Economic Security: A Human Right Reclaiming Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Second Bill of Rights

By Sunstein, Cass R. | The American Prospect, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Economic Security: A Human Right Reclaiming Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Second Bill of Rights


Sunstein, Cass R., The American Prospect


ARE SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC RIGHTS FOREIGN TO AMERICAN TRADITIONS? Are they inconsistent with our laissez-faire freedom-loving culture? Consider a defining moment in out nation's history, when national security was also threatened and when an American president argued that freedom itself required social and economic rights. In our own day, we should be paying close attention to his arguments.

On January 11, 1944, the United States was involved in its longest conflict since the Civil War. The war effort was going well. At noon, America's optimistic, aging, wheelchair-bound president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sent the text of his State of the Union address to Congress. Ill with a cold, Roosevelt did not make the customary trip to Capitol Hill to appear in person. Instead, he spoke to the nation via radio--the first and only time a State of the Union address was also a "fireside chat."

Roosevelt began by emphasizing that "the one supreme objective for the future"--for all nations--was captured "in one word: security." He argued that the term "means not only physical security which provides safety from attacks by aggressors" but includes as well "economic security, social security, moral security." Roosevelt insisted that "essential to peace is a decent standard of living for all individual men and women and children in all nations. Freedom from fear is eternally linked with freedom from want."

Roosevelt said that the nation "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." Roosevelt looked back, and not entirely approvingly, to the framing of the Constitution. At its inception, the nation had grown "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."

But, he added, over time, "we have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence." As Roosevelt saw it, "necessitous men are not free men," not least because those who are hungry and jobless "are the stuff out of which dictatorships are made." He echoed the words of the Declaration of Independence, urging a kind of Declaration of Interdependence: "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."

Then he listed the relevant rights:

   "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 tare 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."

"After this war is won," Roosevelt said, "we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights." And there was a close connection between this implementation and the coming international order. "America's own rightful place in the world," he said, "depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for out citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.

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