6.2.5 The Progressive Approach

The progressive approach is for politicians to make interventions to improve people’s lives, which is the opposite of laissez-faire.

The term ‘progressivism’ is used here to describe a belief in the power of politicians to improve the quality of life for the population, a tolerance of change, a welcoming of different points of view and a readiness to challenge existing institutions.  It is the opposite of conservatism in two important ways:

●  Progressives believe that new rational thought should be applied to the world as it is now.  They might not accept past experience as a justification for the status quo, in contrast to Burkean pragmatism (  Condorcet, for example, wrote:

“everything that bears the imprint of time must inspire distrust more than respect”.[1]

●  They believe in ‘progress’ or ‘meliorism’: making people’s lives better with human effort and politically-initiated change.  This is a viewpoint which is diametrically opposed to the conservative preference for small government and ‘laissez-faire’ (

Political interventions to make people’s lives better may not always be popular.  For example, there has been fierce debate over whether Britain’s new high speed railway (HS2) is beneficial.  Resolving such disputes is a matter for political negotiation, as described later in this chapter (6.8.4).

The following sub-sections describe different intensities of the progressive approach:

●  It can just mean a desire to improve people’s lives, and to respond pragmatically to externally-imposed changes (

●  Some progressives, though, are radicals and want to impose major ideologically-based changes on society (

●  The most extreme form of progressivism is revolution: totally changing a country’s governance, inevitably using some violence (



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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/625.htm.

[1] Condorcet was quoted by Thomas Sowell, in A Conflict of Visions, p.  39, when describing the “unconstrained vision”.