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The 2nd Bill of Rights: A New Conversation

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Last night Providence’s Cafe AS220 welcomed WGBH radio show host Mark Levitt, human rights specialist Tara Melish, Yale professor Jennifer Klein, and author Eve Sterne to the Action Speaks series Underappreciated 20th Century Dates That Changed America: Private Rights and Public Fight. The conversation revolved around the question: can and should the government guarantee economic security? A look at FDR’s 2nd Bill of Rights ensued framing the question historically to confront present economic realities.

On January 11, 1944 President Roosevelt gave his State of the Union Address. The Second World War was still raging and America was five months from D-Day when Roosevelt made a plea to the nation to continue the politics of sacrifice. A mass tax was levied to fund the war effort. Back then America paid for its wars up front; future generations weren’t the collateral of war mongers. In return for their sacrifices Roosevelt called for the implementation of a “second bill of rights” arguing that the political and civil rights guaranteed by the constitution and the Bill of Rights had “proved inadequate to assure equality in the pursuit of happiness.” Roosevelt’s remedy was to declare an “economic bill of rights” that guaranteed: decent employment, housing, medical care, education and social security and the freedom for businesses to compete in a competitive market place. Roosevelt sought to redress the economic fears of old age, sickness and accidents by creating governmental programs to protect society’s most vulnerable individuals. Beyond providing a basic safety net Roosevelt also thought recreation was a fundamental right. That same year a monumental work in political economy was published by Freidrich Von Hayek, The Road to Serfdom,in which he “warned of the danger of tyranny that inevitably results from government control of economic decision-making through central planning.”

Hayek’s work is central to libertarian thought. The Road to Serfdom argues that abandoning individualism and classical laissez faire liberalism would result in the loss of personal and political freedoms. A small minority of central planners would have to coerce individuals into submitting to their program. Propaganda would be used to make individuals feel the state’s goals were theirs and as Hayek admonished after studying the rise of Nazism the state will ultimately rely on brutal methods in the service of “social welfare” or the “good of the community.” For Hayek Socialism and Fascism meet at the back door.

Critics of Roosevelt’s New Deal and the “economic bill of rights” he pushed for wielded the same arguments advanced by Hayek. Public relations campaigns waged by the business community and the politicians who supported their interests depicted Roosevelt’s initiatives as a “creature of leftist forces” labeling the New Deal and the economic bill of rights socialist programs that threatened America’s future prosperity. Millions of working class people, small business owners and soldiers returning home to start a new life saw it differently.

The social forces that compelled the Roosevelt administration to establish a liberal version of social democracy stemmed from an organic bottom-up movement. Individuals organized collectively to protect themselves from the turbulent market forces that contributed to massive unemployment and the Great Depression. Unions formed to protect workers from exploitative bosses. As economic woes continued on into the 1930’s and America came nearer to WWII a public discourse was created that centered on: focusing resources on poor and unemployed, bringing radical change to agriculture by limiting production, regulating business and banking practices, “in general promoting schemes for a more participatory form of government that includes the citizenry in economic decision-making process.” Contrary to what Hayek envisioned, a wayward state seizing property and taking money from its workers via punishing taxes to fund its programs and impose the “will of the small minority upon the people”, the people interacted with the state to create programs that would protect them against the dislocating effects of unregulated markets and guarantee them a say in deciding the country’s policies.

Since the New Deal was enacted the Right has tried to systematically dismantle what they see as an unwieldy state apparatus that undercuts economic productivity by interfering with markets, a perceived assault on “freedom” according to the staunchest ideologues. The gains working class people and small business owners made during this moment in history are underappreciated today because of how the ongoing debate about the role and size of government has been framed. Panelist Jennifer Klein described how “today policies are perceived paternalistically as hand-me-downs to freeloaders”. Tara Melish noted “it makes a difference whether or not you frame rights as a governmental responsibility or as [social] tools for the people to demand rights.” We forget how the dynamics underpinning the social movements during the New Deal era were the outcome of people empowering themselves as political agents so that they could demand what kind of rights were appropriate in their society.

In a society where the “sole political definition people have of themselves is as a tax paying home owner”, it’s hard to imagine a political movement that could be as effective in transforming the socio-economic landscape as the union mobilizations and mass political organization of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Melish emphasized the way “cultural memes” are utilized in political rhetoric to associate words like “social program” and “safety net” with “socialism and laziness.” Owning the language with which we describe the economic realities of the 21st century, as the business class and their political party the Republicans do allows vested interests to avert addressing questions like those raised by Action Speaks. Observe how the word security is always addressed by the ruling elite and the Beltway media as an issue of national security. The conversation about economic security has been swept under the rug of terrorism. Notice how today’s public discourse has been reduced to a gallimaufry of culture war sound bites and tax policy battle cries.

Last night’s Action Speaks program aimed to engage the public in a meaningful conversation about the role government should play in 21st century America. Are the laws and rules that govern our country and regulate our economy as Roosevelt said in his State of the Union Address “inadequate to assure equality in pursuit of happiness?” This conversation, adjusted to the historical moment we ourselves are now situated in has been strategically averted for three decades. While rapacious corporations “rebuild” Iraq and Afghanistan as devastated former coal miners hang on for life in sacrifice zones, while stock traders invent and exchange imaginary “products” and millions lose their homes, while public schools are devolving into dropout factories and levees are breaking and bridges collapsing and temporary employees work for a decade at subsistence pay with no benefits and students live as indentured servants with garnished wages by JP Morgan Chase, and people are imprisoned without access to an attorney or due process because they wear black shirts and brew craft beer, and small businesses are devoured by federal subsidized Walmarts and Bass Pro Shops, a national conversation like that held on January 11, 1944 is imperative if we are to confront the economic, political and social realities of America today. These conversations force us to confront ourselves, our propensity for denial and the possibility that we are responsibility for the society we live in.


There is no reason why, in a society which has reached the general level of wealth ours has, the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom; that is: some minimum of food, shelter and clothing, sufficient to preserve health. Nor is there any reason why the state should not help to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance in providing for those common hazards of life against which few can make adequate provision.

Hayek put it more succinctly than I. Let’s change the topic of discussion before we are devoured by our illusions of empire and drowned by our delusions of innocence.


Written by yourinquirerprofoundly

November 15, 2012 at 5:51 pm