My Liberal/Progressive Agenda II: FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights’
The cause of FDR’s presidential career was economic justice. FDR himself was born to wealth, but his experience with polio sensitized him to the suffering of others, especially the poor. Eleanor pushed Franklin on racial justice via strengthening civil rights protections, but FDR was cautious because he needed to keep Southern segregationists firmly in the New Deal Democratic coalition in order to have the large Congressional majorities that made the New Deal reforms possible. He was also semi-tone deaf to struggles for equality of the sexes despite his partnership with Eleanor–an equality in a White House couple not seen again until Jimmy & Rosealynn Carter and not surpassed until Bill and Hillary Clinton–and despite appointing the first female cabinet head. But on economic justice FDR was such a champion that other wealthy people called him “a traitor to his class.” In his last State of the Union, in 1944, Roosevelt was already dying and had to address Congress via radio from his bed rather than in person. In this speech, FDR outlined an agenda for a series of Constitutional Amendments that would form a “Second Bill of Rights” for American citizens. But Roosevelt died in office and, although Truman defended and attempted to expand the New Deal with the Square Deal, Republicans made comebacks and, after Truman desegregated the military, they cooperated with conservative Southern Democrats to make certain that no part of the “Second Bill of Rights” ever got a floor vote in either chamber of Congress. Meanwhile, much of that vision was incorporated into new constitutions in Europe and Japan–with input from Roosevelt appointees throughout the post-war world. This is one reason–before Cold War fever painted any effort at economic justice as a form of the dreaded COMMUNISM–that many other nations have leaped ahead of the U.S. in terms of economic justice.
As with FDR’s pre-war Four Freedoms, I believe that his 1944 “Second Bill of Rights” should inform any contemporary progressive/liberal agenda. It certainly informs my own vision. Below I excerpt that 1944 State of the Union speech with commentary on its applicability for today. Bold Face and Italics are my emphases. Notes in brackets [ ] are my commentary.
11 January 1944, State of the Union, Franklin Delano Roosevelt:
To the Congress:
This Nation in the past two years has become an active partner in the world’s greatest war against human slavery.
We have joined with like-minded people in order to defend ourselves in a world that has been gravely threatened with gangster rule.
But I do not think that any of us Americans can be content with mere survival. Sacrifices that we and our allies are making impose upon us all a sacred obligation to see to it that out of this war we and our children will gain something better than mere survival.
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.
When Mr. Hull [Cordell Hull, a former Congressman and Senator from TN, FDR’s Secretary of State, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the creation of the United Nations] went to Moscow in October, and when I went to Cairo and Teheran in November, we knew that we were in agreement with our allies in our common determination to fight and win this war. But there were many vital questions concerning the future peace, and they were discussed in an atmosphere of complete candor and harmony.
In the last war such discussions, such meetings, did not even begin until the shooting had stopped and the delegates began to assemble at the peace table. There had been no previous opportunities for man-to-man discussions which lead to meetings of minds. The result was a peace which was not a peace. That was a mistake which we are not repeating in this war.
The one supreme objective for the future, which we discussed for each Nation individually, and for all the United Nations, can be summed up in one word: Security.
And that means not only physical security which provides safety from attacks by aggressors. It means also economic security, social security, moral security—in a family of Nations. [FDR is planting the seeds of U.S. acceptance of a future United Nations. U.S. refusal to join the old Leagure of Nations was a major factor in its failure and U.S. isolationism was a major factor in the rise of fascism leading to WWII.]
In the plain down-to-earth talks that I had with the Generalissimo and Marshal Stalin and Prime Minister Churchill, it was abundantly clear that they are all most deeply interested in the resumption of peaceful progress by their own peoples—progress toward a better life. All our allies want freedom to develop their lands and resources, to build up industry, to increase education and individual opportunity, and to raise standards of living.
All our allies have learned by bitter experience that real development will not be possible if they are to be diverted from their purpose by repeated wars—or even threats of war.
China and Russia are truly united with Britain and America in recognition of this essential fact:
The best interests of each Nation, large and small, demand that all freedom-loving Nations shall join together in a just and durable system of peace. In the present world situation, evidenced by the actions of Germany, Italy, and Japan, unquestioned military control over disturbers of the peace is as necessary among Nations as it is among citizens in a community. And an equally basic 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. [No external national security strategies which ignore economic justice at home or abroad is possible. Economic injustice is a major seed of instability and war. In our own day, poverty makes it easier for terrorists to recruit followers.]
There are people who burrow through our Nation like unseeing moles, and attempt to spread the suspicion that if other Nations are encouraged to raise their standards of living, our own American standard of living must of necessity be depressed.
The fact is the very contrary. It has been shown time and again that if the standard of living of any country goes up, so does its purchasing power- and that such a rise encourages a better standard of living in neighboring countries with whom it trades.
[Snip. FDR outlines the sacrifices needed to win the war and calls for unity and shared sacrifice.]
Therefore, in order to concentrate all our energies and resources on winning the war, and to maintain a fair and stable economy at home, I recommend that the Congress adopt:
(1) A realistic tax law—which will tax all unreasonable profits, both individual and corporate, and reduce the ultimate cost of the war to our sons and daughters. The tax bill now under consideration by the Congress does not begin to meet this test. [What a contrast to the gross irresponsibility of the Bush admin. which claimed that invading Iraq would “pay for itself” and which continued to cut taxes, especially on the wealthy, during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars–with costs now somewhere between $3 trillion and $4 trillion and Republicans STILL unwilling for the wealthy to pay their fair share! ]
(2) A continuation of the law for the renegotiation of war contracts—which will prevent exorbitant profits and assure fair prices to the Government. For two long years I have pleaded with the Congress to take undue profits out of war. [Whereas the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were viewed as opportunities for the Bush and Cheney families and their friends and allies to increase their wealth through sweetheart deals with corporations such as Haliburton and KBR in which they had huge interests!]
