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.