Category Archive 'Franklin Delano Roosevelt'

28 Jul 2009

Seem Familiar?

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George Santayana observed that those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it. The above editorial cartoon, published April 21, 1934, shows that government pouring money into massive federal spending programs to try to improve the economy was tried before. The Great Depression continued up until WWII.

11 Feb 2009

Liberalism’s Fourth Wave

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Charles R. Kesler, in Christian Science Monitor, warns that Barack Obama intends to move America as far in a leftward direction as his predecessors Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson.

Modern liberalism came to America in three waves, and it’s useful to think of Obama in this light.

The progressives of the early 20th century were the original liberals, developing the essential tenets of liberalism as a political doctrine. Woodrow Wilson and others argued that the Constitution was an 18th-century document, based on 18th-century notions of rights. While suited to its day, they said, it was now painfully inadequate unless interpreted in a vital new spirit.

This spirit was Darwinian and evolutionary, turning Hamilton’s “limited Constitution” into a “living Constitution” that must be able to adapt its structure and function to meet the latest social and economic challenges. To guide this evolution, to organize society’s march into the future, presidents had to cease being merely constitutional officers and become dynamic leaders of popular opinion.

Obama accepts all the major elements of this evolutionary approach to the Constitution and American government. As he wrote in “The Audacity of Hope,” the Constitution “is not a static but rather a living document, and must be read in the context of an ever-changing world.”

Likewise, in his inaugural address he declared, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works….”

This emphasis on what “works” is his nod to pragmatism, which he implies is almost the opposite of ideological liberalism. In fact, however, such pragmatism is part of liberalism.

What “works,” after all, depends on what you think government’s purpose is supposed to be. Pragmatism tries to distract us from those ultimate questions, while assuming liberal answers to them. Thus Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal promised “bold, persistent experimentation.” Obama’s domestic agenda betrays the same eagerness.

Liberalism’s second stage was economic. In the New Deal, the Great Society, and its sequels, liberals turned to the wholesale minting of new kinds of rights. Citizens were thus entitled to socioeconomic benefits through programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Besides these entitlements, the federal government also extended its regulatory authority to areas previously private or under state and local jurisdiction.

But this wave crested unexpectedly, and for a while, contemporary liberals seemingly lost their enthusiasm for such top-down regulation and the work of transforming privileges into rights.

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of socialist economies around the globe, liberals such as Bill Clinton took a second look at the free market. He populated his Treasury department with highfliers from Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms. In left-leaning think tanks and even in the academy, capitalism commanded strange new respect. This rehabilitation of the market, though never more than partial, was the greatest change in American liberalism in the past 40 years. Obama absorbed it, as did many members of his new administration.

But the financial crisis and market meltdown have changed things.

It looks like 1932 again, a time for reinvigorated government activism. …

An enduring Democratic majority is not out of the question. The wild scramble to stop the economic and financial downturn may well leave America with a politically controlled economy that would corrupt the relationship between citizens and the federal government – sapping entrepreneurship and encouraging new forms of dependence on the state, as in much of Europe. That would be consistent with the more socialized democracy that liberalism has been striving for ever since the Progressive Era.

Obama likes to emphasize that America is more like the world than we realize, and must become still more like it if the US is to remain the world’s leader. Despite his summoning oratory, his sense of American exceptionalism thus is far less lofty, far more constrained, than Reagan’s or FDR’s. The greatest stumbling block to Obama’s ambition is likely to be the inability of this exceptional president to persuade Americans to follow him into so unexceptional a future.

18 Dec 2008

“Unembarassed Evasion”

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Paul Moreno, at History News Network, discusses the left’s misuse of rights language as a means of disestablishing the natural rights enshrined in the US Constitution. It’s as if the left discovered a way to apply Gresham’s Economic Law to Constitutional Law: newly invented bogus rights inevitably quickly replace real natural rights in circulation.

In a 2001 interview on Chicago public radio, Obama lamented that “the Supreme Court never ventured into the issue of the redistribution of wealth.” The problem, he said, was that the court “didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution… that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberty.”

In this perhaps unguarded moment, Obama became one of the few liberal politicians candid enough to admit that the Constitution poses a fundamental obstacle to their agenda.

This is a popular theory in academic circles. It is the fundamental argument of Cass Sunstein, a colleague of Obama’s at the University of Chicago Law School (now on his way to Harvard), who is often mentioned as an Obama adviser and potential Supreme Court nominee, and the author of The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We need it More than Ever.

The second bill of rights idea derived from two famous speeches that Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave—one at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club during the 1932 campaign and his 1944 annual message to Congress. In the Commonwealth Club address, he spoke of the advent of “enlightened administration,” which would redistribute resources in accordance with an “economic declaration of rights.” In his 1944 message to Congress, Roosevelt said that “our rights to life and liberty”—the negative liberty to which Obama referred, had “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” He claimed that “In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights.” This bill of rights included the right to a job, the right to food and recreation, the right to adequate farm prices, the right to a decent home, the right to medical care, and the right to a good education.

Of course, these are not “rights” at all—not in the sense that the framers and ratifiers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution used the term–but entitlements. From the founding until the twentieth century, the American regime assumed that government’s purpose was to secure pre-existing natural rights—such life, liberty, property, or association. Everyone can exercise such rights simultaneously; nobody’s exercise of his own rights limits anyone else’s similar exercise. Your right to life or to work or to vote does not take anything away from anyone else. We can all pursue happiness at once. Entitlements, on the other hand, require someone else to provide me with the substantive good that the exercise of rights pursues. The right to work, for example, is fundamentally different from the right (entitlement) to a job; the right to marry does not entitle me to a spouse; the right to free speech does not entitle me to an audience.

The New Deal is often described as a “constitutional revolution.” In fact, it was much more than that. It involved a rejection not just of the structure and principles of the Constitution, but those of the theory of natural rights in the Declaration of Independence—that, as Jefferson put it, governments are instituted in order to secure our rights. Roosevelt envisioned not a new constitution, but a new idea of what Sunstein calls “a nation’s constitutive commitments.”

As to this problem, Sunstein says that “The best response to those who believe that the second bill of rights does not protect rights at all is just this: unembarrassed evasion.”


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