Is Progress Possible?

06/02/2012 10:53 am ET Updated Aug 02, 2012

He who controls the meaning of words defines the debate. George Orwell, among others, understood this very well. 'All animals are equal. Some are more equal than others," for example. When ideological media chatterers demonized the very legitimate word "liberal," most Democrats substituted the word "progressive" to describe their policies and beliefs. Therefore, it is worth exploring the meaning of progressive.

Progress, according to Oxford, is: forward movement, advance, development, improvement; and progressive is: moving forward, proceeding step by step, rapid reform, modern, efficient. Not too bad in describing Emerson's party of hope.

Much of American history can be traced through efforts to move forward, to progress, while preserving the best of our past. Abandon historical institutions, beliefs, and social norms and you become rootless. Hold onto the past and refuse to adapt, and you fail to innovate to create a better society. This seems so commonsensical that it causes you to wonder what the bitter political clashes of today are all about.

They are about government. Conservatives want government to protect them, and otherwise leave them alone. In the laissez faire, everyman-for-himself nation a few will rise and the rest are on their own. The rest, of course, includes the elderly, children and the disabled. Since this philosophy has no room for a social contract, private charity ("a thousand points of light") picks up the pieces. As is often pointed out, this philosophy leaves no room for food inspection, health and safety protections, clean water laws, bank deposit insurance and a host of other public services the vast majority favor.

When asked about the impact of her severe reductions in government service on society, Margaret Thatcher said: "There is no such thing as society." She bypassed Orwell altogether and cut to the quick. If there is no society, there is no need for government. Hobbes calls the shots: nature is red in tooth and claw; life is war of all against all; man is wolf to man; and devil take the hindmost. There is little room for progress in the predator nation.

For those of us idealistic enough to believe in such a thing as society and that society can progress, public institutions that form our government are required. Bill and Debbie Shore, founders of Share Our Strength, have fed hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of children at home and abroad. But they would be the first to say our government must bear the major burden of guaranteeing a civilized society, and private charity must do all it can to fill in the gaps when the nation abandons concern and responsibility.

For those who do not believe in society with its contracts and safety nets, there is no need for government. Their motto is: leave me alone. Alone meaning a gated community with private schools and security forces. This mentality's historical strain traces to the pharaohs. But it leaves very little, if any, room for progress in the American society.

For those who believe in a society, that to some degree or other we are all in this together, there are three choices: resist change and retreat to the past; stagnate; or progress. So far, no one has discovered how to progress without the institutions of government. Democratic societies exhibit qualities of justice, equity or fairness, mutual respect, concern for the dependent, civility and the bonds of humanity. Thatcher was correct: if you wish to rid yourself of government, first rid yourself of the idea of society.