FDR’s Second Bill of Rights and the Progressive Mission

In Economics, Full Employment, Health Care Reform, History and Politics, Housing, Living Wage, New Deal, Political Ideology, Politics, Public Policy, Social Democracy, Uncategorized on July 4, 2009 at 1:54 pm

Introduction:

In the spirit of the best 4th of July speeches, which like Frederick Douglass’ peerless effort seek not to satiate with platitudes but rather to challenge and provoke, today I offer a reflection on America’s past and its future.

At the end of “Resurrecting Henry George,” I argued that a national housing assistance program would “help to make one more of FDR’s Second Bill of Rights, “the right of every family to a decent home,” a legal reality. I would argue, and I will argue in future posts, that the longer-term mission of the progressive movement in America is (and has unconsciously been) the realization of the Second Bill of Rights.” So today I intend to explain what I meant.

January 11, 1944:

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his State of the Union Address on January 11, 1944, the United States was engaged in the largest two-front war of its, or any nation’s history. In the European theater, Allied forces were bogged down in Italy south of Monte Cassino and Operation Overlord was still in the planning stage. In the Pacific, Allied forces were advancing through New Guinea following the bloody Battle of Tarawa.

And yet, in the middle of a crucial address at a time when the successful outcome of the war was still very much in doubt, FDR spoke instead to what would come after, in what might have been the last New Deal speech he ever gave. The theme began with him pledging that:

We are united in determination that this war shall not be followed by another interim which leads to new disaster- that we shall not repeat the tragic errors of ostrich isolationism—that we shall not repeat the excesses of the wild twenties when this Nation went for a joy ride on a roller coaster which ended in a tragic crash.

Roosevelt continued by re-framing the objectives of the war as “not only physical security which provides safety from attacks by aggressors. It means also economic security, social security, moral security.” The invocation of Social Security, the seemingly jarring transition from foreign to domestic policy was the opening movement of a speech whose moral center was the home front. In the bridge of his speech, FDR decried the “uproar of demands for special favors for special groups,” and recognized that “we have not always forgotten individual and selfish and partisan interests in time of war,” a rather unusual tone for a period we prefer to remember in glowing, sepia tones.

Even more unusually, he went on to challenge an even more sacred cow than national unity – individualism. Far from being an expression of American rugged independence, Roosevelt argued that “In this war, we have been compelled to learn how interdependent upon each other are all groups and sections of the population of America,” following the thread of prices and wages from farmers and workers and factory owners to “teachers, clergy, policemen, firemen, widows and minors on fixed incomes, wives and dependents of our soldiers and sailors, and old-age pensioners.”

Shifting to explicitly addressing the issue of the post-war world, FDR explicitly returned to the theme of his 1936 Inaugural Address, the theme that more than any other idea than “security” defined the New Deal – “one third of a nation.” The first condition for a new America, the first war aim would be not merely the achievement of economic prosperity but rather the leveling upwards of the poorest of Americans towards a universal minimum standard of living. (Sadly, the first, more anodyne goal of GDP growth would become the standard for post-war liberalism, while the second and higher aim would be marginalized)

It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth- is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill housed, and insecure.

America could not be content with a return to prosperity because of the re-discovery of economic interdependence, he argued. This economic reality, once hidden behind the veil of the free market, was being made plain to Americans, and just as the recognition of political community had reshaped an America in 1776, he believed that the recognition of economic community in 1944 would engender similar results in the post-war America:

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

Linking the Depression to the rise of the Nazi ideology and movement that it empowered, FDR here linked the cause of economic security to the cause of the war, bringing the theme of the home front into unity with the reality of a world war against fascism.

And then he introduced the Second Bill of Rights:

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

It has been argued in the past that America has been exceptional in defining rights solely as legal and political in nature, and avoiding the economic and social rights spelled out in later 20th century constitutions. FDR’s speech stands as a powerful rebuttal to this argument, a momentary glimpse of another America. Because Roosevelt did not intend this Second Bill of Rights to be a mere legal letter; there was instead a legislative movement to enact them into law, through the combination of the Wagner-Murray-Dingell Bill (universal health care plus a national cradle-to-grave welfare state), the Full Employment Bill (establishing full employment and the right to a job through Keynesian planning and the government as employer of last resort), and what would later be the Housing Act of 1949. This political drive was blocked in Congress, but for a moment in 1944, the United States seemed to be moving to a new recognition of human rights.

And for Roosevelt, the Second Bill of Rights really were about the United States and the world at the same time. We often forget that American politics and public policy doesn’t happen in a vacuum, that there is a conversation that goes on across oceans and national borders. And 1944 was a time when there was a Trans-Atlantic conversation about what the post-war world should look like. In the United Kingdom, John Meynard Keynes had established his economic theories into government practice and William Beveridge was in the process of writing his two famous reports, the 1942 Beveridge Plan for a National Health Service and a cradle-to-grave welfare state, and Full Employment in a Free Society (1944). In Sweden, Gunnar Myrdal and the Stockholm School were solidifying the intellectual foundations for the Swedish social-democratic model. Throughout every occupied country in Europe waiting for Operation Overlord, people imagined a new, better world to come. And here was FDR, speaking with the world.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.

July 4, 2009:

In the sixty-five years since FDR’s Second Bill of Rights, the larger historical mission of the progressive movement in America has really been the adoption of the Second Bill of Rights for all Americans, regardless of race, class, and gender. Truman’s failed Fair Deal was built from the intellectual foundations of the Second Bill of Rights. The Great Society and the War on Poverty were incomplete attempts to establish health care, education, and protection from poverty; the Civil Rights Movement’s call for “Jobs and Freedom” and the 1963 “Freedom Budget” echoed even more deeply the spirit of Roosevelt. And even in the darkest years of the left’s nadir, when America seemed to be permanently the land of Reagan, the “dream that will never die” that kept people going ultimately is that same dream.

So where do we stand today?

  • The Right to a Job - here, we’ve made the least amount of progress at the time when we have a nigh-unprecedented need for it. Even in the wake of the first stimulus bill, 9.5% of the country is officially unemployed. Unofficially, the number’s more like 18.4%. After health care, this must be the goal of our political efforts, because it has become all to clear that each future recovery will become even more of a jobless recovery.
  • The Right to a Living Wage – here, we actually have made some progress, both in terms of restoring some of the lost value of the minimum wage, and on a state and local level, establishing a living wage as the legal minimum. As I have said before, I think this is an important and productive part of our politics, a ritual of reconsecration to social justice.
  • The Right to Farm – ironically, here we succeeded far more than we ever intended to, and the result has been a permanent system of subsidies to agro-business and a distortion of our agricultural, energy, and food policy by the sheer political gravity of corn.
  • The Right to Freedom From Monopolies – if the financial crisis has shown us anything, it’s that we need a return to stronger anti-monopoly regulations.
  • The Right to a Homeas I’ve said before, we really need to work on extending this to mean something more than Federal subsidies to middle-class suburban home construction.
  • The Right to Health Care – after the successful scoring of the HELP committee’s new bill and the AMA’s endorsement of a public option, I feel more confident than ever before that we will finally enact this right into law.
  • The Right to Social Security – while we did establish a system of old age, disability, and unemployment insurance, it is in desperate need of improvement, especially in regards to unemployment insurance (more on this later).
  • The Right to a Good Education – while we have made some steps in the right direction in improving and expanding public education, a lot more is needed to make this right a reality for all (more on this later).

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