Tag Archives: Amartya Sen

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.