Another Crazy FDR “Right”
Tibor R. Machan
Over the last couple of years I have explored FDR’s Second Bill of Rights because recently some heavy hitters in politics and legal theory (e.g., Cass Sunstein) have made a point of championing these ultimately phony rights. With the Democrats back in power in Washington, it is not unreasonable to suppose that securing and expanding FDR’s list of rights—as distinct from those laid out by the American founders in the Declaration of Independence—will once again dominate the federal government’s agenda. Not that Republicans put up much of a fight against the Democrats but the Republicans' version of statism focuses less on wealth redistribution and more on soul craft.
FDR’s list included some lulus, I must say, but among them what’s worth discussion in our day are the so-called economic rights. Take, for example, “The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment.” Notice immediately that to secure any such alleged right what would be required is for those who supposedly have them to gain the willing or unwilling services of other people.
Of course, virtually anyone who is getting old could have made the effort to provide for his or her “protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment.” But that has nothing to do with rights. Rights are what others must respect and what governments are instituted to secure for us. So it is clear that what FDR’s list involves is involuntary servitude by others who are to provide for us, along with coercion of those not ready to be prudent as the government insists we must be.
FDR wasn’t urging people to make sure they take good care of themselves in their old age, far from it. That would have been an exercise is the sort of leadership that would be just right for Americans, leadership that would have been consistent with the individualism the American founders tried to promote with their list of genuine, bona fide individual rights.
The idea behind those rights is that in human communities what’s most important to gain from other people is their abstention from intrusive conduct, from aggression—assault, murder, kidnapping, robbery, trespass, and other more complicated sorts of invasion. Once the peaceful conditions obtain because no one violates our rights to our lives, liberties, and property, we can go about our various tasks, for better or for worse. We can form families, fraternities, communities, churches, corporations, and teams and by means of these voluntary associations live more or less flourishing lives. The government is merely there to make sure that no one does violence to another, not to take over the tasks that we need to perform.
But tyrannies have always pretended to be there so as to help us out—"We are from the government and we are here to help!" Only then they turn around and use their power to promote goals of their own. Because it is evident to most that their so called help causes more harm than good, those championing such interventionist governments insist they need more resources to get the job of helping us done. And this produces a spiraling of greater and greater power, more and more expansive government involvement. The resulting mess is incalculable but the official remedy is always, "We need more resources and more power."
The sorts of rights FDR and his followers promote are instruments of more or less Draconian tyranny. Because they are peddled as well intentioned efforts to do us good, resistance to them is difficult to articulate without seeming to be mean. But resistance to them is nonetheless imperative—it is a large measure of the vigilance that’s the price of liberty.
When you look at it this way, the prospects for a truly free society appear to be utterly hopeless. (That is just what follows from the famous public choice theory some economists have developed, showing that politicians and bureaucrats simply will not relinquish their power!) But against this pessimism one needs to keep in mind that the very idea that your life is yours, not the king’s or the tsar’s or the collective’s, is revolutionary. And revolutionary ideas, however sound and beneficial, are difficult to spread rapidly.