The Uneasy Relationship Between Progressivism and Freedom

nanny state red rubber stamp over a white background.The United States was founded on an ideology that viewed the role of government as the protection of individual rights.  That view of government was pushed aside by the ideology of Progressivism toward the end of the 1800s.  The Progressive ideology envisions a government that not only protects individual rights but also looks out for people’s economic well-being.

A natural tension exists between Progressivism and freedom.  Partly, this is because looking out for the economic well-being of some often lowers the economic well-being of others.  Increasingly, Progressives also argue that people would be better off if government made their choices for them rather than giving people the freedom to make their own choices.

One motivation for the Progressive ideology was the perception that people who held substantial economic power were using that power to exploit those with less power.  Thus, the Interstate Commerce Commission was established in 1887 to regulate railroads to keep them from exploiting shippers, and the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed in 1890 to limit the ability of concentrated economic interests to exploit others.

Government interventions into the economy like this may help those with limited economic power (this is debatable), but they clearly limit the economic freedom of everybody to engage in mutually agreeable transactions.  If rail rates are regulated, or companies like Standard Oil are broken up, the freedom of those subject to these actions is obviously compromised.

Programs like these restrict the freedoms of some, nominally for the economic benefit of others.  Increasingly, Progressivism supports “nanny state” programs that restrict everyone’s freedom, under the justification that the government can make better choices for people than they would make themselves.

Essentially, nanny state programs say, “We’re going to take away your freedom for your own good.”

Social Security is a good example of a nanny state program that restricts everyone’s freedom.  Using the argument that people will not save enough for their own retirements, the government taxes people when they work and promises to pay them stipends when they retire.  The government forces people to save for their retirements.

Leaving aside the fact that people would accumulate more for their retirements if they invested the amount they pay in taxes in the stock market themselves, the program clearly compromises people’s freedom to allocate their incomes, and their savings, as they see fit.

Minimum wage laws prevent low-skilled workers from finding employment and gaining experience, compromising their freedom to work under mutually agreeable terms.  The FDA prevents people from buying unapproved products, compromising people’s freedom to choose what they want to buy and sell.

Increasingly, Progressives are trying to take away freedom of choice, nominally for our own good.  They dictate what safety equipment we have to have on our cars, limit our access to sugary drinks, and control what we can smoke.  (They don’t want people smoking tobacco, but seem to be OK with marijuana consumption!)

From a utilitarian perspective, one can debate whether government really makes better choices for people than they would make on their own.  From a libertarian perspective, there is no doubt that Progressivism compromises freedom.

Freedom is meaningless if we are only free to make choices that meet with government approval.  The Progressive ideology compromises freedom and takes away the individual rights that at one time justified the existence of our American government.

Progressivism is a direct attack on freedom.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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