Progressive era: expansion and restriction of political and economic freedom

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The Progressive era is defined as the period of significant social activism advocating significant political and economic reforms.  Various groups championed for different political and economic changes. Politically, more reforms were deemed necessary, for instance, restructuring local and federal government to increase public participation in policy formulation. Conversely, it ushered in an era of economic freedom including mass consumption, control of the business environment by limiting the influence of private business, and increased federal government’s control of the market.  Increased labor union activities, minimum wage, the inclusion of women in the economy, and political participation were some of the expanded freedoms. However, limits were similarly evident, especially capping work time for women, and limiting public participation by using commissioners or experts in governance to replace elected politicians.  Hence, this essay proposes that the Progression era expanded political freedom by granting more voter rights and increasing public participation in policy and law enactment, but commission government limited the freedom as it relied on experts with no moral conviction to accountability.  Besides, economic freedom expanded through consumer freedom, more labor laws to safeguard rights and freedom of workers, control of the market through anti-trust statutes but still limited the freedom of minorities and capping working hours for women.

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The Progressive era led to political freedom by expanding voting rights as reforms were majorly aimed at circumventing state legislation through direct democracy measures. Powers were delegated to the citizenry and the influence of political institutions considerably reduced. However, the delegation of political powers, although meant to address the previous structure where power was centered on the polity, brought both positive and negative results. For the Progressives, the inherent belief was that politicians could become corrupt and be driven by their interests hence the inevitability of diverting from the traditional political institutions.

The commission government (government by experts) had its shortcoming in limiting the voter’s powers and freedom. For instance, direct democracy measures would empower popular majorities by granting them a voice in state and federal government. The challenge of commission government was its expert basis which limited the public’s freedom in politics.  Therefore, the minorities would not have a say in politics as powers were delegated from their political representatives. The freedom of the public in ensuring checks and balance was further demeaned as power delegation to the unelected administrators reduced accountability that policymakers had to the electorate, therefore, limiting political participation. In most states, democracy and freedom was undermined by commissioners whose responsibilities overlapped jurisdictions while they equally lacked political accountability. Although progressives believed that expert government would ensure that the government did not revolve around politics, later efforts to streamline and reorganize the executive branches by states highlighted the shortcoming of this approach: reverting powers to the politically accountable officials became necessary.

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The introduction of direct democracy devices like recall and referendum expanded the voters’ right and freedom to influence policy and national laws.  Essentially, the progressive era was characterized by direct legislation which accounted for several policies meant to expand the political liberties and embrace public participation in governance. For instance, the Oregon System as part of direct democracy spearheaded some of the far-reaching policy changes, especially around 108 ballot initiatives introduced between 1902 and 1913. The Oregon System undoubtedly remains as some of the significant developments of the Progressive era that expanded the freedom of citizens in influencing public policy and national governance.  For example, in 1908, voters adopted recall, and this would lead to the enactment of non-binding endorsement of the directly elected U.S. senators, corrupt practices legislation and significant steps to ensuring proportional representation for state legislature.

Part of the political freedom during the era was the extension of voting to women through the Suffrage campaign.  Progression in women’s political empowerment was through the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) whose membership was 2 million by the year 1917.  By 1900, almost half of the American states permitted women to vote on matters and decisions in their respective local schools. Despite the perceived advancement of women’s freedom in politics, the era further restricted their freedom especially with the introduction or the use of literacy tests along with residency requirements that limited the right of voting for the blacks, poor and immigrants.

Most importantly, the Progressive era expanded economic freedom by altering the business landscape. President Theodore Roosevelt interceded in the nation’s business industry as he redressed unfair market competition through anti-trust laws. On the other hand, President Wilson reinstated market competition and freed the government from the unwarranted dominance by the big businesses. To realize economic freedom, heavy taxes would be introduced to target personal, corporate fortunes in addition to the federal regulation of oil, mining, and railroads meant to reduce exploitation of the economy by the larger businesses. Conversely, Roosevelt used his powers as the president in trust-busting (a pioneer of Anti-Trust laws), through the Square Deal to subvert the economic amalgamation by differentiating good and evil conglomerates. For instance, he applied the Sherman Antitrust Act to disband the Northern Securities Company along with pushing for the strengthening of the Interstate Commerce Commission to foster inter-state business. Moreover, he had a part to play in regulating the food and drug industry.

