Wisdom from FDR: The Sunday Sermon

The other day, I came across a quotation from a State of the Union given by FDR, expressing a basic truth that is too often obscured in today’s highly moralistic political discourse.

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.

A very similar thesis was at the heart of Nobel prizewinner Amartya Sen’s important book, Development as Freedom. Development, for Sen,” is the process of expanding human freedom.”  Sen argued that true freedom — ”substantive freedom” is his term — requires ”economic facilities,” ”social opportunities” and ”protective security,” thus government should not only provide social security, but should be prepared to be the employer of last resort.

Roosevelt’s point was practical: desperate people are ripe pickings for demagogues; they are the raw material of revolutions and social unrest. Sen’s argument was more basic; it was a consideration of the nature of freedom. His conclusion: a person whose every waking moment is spent ensuring simple survival is not free in any human sense of that word. She is certainly not free to develop her talents or pursue her dreams.

For both reasons then, prudential and humanitarian, it behooves a good society to provide its citizens with at least a minimal level of sustenance.

Aristotle defined a good society as one that promotes human flourishing, and no one can flourish if every waking moment is devoted to subsistence. The trick is finding the sweet spot between empowering people and creating dependency. In the U.S., we have historically frowned on assisting the poor, concerned that a too-generous social safety net would create a dependent underclass. (Our disinclination to help impoverished folks also reflects the Calvinist assumption that poverty is evidence of divine disapproval–that being poor somehow reflects moral deficiency.)

Ironically, despite America’s public celebration of self-sufficiency, capitalism and markets, our government blithely subsidizes all manner of private-sector business enterprises, privileging the well-connected and tilting the playing field with abandon–and creating considerable dependency in the process.

I’ve never understood why welfare for the rich is less morally suspect than welfare for the poor.

In that same State of the Union message, FDR outlined what he called a second Bill of Rights, one that would include 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 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; and the right to a good education.

We’re no closer to realizing those goals than we were when FDR delivered his speech; if anything, we’re farther from them, thanks in no small measure to a small group of smug, self-righteous and highly subsidized “captains of industry” who have purchased our political system–and who can count on the millions of us who won’t vote on Tuesday.


  1. Thanks for posting these words of FDR. They are forgotten by the old, and never heard by the young.
    And, it’s important that they be heard for our generation.

  2. Clearly mankind’s highest calling is expressed by our ability to craft a society of truly free individuals living high on Maslow’s ladder. While we have made progress for some of us, we are a long way away from all of us. And all of the conflict around the globe is ample evidence. We have much work to do before human potential is fully realized.

    Will it always be thus? Will life continue to unfold as godlike in wisdom and action? Or will we choose to end, or maybe restart the journey.

    We have the power to choose. I’m not sure of the will.

  3. According to Open Secrets earlier this year: “For the first time in history, most members of Congress are millionaires, according to a new analysis of personal financial disclosure data by the Center for Responsive Politics. ” It is obvious Congress is not representative at least in terms of Net Worth of the American people as whole. The Median income in the USA is $51,939 in 2013.

    Reelection Rates for both Congress and the Senate per Open Secrets are near 90% every election cycle. https://www.opensecrets.org/bigpicture/reelect.php

    Gallup poll based on telephone interviews conducted July 7-10, 2014 – Fifteen percent of Americans approve of the way Congress is handling its job. More than one in five Americans (22%) are ready to start over entirely, saying all members should be fired or replaced.

    Clearly there is a disconnect 85% of American in the Poll do not approve of the way Congress is handling it’s job, but the re-election rates tell us something different. Reasons maybe, Gerrymandered Congressional Districts, Voter Suppression, and the necessity to raise huge amounts of money to run a competitive race.

    We have an aristocracy in America among our Federal elected officials. They are thoroughly insulated from economic fears as you outlined.

    At a local level our Mega-Media will never refer to the vast sums of tax dollars diverted into the pockets of the Pacers and Colts as Corporate Welfare. The Republicans and Democrat Parties in Indianapolis are Republicrats. They avoid labeling the Colts and Pacers as welfare recipients. Crony-Capitalism and Corporate Welfare here in Marion County are viewed as touching the third rail for the Mega-Media and Elected officials, it is never brought up.

  4. Thank you so much for reminding us of FDR’s and others’ words. America’s declining middle class puts everyone – including our most wealthy – at risk.

  5. The period from 1950 to 1980 was an anomaly in human history. Especially American History. What you see when you review The Grapes of Wrath is the normal nature of things.

  6. “A small group of smug, self-righteous and highly subsidized “captains of industry” who have purchased our political system–and who can count on the millions of us who won’t vote on Tuesday.” This scenario is so reminiscent of T. Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan’s robber barons.

    Therein lies the rub. Even if you vote every election, as I have done since I was old enough to vote, in this era of gerrymandered districts, you have little real choice. Both parties are owned by big money. Voters have become cynical and disengaged. Only the highly partisan will vote, returning the same legislators who have prostituted themselves to get where they are today. Unfortunately, NOT voting is a vote for the status quo.

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