(3) A cost of food law—which will enable the Government (a) to place a reasonable floor under the prices the farmer may expect for his production; and (b) to place a ceiling on the prices a consumer will have to pay for the food he buys. This should apply to necessities only; and will require public funds to carry out. It will cost in appropriations about one percent of the present annual cost of the war.
(4) Early reenactment of. the stabilization statute of October, 1942. This expires June 30, 1944, and if it is not extended well in advance, the country might just as well expect price chaos by summer.
We cannot have stabilization by wishful thinking. We must take positive action to maintain the integrity of the American dollar.
(5) A national service law- which, for the duration of the war, will prevent strikes, and, with certain appropriate exceptions, will make available for war production or for any other essential services every able-bodied adult in this Nation.
These five measures together form a just and equitable whole. I would not recommend a national service law unless the other laws were passed to keep down the cost of living, to share equitably the burdens of taxation, to hold the stabilization line, and to prevent undue profits.
[snip FDR calls for national service whereas Bush told everyone following 9/11 that they should just go shopping. He then urged Congress to make it easier for military personnel to cast votes in U.S. elections even while deployed in war zones. ]
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.
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.
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 employment commits the nation to a full-employment policy. Usually this is primarily done through private enterprise, but in recessions or depressions, government should be willing to hire the unemployed directly for meaningful national service–as in the New Deal programs of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which created much infrastructure, the Rural Electrification Project, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (the CCC) in which camps of young men planted trees, dug irrigation ditches, prevented run-off and soil erosion, etc. for stipends which often meant the difference between life and death for entire families. Contemporary adaptations might include federal and state governments hiring youth for summer work in cities painting roofs white to lower lower heat indices and save electricity.]
- The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation [Beyond minimum wages to a living wage, i.e., a salary that allows a family to live above poverty levels.]
- The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living [In FDR’s day this was a call for price supports. It was a reminder that farmers entered depression in the 1920s, years before the 1929 Stock Market crash. In our day, I would think that this commits us to work for family farmers against agribusiness and for local, healthy food, over mass-produced with genetically modified seeds and hormone-injected cattle and the prison conditions of much livestock in factory farms. This hurts not only small farmers, but the health of the nation, and the ecology of the planet.]
- 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. [We have far too many monopolies and semi-monopolies today. Even the founding philosopher of capitalism, Adam Smith, said that monopolies made free markets impossible.]
- The right of every family to a decent home.
- The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health. [Healthcare must be viewed as a human right, not as a commodity sold to the highest bidder.]
- The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment. [This vision commits us to building a strong “social safety net” that includes adequate pensions for retirees, universal healthcare, and unemployment insurance, with job re-training and, where necessary, direct employment by the government.]
- 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. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.
One of the great American industrialists of our day—a man who has rendered yeoman service to his country in this crisis-recently emphasized the grave dangers of “rightist reaction” in this Nation. All clear-thinking businessmen share his concern. Indeed, if such reaction should develop—if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called “normalcy” of the 1920’s—then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.
The remaining paragraphs show that FDR did not envision each of these economic security rights as becoming Constitutional Amendments, although he did think they needed legislation enacted by Congress. But I think many of them should be enshrined in the Constitution itself:
- The right to employment. As a Constitutional right, this would force economic policies that care more about full employment than Wall St. profits.
- The right to a living wage. We would not have the huge income inequality of the 1% vs. the 99% today if we had living wage laws indexed to the cost of living. We would need to define a living wage as a wage or salary sufficient to keep a family above the poverty line.
- The right of farmers to adequate remuneration. I am uncertain whether this could be a Constitutional guarantee, but it should be part of the platform for any progressive political party and should lead to legislation and policies which prioritize family farmers above agribusiness.
- The right of businesses, large and small, to fair competition instead of facing monopolies. Again, I think what needs to be a Constitutional Amendment (especially in light of the stupidity of the Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. United States) is the clear statement that Corporations are not people and have only the rights guaranteed by their charters. But we need updated and strengthened anti-trust laws that break up monopolies from all these huge mega-mergers that drown out competition and produce “too big to fail” companies that either require taxpayer bailouts or whose fall harms large sections of the economy. “Too big to fail” must equal “too big to exist.”
- Housing as a Constitutional Right. This would require adequate amounts of low-income housing–and decent standards for that housing. Between the end of the Great Depression and the beginning of the Reagan-era, homelessness was rare in this country. When I was a teen in the 1970s, the “housing problem” was the problem of inadequate housing, of slums and shacks. Then came “Reaganomics” and an explosion of homelessness that grows worse each year. We must end the blight of homelessness in this country.
- Healthcare as a Constitutional Right. This would not demand a particular form of universal healthcare, but would remove it as a “for profit” enterprise.
- A strong social safety net need not be a Constitutional Amendment (although a Constitutional guarantee of adequate retirement pension would finally stop all efforts to privatize or poorly fund Social Security), but we must have strong laws for old age pensions, unemployment insurance, disability insurance, and the like.
- Education as a Constitutional Right. This would not rule out private schools or homeschooling (although all parents who choose to home school should have to pass the same teacher certification requirements as public school teachers), but it would mandate a STRONG, FULLY FINANCED public education system, for primary and secondary education. All who have the mental ability and desire to pursue college/secondary education should not be prevented by financial barriers. Education should be free and compulsory for primary and secondary levels and as close to free as possible for the college/university level.