During the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt tried to promote the “progressive” view of the individual, freedom, and government’s role; in his Democratic Convention Address, Roosevelt argued that “necessitous men are not free men” and that freedom therefore entailed the opportunity to make “a living decent according to the standards of the time,” a definition that necessarily changes as the standards of the time change. To achieve this “freedom” in the new sense, Roosevelt wishes to wage a new “war” against the “economic royalists who allegedly jeopardize the progressive vision of freedom. In his State of the Union address, FDR more explicitly discusses the kinds of positive rights he advances: rights which “connect freedom with economic security,” such as the right to a useful job, adequate earnings, decent housing, adequate medical care, and a good education.
This is a view of rights which fundamentally conflicts with the idea of negative natural rights expressed by John Locke in his Second Treatise on Civil Government. For Locke and for the Framers of the U. S. Constitution, individual rights meant that every individual should be let alone in his life, liberty, health, and possessions without positive interference by others. Furthermore, for Locke and the Framers, any claim to “positive economic rights” of the sort Roosevelt advocates amounts to positive intervention with the liberties of some men so as to provide the goods and services which are forcibly redistributed to others under the pretext that those others have a “right” to such goods and services. FDR’s “positive rights” can only be implemented at the expense of Lockean negative rights.
Lyndon Johnson extended the “progressive” agenda further in his “Great Society” programs, which had as their aim the “wisdom to use our wealth to enrich and elevate our national life and to advance the quality of our American civilization.” Johnson sought to use government power to transform the cities, the countryside, and the schools so as to rebuild the urban U.S. over the next 40 years, prevent pollution, overcrowding, and deforestation, and “set every mind free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination”-a far cry from a limited government designed to protect life, liberty, and property.
Manifesting the “progressive” aversion to fixed and determinate roles for government, Johnson asserted that “the Great Society is not a safe harbor, resting place, final objective, or finished work. It is a thing constantly renewed…” presumably through government action. “Progressivism” thus does not recognize any end to the government’s shaping of positive institutions to enable “individuality” and improve the society as the “progressives” see it. This clashes fundamentally with the Constitution’s grant of explicit, limited powers to the general government and its reservation of all other powers to the people or the states via the 10th Amendment.
In their quest for expanding the role of government, both Roosevelt and Johnson explicitly flouted the Founders’ desires for a highly limited role of the state in the economy and in the life of the individual. They also neglected the Constitution’s protections of individual economic and personal freedoms from the reaches of government.