First, it reverses the relationship between the individual and his government. For the founders, the individual — not the government — has the primary right to decide how he ought to live. Individuals then “institute” government to aid them in living in this self-governing manner. In order to put its citizens in the enjoyment of their freedom or natural rights, government must restrict their decision-making in some measure, with a view both to punishing those who would infringe upon the rights of others and to regulating the innocent exercise of freedom as necessary to ensure society’s preservation. But the founders also well understood that the reach of the public — the reach of the law — must be limited if individuals are to have room to make decisions about their own lives. Private decision-making was thus to be the rule, and public restraints the exception.
For the progressives, in contrast, government’s obligation to promote the fullest possible growth of all trumps whatever right anyone might think he has to make decisions for himself — to exercise, that is, freedom in the founders’ sense. Indeed, apart from the right to become free in the “positive” sense, the progressives repeatedly deny not only that individuals possess “so-called innate or ‘natural rights,’” as progressive political scientist W. W. Willoughby puts it, but also that the power of government is thus limited in principle. In considering the “attributes of the State,” Willoughby pointedly remarks, “that which first impresses one . . . is its possession of omnipotent rulership over all matters that arise between itself and the individuals of which it is composed.” To affirm the “omnipotent rulership” of the state is to affirm that government, not the individual, has the primary right to decide how the individual ought to act in every aspect of his or her life. It is to affirm, in other words, that all of the decisions previously reserved to individual control by virtue of the founders’ natural-rights doctrine are now subject to public control in whatever measure government, as the agent of moral progress, deems necessary. “There is no limit to the right of the State,” Ely declares, “save its ability to do good.”
Second, when freedom is redefined in “positive” terms, it is divorced not only from the content of rights in the founders’ sense, but also from the idea that men, as men, possess the same or equal rights — apart, again, from the fundamental right to become free in the “positive” sense. Although the progressives were confident that humanity was treading a common path of development, they also believed that different races and classes were advancing at profoundly different rates. In view of this situation, treating the different races equally would only frustrate the advance of the most primitive ones. “For a long time in this country,” Ely writes,
we were inclined to regard men as substantially equal, and to suppose that all could live under the same economic and political institutions. It now becomes plain that this is a theory which works disaster, and is, indeed, cruel to those who are in the lower stages, resulting in their exploitation and degradation.
Just how thoroughly government would need to subordinate any particular race (or class) would depend, in part, upon how primitive its stage of development was perceived to be. For the progressives, in short, treating the races unequally was not only not unjust, but was, in fact, a very hallmark of the government’s commitment to moral progress.
The progressive redefinition of freedom inspired a humanitarian but frankly “colonial” foreign policy. Leading progressive politicians, including Theodore Roosevelt, Albert Beveridge, and Henry Cabot Lodge, promoted such a policy in the wake of the Spanish–American War. In a speech delivered in the Senate in 1900, for example, Beveridge — the keynote speaker at the Progressive-party convention of 1912 — argued that American withdrawal from the Philippines would amount to an abdication of “our part in the mission of our race, trustee under God, of the civilization of the world.” America was obliged to promote the development of the Filipinos, Beveridge argued, but its obligation to do so was in no way dependent upon their consent:
Self-government is a method of liberty — the highest, simplest, best — but it is acquired only after centuries of study and struggle and experiment and instruction and all the elements of the progress of man. Self-government is no base and common thing to be bestowed on the merely audacious. It is the degree which crowns the graduate of liberty, not the name of liberty’s infant class, who have not yet mastered the alphabet of freedom. Savage blood, Oriental blood, Malay blood, Spanish example — are these the elements of self-government?