The Progressives’ Legacy of Bankruptcy
The roots of our current crisis.


Domestically speaking, if development were to occur on a wide scale, the “positive” State would have to replace limited or “negative” government. The problem with limited government, as Charles H. Cooley explained, is that it “does not enlist and discipline the soul of the individual.” By limiting its reach over the individual’s thought and behavior, it merely ensures the dominance of man’s more primitive or “self-regarding” impulses, which, in turn, produces social conditions that retard spiritual development. Promoting spiritual fulfillment more generally would entail recognizing, as Ely put it, that “the state [is] an educational and ethical agency whose positive aid is an indispensable condition of human progress.” Like a stern schoolmaster, government would have to take its pupils in hand and direct them to their proper destiny.

The Progressives’ zeal to promote their fellow Americans’ spiritual development, and thus to engineer social conditions more conducive to this goal, gave rise to an emphasis upon a host of objectives intermediate to this aim. The Progressives were keen to remove any social condition believed to frustrate the process of spiritual fulfillment, including, first and foremost, the problem of poverty. One of the leading problems with the free-market system, Ely explained, is that “on the one hand, we see those who are injured by a superfluity of economic goods; and, on the other, those who have not the material basis on which to build the best possible superstructure.” From the standpoint of spiritual fulfillment, in other words, the free market results in a mal-distribution of wealth; that is, a few individuals obtain more wealth than is good for them, and most obtain too little. The problem with the latter condition, with poverty, is not that it results in a materially less comfortable existence, but that it causes a host of conditions that restrict or stunt the spiritual progress of those in it. “Freedom of thought in a developed constructive form,” as Dewey and Tufts argued, “is next to impossible for the masses of men so long as their economic conditions are precarious, and their main problem is to keep the wolf from their doors. Lack of time, hardening of susceptibility, blind preoccupation with the machinery of narrowly specialized industries, the combined apathy and worry consequent upon a life maintained just above the level of subsistence, are unfavorable to intellectual and emotional culture.”

Viewing the bite of necessity merely as a “restriction” on man’s intellectual and moral development — as opposed to a spur to better, more responsible behavior — the Progressives advocated a host of reforms designed to redress poverty and its consequences including, among others, factory legislation to promote worker health and safety, minimum-wage laws requiring higher pay, maximum-hours laws limiting employees’ hours (and thereby enhancing their leisure), public housing, and a comprehensive package of social insurance, including workmen’s compensation as well as “insurance” for old age, sickness, and unemployment (to provide a financial cushion when these hardships occurred). Because the promotion of economic security was not an end in itself, but a means of releasing the poor from the poverty-related restrictions upon their higher development, the reformers anticipated that great moral improvement would follow upon the enactment of such reforms. “When sanitation, good housing and shorter hours of work have generated enough energy to release starving faculties,” German-trained Progressive economist Simon N. Patten wrote, “poverty men will adjust themselves as capably as normal men and will also appreciate culture and morality.” (By this logic, of course, those recently rioting Greek unions should be overdosing on public-spiritedness by now.)


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review