Ferguson and Progressivism: Riding on the Backs of Turtles


The 17th and 18th centuries brought tremendous advances in science, thanks to the likes of Isaac Newton and many others. These advances brought changes not only in how we viewed the physical universe, but in how we defined rational thought. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that this time period is also known as the Age of Reason.

During this time, scientists developed a mechanical view of nature; that is, all effects have causes, and their relationships are understandable and quantifiable through theory and experimentation. Over time, this newly defined scientific method transitioned from the natural sciences into nearly all modern disciplines, including the social sciences, economics, and even in political theory. In fact, our country’s governing principles are products of the Age of Reason. Years later, Friedrich Engels, not to be left out of this “thought” revolution, coined the term “scientific socialism” to apply to Karl Marx’s socio-economic theory. It refers to using the scientific method for understanding and predicting socio-economic phenomena by studying historical data to predict outcomes and decide future developments.

In one way or another, liberal intelligentsia claim they operate under scientific socialism, although they tend to prefer the tonier “rational progressivism.” Regardless of what it is called, all this theorizing, data collection, and social engineering requires enlightened experts acting as central planners. And since outcomes can’t be left to individual choices, the heavy hand of government is needed to ensure compliance to the scientifically derived plan.

And that brings us to Ferguson, Missouri. We can’t shake a déjà vu feeling when we watched the events there unfold. (Remember Rodney King? If so, you remember the riots as well.)

[RELATED on OCR: “Filling in the Blanks in Ferguson”]

Some of the worse riots occurred in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965, when members of a black family were arrested for protesting the arrest of another family member. People began to loot, vandalize and clash with police. The rioting lasted six days, with over 30 people killed, 1,000 injured, and 3,500 arrested.

Members of a gubernatorial commission put forth a hypothesis that the causes of the LA riots were high unemployment, poor schools, and other inferior living conditions, including police brutality.

Nearly concurrently with the LA riots, President Johnson was pushing his Great Society programs that would fix poverty/riot cause and effect cycles, much as Keynesian economics claims to fix boom and bust cycles. Since then, liberal panel after liberal panel pushed for the same solution – more government programs.

[RELATED on OCR: “Our Coming Economic Collapse: The Boom and the Bust”]

To say there has been no improvement would be hyperbole. But according to the chattering class, it’s still 1965. That’s why today’s talking heads are saying the causes of the Ferguson riots are … high unemployment, poor schools, and other inferior living conditions, including police brutality. Even President Obama restated these causes for the riots. The only thing he didn’t blame was a YouTube video.

What the progressives of 1965 and 2014 have in common is their belief that more government engineering is needed to cure social ills. However, giving the earlier progressives the benefit of the doubt, what distinguishes the two groups is that the latter has nearly 50 years of experimentation with extensive data to show that government-centered social solutions are failures. The causes of the LA riots may have been correctly deduced, but the root cause of the Ferguson riots is 50 years of progressive programs that have destroyed the very people those programs claimed it would help. It’s as if the Age of Reason never even existed.

The greatest contribution modern Liberalism has made is forcing us to see the inequalities in our society. But Liberalism’s greatest failures are its solution sets; remember Midnight Basketball? It is not surprising that Marx spent hundreds of pages in Das Kapital criticizing capitalism, but only a few pages talking about how socialism would actually work. And Lenin viewed the details of running a country after the Russian revolution as “bookkeeping.” It is in socialism’s DNA to fail because of its conviction that central planning human behavior or a highway system differ in degree not in kind.

What progressives fail to understand is that socio-economics is not a deterministic science. It is more akin to modern chaos theory, where a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Kansas. In this respect, Adam Smith’s invisible hands are a more accurate reflection of how efficient socio-economic systems actually work, i.e. locally, than Marx’s centrally planned voodoo economics.

[RELATED on OCR: “Foundations of Economics: Every Man for Himself”]

Politics exploits weaknesses for political gain, particularly when causes and effects are fuzzy. We see this in global warming, which is a natural science. But the exploitation reaches its pinnacle in the social sciences, where cause and effect are generally more nebulous than in the natural sciences, allowing politicians and progressives to advance a fix via one government program after another. So the push for the same failed liberal social solutions has a medical analogy of curing fever by more bloodletting through leeches. If progressives were truly enlightened, they would use the past 50 years of observation, experimentation, and data collection to try something else.

It would be like Isaac Newton, after giving a lecture on his theory of gravity, after debunking past failed theories on planetary motion, having the following discussion with a colleague that has an investment in older failed theories:

Colleague: Professor Newton, your theory of gravity describing the earth’s motion around the sun is wrong.

Newton: And what is your theory sir?

Colleague: It is well known the earth rests on the back of a giant turtle.

Newton: What does this turtle stand on?

Colleague: That’s a good question; the first turtle stands on the back of a larger second turtle.

Newton: But what does this second turtle stand on?

Colleague: Why, Professor Newton, every child knows it’s turtles all the way down.

Intellectually and scientifically speaking, progressives are stuck in the socio-economic dark ages; riding on the backs of turtles all the way down.


Tony Corvo is a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with a Ph.D. in physics. He is active in local Beavercreek, Ohio politics and is the author of All Politics is Loco: Musings from the Conservative Next Door. He and his wife have two grown daughters. He writes extensively on local issues. Many of his recent articles can be found at taxbusters.wordpress.com/author/phdmc2.

Related on OCR: All articles by Tony Corvo.

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