Evan Soltas
Jan 8, 2012

The Progressive Raison d'Être

Scarcity as the justification for political rationing of goods

Catherine M. Rooney, 6th grade teacher instructs her alert pupils on the way and how of War Ration Book Two George F. Will, the esteemed conservative Washington Post columnist, had a very interesting column, one I found to be unusual in the depth of its thought and about which I had intended to post earlier. Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine and The New Republic disagrees, but I think he misses the crux of Will's argument.
For the indefinite future, a specter is haunting progressivism, the specter of abundance. Because progressivism exists to justify a few people bossing around most people and because progressives believe that only government’s energy should flow unimpeded, they crave energy scarcities as an excuse for rationing — by them — that produces ever-more-minute government supervision of Americans’ behavior.
While I think he's off-base when it comes to the actual points of climate science, Will makes an essential point that progressivism treats the existence of scarcity as normative evidence for the necessity of political rationing, as if one follows from the other by logical syllogism or induction.

It is an essentially Hayekian point, in that conditions of extreme scarcity of a good often strengthen the hands of those who call for political allocation, as opposed to what is portrayed as capricious or wasteful management by market systems in an unstated value judgement of what is just. Relief from this scarcity, as increasing supplies of shale oil and natural gas in the United States, in turn weakens the political pressure to "take action," any action.

To undertake the direction of the economic life of people with widely divergent ideals and values is to assume responsibilities which commit one to the use of force; it is to assume a position where the best intentions cannot prevent one from being forced to act in a way which to some of those affected must appear highly immoral. This is true even if we assume the dominant power to be as idealistic and unselfish as we can possibly conceive. But how small is the likelihood that it will be unselfish, and how great are the temptations! 
A hat tip to Mark Perry, who has been blogging about our improving domestic energy situation for months and months now.