Donald Boudreaux: Progressives are unrealistic
Progressives take pride in their reliance on science. They insist that society should be governed according to objectively discovered facts rather than ruled by superstitions, dogmas and baseless fears and fantasies.
I believe that progressives are correct — which is why I’m no progressive. Progressives’ agenda is inconsistent with their boast of being “reality-based.” Progressives unwittingly promote government according superstition, romantic delusions and a tremendous detachment from facts.
In the progressive mindset, each democratic society contains a subset of people who, if given power over their fellow citizens, will reliably exercise that power with superhuman magnanimity, Solomonic wisdom and near-omniscience.
Consider the example of automotive fuel-efficiency standards. Should these standards for new automobiles be raised? Progressives believe that this question can be answered through scientific analysis by government officials. But, this belief is a superstition.
Government officials have no way to predict future gasoline prices. Nor can these officials know just how automakers will achieve mandated hikes in fuel efficiency. Will automakers invent more fuel-efficient engines? Or will automakers start building their cars and trucks with lighter and, hence, more flimsy metals? Maybe automakers will simply stop making large vehicles. Bureaucrats cannot know the answers to such questions.
But, even if bureaucrats could know the answer to each such question, they can’t possibly know whether or not auto buyers will be made better off or worse off as a result of mandated higher fuel efficiency.
Progressives will protest: “Of course auto buyers are better off if their vehicles become more fuel-efficient!” Alas, this protest fails.
Higher fuel efficiency isn’t free. (If it were, every automaker would already have achieved it.) In reality, to offer more fuel-efficient vehicles, automakers must either raise the prices of their vehicles to cover the higher cost of manufacturing engines that are more fuel-efficient or reduce the weight or horsepower of their vehicles.
For some consumers, improved fuel efficiency will be worth the higher prices or the greater risks of being injured due to cars being smaller or sheathed in flimsier metal. But, other consumers will not find the improved fuel efficiency to be worth the higher sticker prices or the greater risks to life and limb of driving less-safe vehicles . These consumers will be stuck with an array of automobile choices worse than would have been available absent the mandated hike in fuel efficiency.
Contrary to progressives’ superstition, there is no one optimal level of fuel efficiency. Because automobile buyers differ from each other in their preferences for style and for risk, as well as in their incomes, there are almost as many optimal levels of fuel efficiency as there are automobile owners. Yet, progressives unscientifically ignore such differences among individuals . Progressives believe that a handful of bureaucrats are capable of doing what is literally impossible — namely, divining the optimal level of fuel efficiency for tens of millions of diverse automobile buyers.
To justify centralized control — not only of fuel- efficiency but of countless other aspects of our lives — progressives unscientifically pretend that reality is vastly simpler than it is in fact.
True “reality-based” politics — for example, classical liberalism — understands and respects reality’s colossal complexity and the enormous diversity among individuals. Unsurprisingly, such a politics deeply distrusts centralized power. It leaves as many decisions as possible to each of the many individuals on the ground and gives as little power as possible to mandarins in capital cities.
Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University. His column appears twice monthly.