Reflections on the intersection of economics, history, politics, psychology and science

Understanding the conflict between progressivism vs. conservatism, particularly in the context of local communities…and the case that change is both inevitable and desirable. Although we tend to associate each political party in the U.S. with these two concepts, these political positions have changed throughout history. Even today, everything that we think of politically progressive isn’t progressive in the larger sense of embracing change. 

This conflict stems from the fact that intellectually most people understand that change is both inevitable and mostly desirable, but instinctively we also fear change. It also has to with our poor ability to both objectively assess the past as well as evaluate the future. Humans are particularly susceptible to starting point bias, as we tend to view both history and the future through the filter of when the story begins. On the local level this can manifest itself in how we view the desirability of our local communities and the new problems that progress brings. On the national level, this plays out as irrational debates on issues such as immigration. 

“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Yogi Berra

If you’d like to read more about an unappreciated interplay between progressivism and conservatism, check out Alan Taylor’s history of Central and North America since the arrival of the Europeans. He takes a, in my experience, unusual and very interesting tack by not focusing on one particular region or one particular polity, instead weaving a fascinating tapestry by touching on all the players involved and how they interacted with each other, for good and bad.

There are currently three volumes1:

with more to follow. I mistakenly started with the third one, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and am now reading the first.

In thinking about the impact of the European colonists on the native peoples who lived in North America I realized you could view their conflict — and it was a conflict, on many levels — as resulting from the struggle to be conservative in the face of a rapidly changing world. The colonists came mostly to preserve something they thought was being denied to them at home — the ability to practice their religion for some, the ability to break into the middle or upper classes for others — while the native people worked hard to not have the invaders upset their existing societies.

Both were doomed to fail in that attempt (the natives bearing more of the cost over the long haul) because they each induced changes in the environment which required adaptation, but which was delayed, with serious consequences, out of a desire to avoid change.

Key Terms Used

cognitive dissonance, conservatism, hindsight bias, free rider, NIMBYism, Post hoc ergo propter hoc, progressivism, starting point bias, zero sum game

Related Resources

The Inherent Corruption of Conservatism

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  2. You can read Mark’s more detailed review of Republics on one of his blogs