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Are Progressives Okay With Big Government?

David Callahan

That seems like an odd question to ask, since a central goal of progressive politics is to revive government as a powerful agent for improving American life -- expanding protections for workers, the poor, consumers, investors, and the environment. Amen to all that. But David Brooks nicely points out today a contradiction on the left that I've often written about myself: Liberals and progressives, since the 1960s onward, have been champions of greater individual choice. In turn, that value jives uneasily with the coercion that government often uses to accomplish big things. 

Brooks was writing about the challenges of enforcing the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act, which coerces people to buy health insurance. That will be tough, he writes, because we live in "an America that is, on both left and right, steeped in the ethos of individual choice. It’s an America steeped in a morality of authenticity, which says that it is right to listen to the individual voice within and immoral to be forced to conform to the external commands from without." 
The left and counter culture ushered in the era of choice with attacks on conformity and authority of all kinds. Those attacks helped create contemporary individualism, which the right pumped up further, starting in the 1980s, by glorifying economic self-interest as a positive force in society, the "greed is good" ethos. Extreme consumerism, where a profusion of choices is just a given, has taken things even further. 
Big government, and the ideal of the common good, is a tough sell in this environment to the extent that it makes demands on citizens or limits their choices. 
When conservatives oppose infringement of free choice within the economic sphere, they find receptive listeners among a public that doesn't want government telling them to buy health insurance or pay more in taxes or give up their SUVs for more fuel efficient vehicles. 
Likewise, progressives rally lots of support when they oppose infringement in the social and political spheres. People don't want a large police state that listens to their phone conversations or stops and frisks their teenage kids or, increasingly, tells them whether they can smoke pot.
Libertarianism is able to command backing across the ideological spectrum, which is why it's become a growing force in American politics in the past two decades. NIMBYism is a near cousin -- an apolitical force that pops up spontaneously wherever government tries to do things that local residents don't like, such as build a homeless shelter or install bike lanes or build a home for the mentally disabled or put in a new exit ramp. 
What do we do about the excessive individualism that is so at odds with the common good? Well, one solution is for the left to continue to move away from the language of rights and toward a broad message about the common good. Hard-won rights will always have to be safeguarded, but we now live in an era where too much regard for individual autonomy threatens the larger progressive project of a more equal society. 
The left can't have its cake and eat it too: We can't embrace reflexive individualism and beat up on various parts of the state (e.g., the police) for infringing on our rights, or make common cause with NIMBYism when it suits us, and then turn around and think we'll get our fellow citizens to accept state coercion around economic and regulatory policy. We need to be the people with a consistent argument for the common good.