Monday’s Mtg: FDR’s 2nd Bill of Rights – Progress, or Stagnation?

In January 1945, just three months before his death, FDR gave his 4th inaugural address.  Most of it dealt with issues of war and peace.  But, the last section tried to link the causes of the horrible war that was winding down to broader issues of democratic governance – and to the future of the New Deal.  He argued that societies plagued by hunger, poverty, unemployment, and other social ills will always be fertile ground for dictatorship.  The President called for a bold form of inoculation against this vulnerability: An expanded social contract in which no American would ever again have to worry about lacking the basic comforts that are the building blocks of economic opportunity.  That speech segment and those rights have come to be known as “FDR’s 2nd Bill of Right” or, sometimes, as the Economic or Workers Bill of Rights.  He called on Congress to get to work ensuring their implementation.

The speech listed eight economic rights (although FDR was careful to add that his list was not meant to be exhaustive, and that it was up to the legislature to provide them; i.e., he did not say these rights should be added to the Constitution): The eight were the right:

  1. To a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
  2. To earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
  3. Of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
  4. Of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
  5. Of every family to a decent home;
  6. To adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
  7. To adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
  8. To a good education.

Since then, FDR’s 2nd Bill of Rights have been the rallying cry of liberals, even if most these days probably have never heard the term.  And, some of it has been achieved, such as universal K-12 education and an at least weak government commitment to full employment,  Although President Obama has never uttered the words, he has advanced the cause of the 2nd Bill of Rights by passing the 60 year-old goal of universal health insurance.

Jim Z. wanted us to talk about whether we are still moving forward on economic rights.  I think we should also discuss whether Americans really want all this –  or at least want them enough to be willing to pay for them.  On Monday I’ll briefly list the economic rights FDR mentioned and quickly summarize the conventional wisdom on where our system is now on providing them.  Then, pie debate.

Discussion Questions –

  1. What is FDR’s 2nd bill of rights?  In what context did he call for its enactment?
  2. What’s is the difference between calling these “rights” versus just nice things to have?
  3. To what extent do Americans have economic rights in 2013?  If some do, who in our country does not have them these them?
  4. To what extent do we want economic rights and already expect our government to help us achieve economic opportunity?
  5. What are the basic critiques of economic rights?   Affordability?  Economic efficiency and its affects on growth?  Moral?  Which do you find credible and which overblown?
  6. So, what’s next?  Will the U.S. social contract keep expanding, or not?

Links –

  • Brief Wiki explanation of FDR’s 2bd Bill of Rights.
  • A former high-level White House advisor argues that President Obama is attempting to expand the social contract in the direction of more economic rights.
  • In fact, this guy wrote the book on FDR’s 2nd Bill of Rights.  A sympathetic, liberal review of it is here.
  • Brief, modern conservative critique of the idea of economic rights.
  • Basic liberal case for economic rights.  What makes this interesting is that it argues that economic rights should be supported because they expand freedom, rather than destroy them, as conservatives say. 


NEXT WEEK:  Why is the Left ascendant in Latin America?


(note:  Post updated for clarity after initial posting.)


6 responses

  1. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    I’ve been trying to get a copy of the Cass Sunstein book–no luck so far.
    I have read it however, some time ago.
    I’d like to point out that FDR was ahead of his time–now we have the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural rights, though sadly, the US has not ratified it.
    Moreover, there is a body of interpretation, similar to what the Supreme Court does with US law–General Comments at the UN, etc. So it’s not just a matter of vague principles; it’s quite specific.

    The US government, under Republican administrations, has been a world leader, almost a world outlaw frankly, in crusading against rights such as the right to housing. Why are Republicans so adamant about this? I do not understand it.

    Interestingly enough, in China, the concept of ESCR rights, the “iron rice bowl” is accepted.
    It is civil and political rights that are problematical. It’s a matter of culture, I guess.

  2. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    You might, for example, want to look at some of the interpretations–General Comments–here:

  3. I think I am beginning to understand the disagreement between right and left here. The more a person thinks that they are in control of their destiny, the more likely they are to side with Republicans/conservatives. They opposite is true of those who see their lives as being less under their control.

    The reality is more complicated. Clearly, the more wealth and power you have, the more you are in control of your life, but psych studies have shown that having the feeling of being in control induces a person to be more proactive and hence be more successful.

    So the trick seems to be to acknowledge that many people are stuck in situations due to circumstances beyond their control while also trying to create as much positive outlook in those we are trying to help as possible. A difficult balancing act which has been getting even more difficult as jobs move to cheaper labor markets or are automated out of existence.

  4. Interesting. My (very) limited understanding of political psychology, however, suggests kind of the opposite. Conservatism (at least the moral values variant of it, not so much the libertarian types) tend to be those that feel a higher NEED for control of their lives, and thus feel a greater need to place the world in two boxes – in group/out group, us/them, etc. Conservatism is the one associated with a greater feeling of loss of control and a lack of personal power, not liberalism.

    Liberalism is characterized by a greater acceptance of tolerance of diversity and complexity of causation. Of course, the liberal personality has its own psychological quirks, such as an infatuation with novelty, a natural disrespect for authority that can be problematic, etc. But, from what I’ve read your thoughts may have it a little backwards. CivCon has discussed this sort of thing before. Search the site for “authoritarian” and “political psychology” for a few decent links.

    Bruce would disagree with much of this, and he would cite a political scientist and popular author named Jonathan Haight.

  5. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    More generally, “conservatives” or, I would say, reactionaries, almost always take a negative view of human nature. “Liberals” take a more positive view; the nature of man is basically good.
    The reality is that human nature is mixed, with hardly any limits in either direction.

  6. There is more than one thing going on here. One that I think we can all agree on (as well as most psychologists) is that the wider one’s “in” group, the more likely a person is to think of a stranger as a potential friend, treat them as they would a member of their group and the more likely they are to side with liberals and the Democratic party. (This does not mean that if one is a Democrat one necessarily has this characteristic since there are other reasons for attaching oneself to the party. Same for Republicans).

    Belief in one’s power/control I see as a very different issue. For example, from what I have read, pretty much every financially successful business person who attributes their success to their own effort is a solid Republican/conservative. The ones who admit to luck in the form of being born into the right family or at the right time being a significant contributor are pretty much all liberals/Democrats. I see this as the main reason for the difference in attitudes towards social programs: those who think that one’s life is purely due to one’s own efforts see no need for them. Those who admit to outside forces having a large effect consider them necessary. The extent that one adheres to one way of thinking or the other probably has a big effect on how much the government should have social programs.

    There is some psychological support for this second concept. For example, if a group of people are randomly given positions of higher status and power, the more confident of their ability to control their life in general than those who were assigned lower status positions. Though the whole idea as I outlined is mine alone (as far as I know), and is certainly debatable.

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