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FDR's Wise Take on U.S. Security

May 27, 2003|Cass R. Sunstein

For the first time since the 1940s, the United States faces simultaneous threats to its national security and to its economic prosperity.

President Bush is betting on tax reductions to spur economic growth. His Democratic critics have been struggling to develop a principled alternative. Both sides should consider a forgotten piece of American history: how President Franklin Delano Roosevelt approached economic distress in the midst of external threats.

It was on Jan. 11, 1944, that Roosevelt delivered his greatest and most reflective State of the Union address. He unified his speech around a single concept, security: "that means not only physical security which provides safety from attacks by aggressors. It means also economic security, social security, moral security."

Roosevelt insisted that the nation "cannot be content, no matter how high [its] 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."

Originally the nation grew under the protection of political rights, including the right of free speech and free worship. But over time, these rights had proved to be inadequate. Unlike the Constitution's framers, Roosevelt said, "we have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence."

Roosevelt insisted that Americans "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."

And then Roosevelt listed the relevant rights: "The right to a useful and remunerative job ... 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 ... 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 ... the right of every family to a decent home ... to adequate medical care ... the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment; the right to a good education."

Roosevelt meant to identify the commitments that Americans, both right and left, endorsed as World War II came to a close. He spoke of freedom, not equality. And he meant to offer a stern reminder: The wealthy, no less than the poor, are dependent on government, which safeguards their rights through national defense, the police and the constant protection of private property.

The World War II generation is now revered as the "Greatest Generation" -- one with a clear mission and one that succeeded in accomplishing it. But nostalgia and sentimentality do that generation a grave disservice. In the midst of war, the nation and its leader had a project, but it was one that ultimately went unfulfilled. That project was organized around the idea of security and captured in the notion of a Second Bill of Rights -- the basis for Roosevelt's economic proposals in the final year of his life.

Many Americans have doubts about President Bush's response to our economic problems. They are searching, with great difficulty, for principles with which to organize their own reactions. In looking to the World War II generation, they have not looked closely enough. That generation saw threats to the nation's security as an occasion for a new recognition of human vulnerability both at home and abroad. Roosevelt offered no blueprint, but he provided fresh principles against which national policies should be judged. Our current leaders could do far worse than to follow his example.

Cass R. Sunstein teaches law at the University of Chicago and is the author of "Risk and Reason" (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

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