The progressives’ view on this matter is particularly obvious in the scorn they heap upon the free market, an economic system animated by the selfish, and hence base, profit motive, but they viewed virtually every aspect of life in America — e.g. the prevailing interpretation of Christian Scripture and worship of God, the aim and methods of education, the physical layout and architecture of our cities and towns, the pattern of rural settlement and the character of life within it, the use of our natural resources, etc. — in the same light. The way of living inherited from the American founding was, in short, a cesspool of selfishness.
When freedom is redefined in terms of spiritual fulfillment, the “problem of achieving freedom” radically changes. Freedom is no longer secured by constraining government interference with “the liberty of individuals in matters of conscience and economic action,” as Dewey notes, but rather by “establishing an entire social order, possessed of a spiritual authority that would nurture and direct the inner as well as the outer life of individuals.” The problem with limited government — with a government dedicated to securing the natural rights of man — is that it does not perform the more positive role of “nurtur[ing] and direct[ing]” the spiritual lives of the governed. Rather, it secures mere “negative freedom.” “Negative freedom,” Dewey clarifies, is “freedom from subjection to the will and control of others . . . capacity to act without being exposed to direct obstructions or interferences from others.” In practice, freedom understood as natural rights is “negative” because government puts individuals in the enjoyment of their rights (e.g. the right to acquire and use one’s property, to speak, to worship God according to the dictates of one’s conscience, etc.), primarily by restraining others — and, importantly, itself — from interfering with the individual’s right to make such decisions. While interference with individual decision-making is certainly not altogether illegitimate in a limited government, freedom is the normal case and restraint the exception.
At best, Dewey argues, such a government secures to every individual the mere legal right to realize his spiritual potential, a right that for many is essentially worthless...
If mere negative freedom is to be transformed into what Dewey calls “effective” freedom, accordingly, negative government must give way to positive government. That is, the legislative power of government must expand in whatever ways are needed — and hence however far proves necessary — to effect a wider and deeper distribution of the resources essential to the actualization of every American’s spiritual potential. As Dewey presents it, and as subsequent political practice confirmed, this process is basically synonymous with the implementation of the positive conception of individual rights. In this new order, individuals are entitled to whatever resources they need to attain spiritual fulfillment.
The government big enough to give you whatever you think you want or need is big enough to take from you whatever it wants or needs. That may sound like a platitude, but its truth is undeniable.