The convener opened the final, roundtable panel for the conference on Herbert Croly by quoting Virginia Postrel:

Herbert Croly is not exactly a household name, but he should be. Seven decades after his death, we are still living in the political world his ideas built–and struggling to escape it…. Crolyism overturned the ideal of limited government in favor of a combination of elite power–commissions to regulate and plan–and mass democracy. It was this pragmatic progressivism, not socialist utopianism, that extinguished classical liberalism as the general philosophy of American government.

Now, my first reaction to this citation was, Virginia Postrel is crazy. If we lived in Croly’s “political world” we would not be looking at a dramatic, multidecade increase in wealth inequality and a decline in social mobility. Croly said clearly — as clearly as he could, because frankly he was a lousy writer — that fulfilling “the promise of American life” meant eliminating “undesirable inequalities in the distribution of wealth.”

Let’s grant that “undesirable” is doing a lot of work there, but the point stands: Croly opposed inequality. Not because he was a socialist — as Postrel says — but because he thought that concentration of wealth meant concentration of political power, and therefore corrupted democracy. And he did think the state should have power to limit this concentration by regulation. Moreover, as it happens and as one of the presenters pointed out, scholarly research supports Croly’s ideas on this front; Edward Glaeser and Andrei Shleifer find “at least in some instances, administrative enforcement of rules is both feasible and preferred to a liability system, and that failure of courts to deal with the problems of market failure is one indication of the possibility that regulation might do better.”

But my second reaction was, if Postrel has somehow misunderstood what advantages progressivism offered, it’s not her fault: it’s Croly’s. Postrel seems to believe that Croly “extinguished classical liberalism as the general philosophy of American government.” And although this too is madness, it’s madness Croly invited. Croly, like lots of other progressive thinkers of the early c20, believed he was attacking a citadel of classical liberalism in the name of regulatory government. Like the much pithier Walter Lippmann, he favored Mastery as against Drift. Or as we now say, big gummint as against small gummint. In Croly’s words, the olden days permitted “the utmost freedom of economic and social movement” but “the government of a complicated social organism … had very different needs.” This is the kind of thing that gives Virginia Postrel fits.

But it’s one of the big mistakes progressives made, imagining they were fighting against a party of limited government. For the late c19 U.S. was no such thing. With its protective tariff, its subsidy to railroads, its use of the fourteenth amendment to protect the rights of corporations, it was a big gummint promoting the growth of industry. Somehow, populists knew this, but progressives didn’t. The question wasn’t the size of government, it was what government was designed to do.

And populist-types went on understanding this until they got a chance to fix it in the New Deal by using gummint to rebalance the scales:

Don’t let anyone tell you that government bounties were not being given in those days…. The railroads got their sections of land in each township to encourage their efforts…. A protective tariff system was maintained by which hidden taxes were removed from the pockets of everyone who labored in industry or agriculture…. Government did not bother business in those days. It couldn’t. Why?… In those days, business ran government.

The question is, why did Croly and other progressives think they could fight against the ideal of small government, when they should have been fighting the reality of government run for the benefit of business management? The Postrelian idea that we can choose between small gummint and big gummint is fanciful. That train has sailed. If you want to blame someone for having “extinguished classical liberalism as the general philosophy of American government” you should blame the Republican Party of the Civil War era. Or maybe Thomas Jefferson. Or maybe you should acknowledge that if you think classical liberalism was ever alight as the general philosophy of the American government, you’re a bit of a fantasist. You probably also think the free market owes you a pony.

(Further, if you believe government run for the interest of business management is the same as government that’s good for business, or good for the economy, you’re a willfully ignorant fantasist.)

Yet the issues keep getting framed as big gummint/small gummint, and progressives allow it when they don’t abet it. What’s wrong with you, progressives?