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What Caused the Progressive Plague? February 14, 2016

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Politics.
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When we look back at the ravages of a plague that has swept through a region or even a continent, it is many a person’s impulse to, once the dust has settled, do a little detective work and ascertain its origin.   Where did it begin?  What was its root cause?  What was the impetus that caused it to spread across an area so relatively quickly, leaving havoc in its wake?

George Will succinctly observed that for there to be an epidemic, one needs two things; a microbe, and an enabling social context.  For example, the enabling social context for the infamous Black Plague of the 14th Century was increased international trade.  The bacteria causing the deadly disease were found in the saliva of fleas laced with rodent blood.  They hitchhiked on the rats (or, gerbils, as a recent scientific study suggests) as whole colonies of them moved westward through Asia along with merchants traveling along the Silk Road, eventually reaching the ports at Crimea.  The rats wasted no time climbing the mooring ropes of merchant ships bound for ports in Europe, and the rest, as they say was history.  If one were to view a map of the number of dead per square mile (or kilometer) in Europe, it becomes clear that Italy, with its bevy of Mediterranean ports, was the hardest-hit area of Europe during the time of the Black Death almost 700 years ago.

 While media hype may have overblown the occasional Ebola outbreak in west Africa, nothing like the Black Plague has ravaged society like it did Europe so long ago.

 That said, another infectious plague, this time of the ideological persuasion, has been ravaging America for the past century:  that of Progressivism.  But what caused its spread at the outset of the Twentieth Century?  Sure, the microbe of the authoritarian ideology had germinated amongst some of the intelligentsia during the last couple of decades of the 19th Century (e.g, John Dewey and his idea that we should be “free” from poverty).  At that same time, Woodrow Wilson found out how to rationalize his knowing what was best for his fellow man.   He did so while studying for his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University, a school that imported the collectivist, bureaucratic German thinking of the age in the attempt to infect the American-nurtured concept of a freeborn citizenry.

 But while the ideological microbe had grown into a potent colony of cells by the 1900s, what was the social context that unleashed its destruction?  Blame the progress of that time, indirectly.  Joel Mokyr of the Manhattan Institute explains the context.  The hallmark of the 20th Century, he says, in terms of human progress, was large-scale technology.  Some examples include:  massive shipping containers; manned spacecraft (or just communication satellites) launched into space on huge rockets; oil-drilling platforms; massive power stations; steel mills and car assembly plants that take up many acres, not to mention huge airplanes (from Howard Hughes’ Hercules to the recently-retired Boeing 747).

 While these are familiar sights today, a century ago, such large-scale things would be absolutely awe-inspiring.  At that time, titans of industry were opening up production facilities at scales undreamed of then.  For example, Henry Ford opened up his Highland Park plant in 1910, and implemented the first auto assembly line there four years later.  By 1917, Ford already started building his even-larger Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich.  The size of this plant is mind-boggling even by today’s standards, what with its covering 960 acres (that is one-and-a-half square miles), and had 100 miles of internal railroad track.  At its peak, 100,000 men earned their livings in that gargantuan facility.

 At the same time, giant steel mills sprang up along the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, and even more so along the Allegheny and Monongahela of Pittsburgh.  As political scientist Michael Barone speculated, these had to have been breathtaking to people in the 1910s, since most of those folks grew up on farms where the tallest structure they had ever seen was the steeple of their local town’s church.

 Also during this time, immigrants came to America through New York harbor.  They travelled on ocean liners that were the largest ever built, and once in the Big Apple, they witnessed skyscrapers continuing to arise, one higher than the other.  Some of them held offices for the titan industrialists and financiers, like that of John D. Rockefeller at 26 Broadway and J.P. Morgan at 23 Wall Street.  Behind them was the 60-story Woolworth Building, which was the tallest building in the world when it was completed in 1913, and would maintain that distinction until the Chrysler Building was built in 1930

All this was amazing progress by the standards of any age, before or after.  But it came with a major side effect.  “Large” technology had the tendency to encourage large bureaucracies and large government.  To be sure, you needed this sort of large, military-style bureaucracy and centralized control in the private sector to manage those 100,000 workers at Ford’s factory complex in Dearborn, and eventually, to manage the big unions that grew with it and other plants.

It thus became an easy sell to the voting public that that with so much wealth and such gigantic means of production concentrated in the hands of so relatively few, that both (a bigger) government and (growing) labor unions should be a counterweight of power in society, lest we somehow become a Plutocracy (or so the Progressive narrative went as part of their sales pitch to the people).

Of course, that was 100 years ago:  this is now.  And now, the potentially new American Century is defined by small-scale technology.  Television is a good example:  they used to take up whole consoles in a living room.  Now, you can watch network and cable TV shows alike on your portable, lightweight smartphone on demand.  Henry Ford’s plants were an icon of that industrial age, while the smartphone is an icon of ours.

Another contrast between the ages, technologically-speaking, is the military.  Large technology begat large armies, as is evident in both World Wars.  Historian Niall Ferguson estimates that total casualties of the First World War alone to be about 9.5 million deaths and 15 million wounded.  Almost three decades later, military tactics evolved along with the technology.  Gone were the Napoleonic approaches of trench warfare; in was General Patton’s mechanized warfare doctrine, which, according to military historian Robert Shales, culminated in the march to Baghdad in 2003.  But the enemies adapted, and the mass armies that were of Patton’s time have given way to special operations forces who are more adept at dealing with asymmetrical warfare.

The reason that large-scale technology became the breeding ground for Progressivism to infect the public like the Plagues of yore was that it required the standardization of masses of people; it required centralized command-and-control, along with conformity to social norms (the latter of which might ironically appeal to social conservatives today, contingent on the social benefit of said norms).

Yet it is “small” technology of the current day and age that enables more individuals to make individual choices, to fashion our world in our own dimensions, and to apply our talents and pursue interests in ways that we choose.  In short, what has happened over the past 100 years, at least in terms of options in the market, is that standardization has given way to customization.

The B. Hussein Obama Progressives of today do not understand this at all.  They – the President included – see history as a progress from minimal government to ever-larger, ever-growing government.  This is only logical, since government is the false god they worship.  Indeed, such religious zeal blinds Progressives to the fact that history does not proceed in a straight line.  One only needs to see the decline of Rome, and the technological and economic stagnation of the Dark Ages that succeeded it, to understand this fact.

More to the point, that fact is on display today.  The Progessives’ religious fixation on big government has thus led to a major disconnect in our society.  Sure, it was an easy sell to the public 100 years ago given the afore-explained context of large-scale technology.  But the “small” technology of today requires a different approach; that is, more adaptability and responsiveness to constituents.  One does not get that from the bloated bureaucracies of a big government that is a disastrous holdover from yesteryear.



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