The moral evolution of progressives

By Marta H. Mossburg

Boy, have progressives “evolved.”

The party of saloon protesters, suffragettes and crusaders against smoking, prostitution and immigration are now the champions of government-regulated vice.

They no longer want to save souls, but use them to increase tax revenue to fund an ever expanding list of new priorities in a turnaround that would likely make Frances Willard, the famous head of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in the late 1800s, reach for a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.

The reversal is not totally consistent, however. No sooner had progressives successfully helped to ban smoking everywhere in public places had they moved on to champion legalizing marijuana.

Pot legalization is the cause du jour for Heather Mizeur, a Democratic candidate for governor in Maryland, who would like to use the money generated from selling pot to fund universal pre-kindergarten. She recently told MSNBC, “When we tax, legalize and regulate marijuana, we’ll have the revenue to invest in other important priorities like making sure that every one of our children are [sic] ready to enter school able to learn at the same pace as every other kid in our state.”

Whoa, so it doesn’t matter if the kids’ parents are lighting up each night so long as the government gets to teach their offspring during the day?

Buying, selling and smoking pot is now legal in Colorado and soon will be in Washington. The war on drugs has failed, just as Prohibition did, but that never stopped progressives of yesteryear from deploring ideals that did not conform to their moral standards.

If anything, it only made them more fervent in their quest to educate America’s public school children about the horrors of alcohol, castigate Hollywood for depicting pre-marital sex and smoking in movies and indoctrinate immigrants on Ellis Island in their teetotaling ways.

Now they are champions of “sex workers” and gambling for its job-creating capabilities, which makes one wonder if they might consider legalizing child labor so long as the taxes generated from it paid for universal access to dental care for child factory workers or championing bigamy if it paved the way for higher housing density and less urban sprawl. Or what about banning rich white families from adopting black children to prevent them from becoming Republicans? Ask MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry about that one.

Maybe it should not be surprising that progressive views have changed so dramatically in 100 years. Progressives themselves believe in moving ever forward to an as yet undiscovered ideal, and if that means discarding the moral underpinnings of the movement, so be it.

For all those who care about personal freedom, it probably feels good to have a movement that helped to elect President Barack Obama twice and the new mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, on your side. But ultimately the affinity libertarians may share with progressives about gay marriage or drug and prostitution legalization is temporary because freedom and other core values are not important in and of themselves. They are a means to achieve something else.

Look at how President Obama’s administration so quickly postponed or reinterpreted key provisions in his signature health law. His executive decisions will significantly impact how many people join the health exchanges and ultimately undermine the law from working as intended, since they mean fewer younger and healthier people will balance out the older and sicker people signed up.

If even he is willing to abandon central tenets of his philosophy, what does it say about progressive beliefs? And if the rule of law, even his own law, is secondary to maintaining political power, why take the trouble to have beliefs in the first place?

If anything, progressives should make Americans celebrate the Bill of Rights as an enduring defense against those for whom rights depend on who is in power. Evolution is poisonous to human life if tyranny is its final expression.

Marta H. Mossburg writes about national affairs, culture and Maryland, where she lives. Follow her on Twitter at @mmossburg.