Of all the aims of government, most people can agree that individual liberty is to be one of the highest priorities. Although in contemporary politics it is largely thought to be a libertarian ideal, most people do not want intrusion into their life by a governmental agency. The problem arises when there is a legitimate need for some intrusion, whether it is monitoring communications (with the intent to protect the people from terrorism) or the imposition of regulations in the free market (with the intent to prevent the emergence of a monopoly); and whether an individual is a conservative or liberal usually dictates which they focus on, respectively. Many Americans deplore having any interaction with the government at all. We aren’t submissive people. Thus, the government is tasked with simultaneously maximizing individual liberty with the good of the public; all the while trying to maintain a benevolent image despite many programs (that are created with the good of the public in mind) being very controversial. This is a uniquely difficult balancing act because there is often a trade-off between them, i.e. the people must relinquish individual liberty in order to advance the public good. Of the various mainstream political ideologies in modern America, I do believe that progressive liberalism does a satisfactory job balancing these two concerns, primarily because of the way I personally interpret the idea of individual liberty. Additionally, I believe the amount of empathy a person has dictates whether they will be an advocate for the concept of equality of opportunity or adopt a more Darwinist approach that advocates making do with what you have. Because these theoretical questions nearly always lead to normative answers, I believe that support or disdain for the following liberal ideals comes from a very foundational place within each of us.
When deciding which political ideology satisfies this trade off best, there are two concepts that must be thoroughly understood that will guide people to their answer. The first is how you define liberty. John Stuart Mill, hundreds of years ago, first advanced what we like to think of today as a negative interpretation of liberty. Mill’s “. . . general theme was that government should leave people alone, provided they do not harm others. He held that since we do not know beyond doubt what is desirable and undesirable, people should be allowed to argue the question freely, neither government nor society imposing any restraint on speech or press,” (Van Dyke 11). In other words, the people had more liberty the more the government refrained from interacting with them. This negative idea of liberty also pervaded in the economic realm, with Adam Smith advancing the idea of laissez-faire governmental economic policy. Laissez-faire condemned regulation of the free-market, advocating total economic freedom and implying that any government action would likely be detrimental to the economy.
During the latter half of the 19th century, a newer form of liberalism emerged. T.H. Green, as well as others, began to advance the idea that the negative interpretation of liberty is not what we should attempt to achieve. Green says, “When we speak of freedom. . . we mean a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying. . . [Freedom is] the liberation of the powers of all men equally for contributions to the common good,” (Van Dyke 19). Thus, there was a mass realignment among the people, and liberty had begun to be understood in a different way on the most fundamental of levels. The role of government was evolving. Government was now responsible to not only remove the chains of those who were at a disadvantage relative to others; it was now additionally tasked with providing a means for those people to improve their life further. If the mass creation of opportunity for the people is “public good,” which I think is a fair assumption to make; and individual liberty is to be thought of as the capacity for people to make the best of themselves, then this is the more philosophic reason that I believe progressive liberalism is effective at balancing individual liberty and public good.
The second concept that must be personally defined is whether one’s idea of liberty places emphasis more so on economic liberty or social liberty. Formally, the definition of liberty encompasses both of these; but the problem is, here again, there seems to be a trade-off. Liberal ideology seems to consistently sacrifice economic liberty for better social positioning (e.g. redistribution of wealth, regulation of industry), though this was not always the case. Classical liberals and their laissez-faire economics were strictly against economic regulation. In modern times, however, we collectively give up a great deal of money so as to support those who are worse off than ourselves: increasing their capacity to better themselves by receiving financial help. If conservatives place more emphasis on economic liberty, which I think is a fair assumption to make; and social tolerance is to be thought of as a characteristic of an advanced society (implying tolerance is for the public good), then this is one of the more tangible reasons that I believe progressive liberalism is effective at balancing individual liberty and public good.
At the root of liberalism is its emphasis on equality of opportunity. This can be defined as “what exists in the absence of arbitrary discrimination, disadvantages or handicaps for which society is responsible, and disadvantages or handicaps for which the individual is not responsible,” (Van Dyke 85). To simplify, this is the belief that everyone should have an equal chance in life, regardless of their socioeconomic status, and that no one should be disadvantaged due to artificial and arbitrary discrimination. Ceteris paribus, talent and skill should be the deciding factor in an individual’s success, not race or the neighborhood you grew up in. This is a very widely accepted ideal, but the split between conservatives and liberals happens with the implementation of the equality of opportunity. It takes a great deal of funding to get close, and this neccesitates giving up individual economic liberty for the public good, which conservatives oppose and liberals advocate. F.D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislative program is the widely accepted starting point for a government that put equality of opportunity at the forefront of the agenda. Roosevelt’s administration enacted a massive amount of legislation with the aim of alleviating the financial stresses of the American people following the Great Depression that began in 1928. Roosevelt “. . . saw a need for an activist and interventionalist government- a government that would actively strive to make it possible for people to have better lives” and he wished to “give worth to freedom by making jobs and food available” (Van Dyke 39).
Programs such as Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Medicare/Medicaid all seek to provide everyone with at least a minimal amount of footing. We, as society, have decided that it is worth the expense to ensure that everyone at least has a means to feed their family and receive medical care should they need it. Since the New Deal, government has made countless attempts to give the best possible advantage to the disadvantaged, and many conservatives would still consider these efforts in vain. They see an infringement on individual liberty because taxes must necessarily increase to support these sweeping programs, but I personally feel that these gestures for the public good are worth the abdication of a small amount of individual liberty. Indeed, there is redistribution taking place, but I see the balance as very reasonable, and the public benefit satisfactory.
In conclusion, whether an individual feels that the progressive liberal ideology does a suitable job in balancing public good with individual liberty almost entirely is question of personal beliefs about human nature. Of these beliefs, they are nearly all so fundamental and foundational to everything else that people very rarely abandon one ideology to accept another. My point is that an individual who is conservative could take every point I have argued here and simply argue it the other way; with both our conclusions being normative in nature. Regardless, I strongly feel that citizens have a responsibility to each other. We should, by default, ensure that our fellow man has a roof over his head and food on his table, with the burden of proving his unworthiness on us. Even if this means increased financial burden on myself, I am accepting of it. The public good is worth the minimal encroachment on my paycheck.
Van Dyke, Vernon. Ideology and Political Choice. Chatham: Chatham House Publishers, Inc., 1995.