Friday, January 4, 2013

On FDR, Part I

January is an appropriate month for commemorating Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was born January 22, 1882. He delivered his “four freedoms” speech on January 6th, 1941. In this post, I will discuss a speech he delivered on January 11, 1944.

Before discussing that speech, it’s worth noting that FDR won the admiration and respect of leaders from both of the dominant political parties. Ronald Reagan was proud to report that he had voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt four times, and described himself as “a New Dealer to the core.” Reagan explained, “I didn’t trust big business. I thought government, not private companies, should own our big public utilities; if there wasn’t enough housing to shelter the American people, I though government should build it; if we needed better medical care, the answer was socialized medicine (source).”

“Give a man a dole and you save his body and destroy his spirit. Give him a job and you save both body and spirit (Harry Hopkins; source)."

Reagan would, of course, temper his praise for the New Deal as his politics took a turn to the right. But as recently as 1984, when reflecting back on the Great Depression, Reagan said, “All of us who lived through those years remember the drabness the depression brought. But we remember, too, how people pulled together, that sense of community and shared values, that belief in American enterprise and democracy that saw us through. It was that engrained American optimism, that sense of hope Franklin Roosevelt so brilliantly summoned and mobilized.”  

Reagan drew a sharp distinction between the New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society; perhaps with good cause. Whereas Roosevelt fought to protect Americans’ right to better themselves through their own efforts, Johnson’s agenda veered toward an entitlement society. FDR sought to expand opportunity for less advantaged Americans, whereas Johnson introduced the insidious notion of identity politics: a politics in which individual merit is ignored, and “deservingness” is allocated on the basis of membership in certain demographic categories. It may be said that FDR had the ambition and genius to recognize that addressing the problem of inequality in America requires precision, and those who came after him were content to employ a scatter-shot approach.

Even as his Republican colleagues accused Roosevelt of bringing “big government” and “veiled socialism” to America, Reagan was quick to point out, “many people forget Roosevelt ran for president on a platform dedicated to reducing waste and fat in government. He called for cutting federal spending by 25%, eliminating useless boards and commissions and returning to states and communities powers that had been wrongfully seized by the federal government (source).”

Reagan also had the wisdom to recognize that the New Deal shouldn’t be taken out of historical context. The New Deal introduced many new government programs and increased the power of the federal government, but any harmful effects that these changes brought were offset by the character of the American people. During the 1930’s, Reagan believed, “the essentially private values of the individual, the family, and the community commanded the day.” 

And it is certainly true that the Americans of FDR’s time were made of different stuff. They had the common sense to understand who was responsible for the crash and the Great Depression of the 1930’s. They weren’t gulled by the shoddy, self-serving evasions offered by the Wall Street profiteers. They didn’t sit still when the bankers tried to foreclose on farms across the country, and plunge greater numbers of Americans into a state of poverty and starvation.

Many present day conservatives condemn FDR for ushering in an era of “big government.” Many on the far left condemn FDR for avoiding some of the more radical solutions proposed by socialist leaders of the 1930s. Both views are mistaken. What FDR actually championed is articulately conveyed in his January 11, 1944 speech.

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.
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.
In another context, FDR warned that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. And today, Americans are the prisoners of fear: the fear that the promise of this great nation can no longer be fulfilled; the fear of expecting too much of our leaders; the fear of expecting too much from ourselves.

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