What is Progressive Government?

What is progressive government, you might ask?

In 1958, Isaiah Berlin coined the distinction between “negative liberty” and “positive liberty.” A negative liberty is a freedom from restraint, whereas a positive liberty is a freedom to act. This distinction is not always clear. Is freedom of religion a negative or positive liberty? Do you have freedom from government interference in religious practices or freedom to worship as you please?

A line between the two can easily be drawn, however. When speaking of governments, a government can prevent us from doing something, or it can help us do something. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court established a right against segregation; a government cannot actively stop you from attending a school based on your race. However, 20 years later, they ruled that students do not have a right to attend integrated schools. A government cannot force schools to be segregated (a negative liberty), but in the presence of only de facto segregation, a government does not have to force schools to be integrated (lack of a positive liberty).

Most libertarians are negative libertarians; they believe in a large set of negative liberties, i.e. a large set of things the government cannot do to people. I, however, am a positive libertarian; I believe in a large set of things the government must do for people.

This position is not new. In FDR’s 1944 State of the Union Address, he said that people should have a “second bill of rights”: the right to a living wage, economic competition, homeownership, medical care, education, and recreation. FDR, the quintessential positive libertarian, believed it was the government’s responsibility to make sure people had these things.

This is what progressive government means to me. But don’t take my word for it; ask Lyndon Johnson:

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.

In this country, lacking the social welfare systems of most of western Europe, we put all of the burden of righting social wrongs on a drastically underfunded, underresourced, and understaffed system of public schools, assuming this will make everyone equal. I have news for you: it’s not going to. If people are ever going to be given the chance to compete on an equal footing in society, the government needs to provide the resources to help them do so. We need not only open the gates of opportunity; we must make sure people have the ability to walk through.That is progressive government.

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9 Responses to “What is Progressive Government?”


  1. 1 Zac July 7, 2010 at 11:59 pm

    What a joke Progressive government would be!!! I cant belive people actually believe in it. There used to be a time when you could not even bring it up. Its pretty simple, people should do a little research before getting brain washed by our government.

  2. 2 TommieJ March 28, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    “Positive” libertarianism sounds an awful lot like socialism…..

  3. 3 Jim Vaughn April 2, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    What “claptrap” The author wants to identify the curreent progressives with libritatians… give me a break. As with the other “isms” socialism and communisim, progressivism is a intellectual iteal(ism) that cannot work over time. Once the savings of a society are expended these systems all give way to either tyranny or democracy both of which can be unjust and chaotic.

  4. 4 Richard Riker April 21, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    As a progressive do you also get a puppy? This is the type of government that the moochers want not the free, engaged, self sufficient people of the U.S. thrive on. Everyone is born equal but no one remains equal. It’s up to the individual to work for what he or she wants, not the governments job to give it to us.

  5. 5 Laura Turner July 4, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    The resources the government would need to supply are not resources they can provide. You can not purchase them, no matter the tax revenue you collect. They include ambition, drive, intellect, stamina, and a belief in your own ability. You need to be able to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and try again when you fail.

    These are things that are taught, but usually by example from your family, not by teachers in a classroom. The school system seems to teach just the opposite, If at first you don’t succeed, ask for a government hand-out.

    I remember when I was a child, I asked my mother to go to school and get me into a different class, because I felt that my teacher was lacking in some area. I remember clearly her reply. She said “I don’t care if he/she is the worst teacher in the world, you will go to class and do whatever you have to, to pass the class” i worked hard and passed the class, but what I really learned was not to let anyone get in your way when you want to achieve something.

    The progressive government could never have given me that, because they do not believe in it. They would have changed the class I was in, and I would have learned to blame it on someone else when I failed.

  6. 6 Jim jones February 19, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    The progressive concept begins with eugenics to ensure the genetics of said child are average, capable of learning. Parents must be of same, for child environment.Teachers must be same. job offers must be same. income must be same, home prices same, etc. etc. etc. The only ones to have perfect genetics should be the ones selected to live on a space ship guaranteeing the continuance of life when a large meteor strikes our lovely planet and destroys all life.

  7. 7 Robert Sleadd June 11, 2012 at 2:27 am

    The last line in this article,it sounds familar? ( when you fail blame it on some one else.)But what do I know I’m only a conservative! Robert

  8. 8 alpa June 12, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    I remember hearing that men were created equal, but never opportunity. Who has the right to an equal opportunity though? There is no such thing. Stick out your hand and grab what passes. If you missed it, it’s not opportunity’s fault. Not mine either.
    And FDR the Libertarian? This fool needs to read about the Agricultural Adjustment Act.


  1. 1 What is Progressivism? « Idealistic Nation Trackback on August 3, 2007 at 6:07 am

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