06/22/2012 12:43 pm ET Updated Aug 22, 2012

Progressives, Progress and Government: An Unholy Trinity?

'Progressive.' There's a word that's bandied about a fair amount in politics on both sides of the pond.

But what does it actually mean?

It's most commonly identified with the types of social reform, tax-and-spend policies advocated by those who historically might have described themselves as left-of-centre.

I have written elsewhere in The Huffington Post about the vital importance of 'owning' the names of ideas. As Orwell suggested, the language we use around a given topic absolutely impacts our thinking on that topic. And this is an area where (the Republicans' successful 'Death Tax' campaign excepted) the left wins. Hands down.

For me, there isn't anything particularly 'progressive' about telling people that you know how to spend their money better than they do. You could even argue that this is fairly 'regressive.' But, with real skill, the left has appropriated the word as its own, and uses it deftly as a catch-all to justify whatever bit of interfering or statism it happens to be championing at the time.

That's as maybe, says my pal and correspondent, the brilliant Simon Goldie, but isn't it beside the point? Isn't the better word, says Simon, 'progress'? Isn't this where political parties and government should be focused -- the advancement of that most noble of causes, the continuance of the human journey: out of the caves and into ever greater civilization?

To a certain extent, Simon is bang on the money here. 'Progress' is a much better word than 'progressive,' it's meaningful, real and free from partisan loading. One might -- for example -- just as easily think that 'progress' is better achieved through greater redistribution of wealth as it is by a reduction of the size of the state.
Up to a point. And this is where it starts to get interesting.

Because to date, and particularly through the 19th and 20th centuries, 'progress' has very often tended to look like the provision -- and receipt -- of basic, essential human needs: security, housing, education, clean water etc. The 'bottom end' of Maslow's pyramid of needs.

Governments (rightly or wrongly) have to a large extent taken the credit for that 'progress', but in any event it is relatively obvious that a large, well-populated, well-heeled and motivated machine like a government could -- at least in theory -- be ideally positioned to deliver on those basic needs (though in practice the experiment that was the USSR suggests otherwise).
But where the majority of those basic needs are met, as is broadly the case in the West, is government in any way capable of helping those it is supposed to serve as we move towards the next tier of 'progress'; the 'pointy end' of Maslow's pyramid?

I'm not at all sure that it is. Self-actualization, the realization and perfection of one's true self, is by definition an inherently personal, deeply internal and unique affair.

As a result, the cookie-cutter, scaled, one-size-fits-all approach that government has to rely on in order to be even vaguely affordable surely cannnot work. That doesn't mean that people won't try, of course.

(Indeed, only this week, no less an august an institution than the London School of Economics suggested that the mighty (and expensive, and -- crucially -- government-controlled) National Health Service turn its attention, wholesale, to the mental health of the UK.)

Huxleyan dystopias, personal morality and partisan politics to one side, as a matter of practicality there must surely therefore come a point on the journey toward human 'progress' which has to be the exclusive preserve of the individual; a point at which government is simply not physically capable of adding any further value, even if we/it wanted it to.

If we then layer in the fact that millions, perhaps even billions, of people around the world have had their basic needs met, then it might be just be fair to say that for them the role of government in their lives has reached its high-water mark.

That may be a bitter pill for enthusiasts of state intervention to swallow, and of course it is one reason why it is in the interests of governments the world over to continue to evolve and grow the definition of 'basic needs,' but none of that makes the logic any less inescapable.

Because towards the pointy end of Maslow's pyramid of needs, government is not the solution. It is not even, to paraphrase Rawhide, the problem.

It is simply irrelevant.

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