The Progressive era led to the banning of child labor and setting minimum wages. The period was a milestone in achieving economic freedom through social justice.  Economic reform would also ensure the U.S.’s economic stability through the Federal Reserve Act 2013 that created the Federal Reserve System comprising 12 regional banks with a central bank to oversee the monetary policy of the country. Furthermore, the Federal Trade Commission was for investigating and prohibiting unfair business activities including monopolistic activities and price-fixing as measures that equally expanded economic freedom.  Some argue that FTC and Federal Reserve gave the federal government more powers in controlling the economy but the business environment and leaders accepted the move since it restored the economic order in the market besides warding off objective measures for restricting corporate power. Moreover, the public was given much freedom on consumer goods by introducing large department stores, retails, chain stores available in central cities, urban neighborhoods, giving people the freedom to consume goods from major factories. Accordingly, Foner confirms that “Progressive America is when the promise of mass consumption was the foundation for understanding how freedom is the accessibility to a cornucopia of goods availed by modern capitalism.”

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The progressives made the labor environment a level field for everyone, especially setting the pace for women to participate in work. Still, restrictions existed as married women were working more; too capped working hours limited economic freedom for women. However, more efforts were put in championing the rights of black children as regarding education, but still, expansion of freedom was limited to white children: the reformers had devoted little attention to black children. Despite the limitations, the effects would be seen as women got more chance to work. In so doing, women gained economic freedom and independence.  Abraham Bisno is one of the progressives who championed the rights of women in the labor force, with his suggestion that including young immigrant women into the workforce would improve their sense of independence.  However, economic freedom of women was further restricted by the Muller v. Oregon (1908) case which upheld the constitutionality of a law setting the maximum working hours for women.  In reality, women still had limited freedom in the workplace.

Economic freedom would also be expanded as the Progressive era led to an increment in labor unionism. For instance, Woodrow Wilson appointed Louis Brandeis in support for the rights of workers to union membership.  The principal belief was that industrial slavery was becoming a significant threat to democracy. As a result, companies would pay more and provide better working conditions to avoid union action. For Louis, unionism was a perfect example of freedom as a show that people had the autonomy to govern themselves, giving workers more freedom to bargain for employment conditions, wages, and influencing the crucial managerial decisions like layoffs, factory relocation and distribution of profit.

In my view, the economic freedom as the most successful and vital changes was brought about by the Progressive era. For one, the freedom for businesses enjoying in a free and fair market is much attributed to the anti-trust laws that redressed unfair business practices. Besides, the freedom currently protects people from the ordeal of fix-pricing. The era also established the ground for women to participate in the labor force besides bargaining for their pay incentives. Labor laws protect people from exploitation by employers and give the freedom for joining unions, championing for better pay and addressing discrimination.  Therefore, the current economic freedom enjoyed by the citizens and businesses is a product of the reforms, laws, and regulations by the Progressives.

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In conclusion, the Progressive era was the basis for political freedom by increasing public participation in policy formulation and enactment of laws.  Direct democracy tools like referendum and recalls expanded more voting freedoms. However, restrictions existed with the commission government where policy and law rested on experts, thereby denying people representation by their elected officials. Besides, restriction on minorities restrained their freedom to vote but overall, the restructure of governance expanded voter freedom. Economic freedom were expanded through consumer freedom, labor laws on minimum wages and working conditions, market regulation, and inclusion of women in the economy. Yet, capped working hours limited economic freedom for women.

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  1. Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty! An American History: Seagull Fourth Edition. Vol. 2. WW Norton & Company, 2016.
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