I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul.
~ William Ernest Henley ~
In the late 19th century, at the height of the Progressive (with a capital P) movement in America, adherents claimed that the American Dream had a dark side: prejudice against the unemployed, homeless, and less fortunate in general. According to this narrative, cultural faith in the absolute power of an individual’s free will resulted in those who were less successful, less achieving, or simply didn’t “make good,” to use American colloquial parlance, becoming branded as failures who refused to take advantage of the opportunities available to them in the Land of the Free. The solution envisioned by the Progressives was to dismantle the myth of free will and the American Dream on an early version of the principle of not blaming the victim.
The logical link between abolition of a psycho-cultural model and the ending of poverty and any number of social ills was tenuous at best. It relied on assuming that a newly awakened and sensitive middle-class would exercise its collective free will and donate to charitable organizations, preferably those run by Progressive movement members, which in turn would use the money to alleviate poverty and introduce “fair” opportunity (no definition being given for what type of opportunity had existed before). By the time the official Progressive movement collapsed in a whimper in the mid-20th century, no compassionate middle-class had ridden to the rescue (financial support) of lower America, but the movement did leave a legacy: the American national dialogue had subtly become predicated on the idea that anyone outside of the middle-class somehow lacked inherent ability to control their own destinies and consequently needed paternalistic protection and guidance.
A secondary outcome of the Progressive mentality was that free will became a commodity available only to the wealthy, the financially secure middle-class. This concept was not unique to America, though. If we treat literature as historical documentation, then E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, written as Progressive thought swept the Anglophone world, is a testament to the commercialization, and subsequent negation, of free will. Creating a dialogue where character Leonard Bast, refuses a job interview arranged by his progressive patroness, Forster wrote:
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “I shall never get work now. If rich people fail at one profession, they can try another. Not I. I had my groove and I got out of it. [….] I mean if a man over twenty once loses his particular job, it’s all over with him. […] It’s no good. It’s the whole world pulling. There will always be rich and poor. “
Forster, himself a progressive, absolved his character of responsibility, positioning Bast and his choices as a result of external influences. Lost to the story is the fact that the character exercised free will in making choices. In context of a recent revival of Forster’s work on screen, The Guardian wrote an analysis of Bast’s options at the turn of the 20th century and established that in real life there was an abundance of choices for people like him, which Forster must surely have known, suggesting that he was editing the facts to suit an agenda. Amor fati is not pretty, but it is a useful excuse for those who do not wish to try.
A knowledge of the Progressive movement origins and agenda of the modern “pity the hapless worker” mentality is crucial to understanding the predicament faced by contemporary America vis-à-vis industry. There is no doubt that many traditional heavy industry occupations are dying, victims of obsolescence and genuine technological advancement. There is, however, an instinct to prop up such industries and positions, relying on ancient tropes, such as “fairness to workers,” or argumenta ad passiones with sweeping, imprecise statements about the plight of the “left behind,” or “left out.”
America is not alone in engaging in rhetorical tropes of this nature, but it is the most powerful country to then proceed to act upon them. In the recent federal institution of tariffs on steel, in the name of protecting the workers, while most of the media engaged in Meno-like pseudo-dialectics, structured to lead to a vilification of President Trump, few mainstream sources considered the real roots of the problem in a true socratic manner, although everyone agreed that the American steel industry began to decline in recent years.
Among the few people who cared about discerning causation, rather than engaging in blind division, was economic historian Stephen Mihm of University of Georgia, who explained that the American steel industry has not upgraded its manufacturing techniques since the 19th century, relying on open-hearth furnaces. To place this technique in popular culture context, there is a wonderful classic film from 1945, The Valley of Decision starring Greer Garson and Gregory Peck, about the development of the open-hearth in the 1880s. In other words, the US steel industry uses a technique that is over 130 years old, requires vast facilities, and massive energy consumption. As Dr. Mihm explained, the American system is neither efficient nor effective compared to Euro-Asian (electric-arc) techniques which allow for resource-conservation and decentralized, economical production. Hence, Europe and Asia both have a competitive edge over the US. Yet, rather than accept that American steel companies should be compelled by market forces to either upgrade their techniques and equipment or go out of business, the federal government has rushed to shield them in the name of protecting the employees from the amorphous blob of change.
To protect workers, however, is to deny them the very agency granted them through free will. This is not to deny that there can be a theoretical information gap – i.e. poorer people in remote regions are unaware of employment opportunities in other areas – though the validity of this argument is debatable historically and practically. Let us agree with economist John Tamny of FreedomWorks who negates the information gap argument citing history and technology; if news could travel sufficiently pre-computers to trigger gold rushes, or other mass migratory events, then in the days of immense connectivity and free-flowing information there is no excuse for modern apathy. Therefore, information gaps are indicative of an exercise of free will: the will to not know. Those who make this choice, on any level of consciousness, must bear the consequences.
Paternalism in all its forms, ranging from protectionist trade policies to cradle-to-grave welfare states, is dehumanizing since it is predicated on the denial of the ultimate expression of humanity: free will. In the complaints about business outsourcing, the thought that protecting workers from change is a form of outsourcing, the outsourcing of responsibility, has not appeared to occur to decision and policy-makers. Dismissing free will allows the creation of a dependency dynamic, an infantilization of the worker. In the current dialogue about “fairness,” there is one unanswered, fundamental question: is it fair to banish the lower-income or lesser-skilled to the societal level of children through pretending that they are helpless and need guardianship, or is it better to withdraw all false support and force them, for their own good, to take up their place among the adults and leaders of the nation?
Mary Lucia Darst is an intern at the Austrian Economics Center. She graduated from Columbia University with an MA in History and Literature. In addition to working as a writer and researcher, she is an active classical musician.
The AEC’s fundamental goal is to promote a free, responsible and prosperous society. Through education and improving public understanding of key economic questions, the AEC promotes the idea of a free market economy and the ideal of a free society.