificially serve others.

The Progressive framework is wrong in every regard. It begins with an inappropriate standard, refuses to consider the full context, and regards the consideration of alternatives as impossible.

For Progressives, the standard for evaluating any policy is the alleged well-being of the group—the tribe, the community, the nation, the public. It was and remains an explicitly collectivist standard. Harvard Professor Josiah Royce was considered one of the giants of American philosophy during the Progressive Era. One of his most influential works was The World and the Individual, in which he gave voice to the Progressive view:

The central evil of our life is selfishness. Virtue is definable as altruism, i.e., as forgetting ourselves in the thought of others. The best eulogy that one can make over the grave of a departed saint is: He had no thought of Self; he served; he sacrificed himself; he gave himself as an offering for the good of mankind; he lived for others; he never even observed his own virtues; he forsook himself; he asked for nothing but bondage to his duty.

Herbert Croly, the founder of The New Republic magazine, echoed the other Progressive intellectuals, writing,

The Promise of American Life is to be fulfilled—not merely by a maximum amount of economic freedom, but by a certain measure of discipline, not merely by the abundant satisfaction of individual desires, but by a large measure of individual subordination and self-denial.

The individual, according to the Progressive intellectuals, existed, not for his own personal happiness, but to self-sacrificially serve others. The well-being of the collective, not the individual, is the standard of value. The collectivist holds that individuals do not have rights, and the group may do with him as it pleases. This ethos has been dominating discussions of housing and related policies ever since.

As an example, in the early twentieth century many cities used zoning to achieve both economic and racial segregation for the explicit purpose of protecting property values for whites. The alleged well-being of whites was used to justify legally prohibiting blacks from living in certain neighborhoods. The group—white homeowners—served as the standard. Today, zoning is used to promote and protect the values of another group—the community—when evaluating land-use policies.

As a contemporary example, housing advocates routinely call for laws to protect “tenants’ rights.” They advocate a number of policies to promote this agenda, including rent control, eviction moratoriums, public defenders for eviction hearings, and more. The alleged well-being of the group—tenants—serves as the standard when evaluating policies pertaining to rental housing.

As a final example, many housing advocates focus their efforts on providing subsidies and support for low-income households. They advocate for expanding the housing voucher program and requiring developers to include below market-rate housing in their projects. The alleged well-being of the group—low-income households—serves as the standard when evaluating policies regarding affordable housing.

In each of these examples, and countless others, the collective serves as the standard. Though they may choose different groups, housing advocates and politicians on both sides of the aisle have long agreed that the alleged well-being of one group or another is the standard that should be used when evaluating policies. With this as their starting point, they then evaluate policies from the perspective of the favored group. If a policy is judged to benefit the collective, it is good and should be supported. If it won’t benefit the collective, it is bad and should be opposed. This is the framework advanced by Progressives more than one hundred years ago and it still holds sway.

When collectivists talk about the good of the group, what they really mean is that the good for some individuals should take precedence over the good for other individuals. This is precisely what happens when the Progressive framework is put into practice. The alleged good of tenants must be achieved at the expense of landlords. The alleged good of low-income families must be achieved at the expense of property owners, developers, and taxpayers. This is Herbert Croly’s idea of “individual subordination” in practice.

When the good for some can only be achieved at the expense of others, a power struggle naturally ensues as rival gangs seek to gain political power and influence. The collectivist seeks to control others to do his bidding. The collectivist holds that individuals should not deal with one another voluntarily, that some must be compelled to sacrifice for the group. This invariably pits members of the group against non-members of the group, such as middle- or high-income individuals against low-income households, tenants versus landlords, or the community versus gentrifying developers. Non-members of the favored group are penalized, not because of wrongdoing on their part, but simply because they are non-members. “Justice” for one group can only come at the expense of injustice for others.

When the group serves as the standard, the individual must sacrifice his values, interests, and judgment to those of the collective. When the group—any group—serves as the standard, the individual—every individual—is subservient to the collective. This is the embodiment of Josiah Royce’s saint: individuals should not think of themselves; they must self-sacrificially serve others. And those who do not do so voluntarily should be compelled to do so.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to help low-income households attain affordable housing. But our focus, and our standard, should not be the group, but rather, the individual. Our standard must enable each individual to attain his goals and dreams, including affordable housing. Our standard must apply to everyone. This cannot occur when the group serves as the standard. We cannot enable the individual while subordinating him to the collective.

Excerpted from Chapter 2 of The Affordable housing Crisis: Causes and Cures.

Brian Phillips is the founder of the Texas Institute for Property Rights. Brian has been defending property rights for nearly thirty years. He played a key role in defeating zoning in Houston, Texas, and in Hobbs, New Mexico. He is the author of three books: Individual Rights and Government Wrongs, The Innovator Versus the Collective, and Principles and Property Rights. Visit his website at texasipr.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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