President Obama has succeeded in seizing new power over health care and other swaths of American lives in part because previous presidents muddied Americans’ understanding of freedom.
Most of the past century’s debates over the meaning of liberty have featured one politician after another who promised people true freedom, if only they would submit to increased government power. In the process, politicians have been generously shrinking people’s individual liberty.
The clearest political turning point in the American understanding of freedom came during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. He often invoked freedom, but almost always as a pretext for increasing government power. He proclaimed in 1933, “We have all suffered in the past from individualism run wild.” Naturally, the corrective was to allow government to run wild.
Roosevelt declared in a 1934 fireside chat, “I am not for a return of that definition of liberty under which for many years a free people were being gradually regimented into the service of the privileged few.” Politicians such as Roosevelt began by telling people that control of their own lives was a mirage; thus, they lost nothing when government took over.
In his renomination acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic Party convention, Roosevelt declared that “the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties … created a new despotism…. The hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor — these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by this new industrial dictatorship.” But if wages were completely dictated by the “industrial dictatorship” — why were pay rates higher in the United States than anywhere else in the world, and why had pay rates increased rapidly in the decades before 1929? Roosevelt never considered limiting government intervention to safeguarding individual choice; instead, he favored multiplying power to impose “government-knows-best” dictates on work hours, wages, and contracts.
New improved freedom
On January 6, 1941, he gave his famous “Four Freedoms” speech, promising citizens freedom of speech, freedom of worship — and then he got creative: “The third [freedom] is freedom from want … everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear … anywhere in the world.” Proclaiming a goal of freedom from fear meant that the government henceforth must fill the role in daily life previously filled by God and religion. His list was clearly intended as a “replacement set” of freedoms, since otherwise there would have been no reason to mention freedom of speech and worship, already protected by the First Amendment.
Roosevelt’s list of new freedoms liberated government while making a pretense of liberating the citizen. It offered citizens no security from the state, since it completely ignored the rights protected by the Second Amendment (the right to keep and bear firearms), the Fourth Amendment (freedom from unreasonable search and seizure), the Fifth Amendment (due process, property rights, the right against self-incrimination), the Sixth Amendment (the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury), and the Eighth Amendment (protection against excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishments). Roosevelt’s revised freedoms also ignored the Ninth Amendment, which specifies that the listing of “certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” as well as the Tenth Amendment, which specified that “powers not delegated” to the federal government are reserved to the states or to the people.
And, even though Roosevelt included freedom of speech in his new, improved list of progressive freedoms, he added,
A free nation has the right to expect full cooperation from all groups…. … We must especially beware of that small group of selfish men who would clip the wings of the American eagle in order to feather their own nests….
The best way of dealing with the few slackers or troublemakers in our midst is, first, to shame them by patriotic example, and, if that fails, to use the sovereignty of government to save government.
Thus, the “new freedom” required that government have power to suppress any group not actively supporting the government’s goals. (The United States was still at peace at the time of Roosevelt’s speech.) The expansions of freedoms in the list were promised to the whole world — primarily people who did not vote in U.S. elections — while the implicit contractions of previously sanctified freedoms would affect only Americans.
Roosevelt elaborated on his concept of freedom in his 1944 State of the Union address. He declared that the original Bill of Rights had “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” He called for a “Second Bill of Rights,” and asserted, “True individual freedom can’t exist without economic security.” And security, according to Roosevelt, included “the right to a useful and remunerative job,” “decent home,” “good health,” and “good education.” Thus, if a government school did not teach all fifth-graders to read, the nonreaders would be considered oppressed. Or, if someone was in bad health, then that person would be considered as having been deprived of his freedom, and somehow it would be seen as the government’s fault. Roosevelt also declared that liberty requires “the right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living” — a nonsensical concept that would require setting food prices high enough to keep the nation’s least efficient farmer behind his mule and plow.
Roosevelt clarified the necessary underpinnings of his new freedom when, in the same speech, he called for Congress to enact a “national service law — which for the duration of the war … will make available for war production or for any other essential services every able-bodied adult in this Nation.” He promised that this proposal, described in his official papers as a Universal Conscription Act, would be a “unifying moral force” and “a means by which every man and woman can find that inner satisfaction which comes from making the fullest possible contribution to victory.” Presumably, the less freedom people had, the more satisfaction they would enjoy.
Commenting on foreign policy, Roosevelt praised Soviet Russia as one of the “freedom-loving Nations” and stressed that Marshal Stalin was “thoroughly conversant with the provisions of our Constitution.” Roosevelt’s concept of freedom required people to blindly trust their leaders — a trust he greatly abused. He also denounced those Americans with “suspicious souls” who feared that he had “made ‘commitments’ for the future which might pledge this Nation to secret treaties” at the summit of Allied leaders in Tehran the previous month. But at that summit, he had secretly agreed to allow Stalin to move the Soviet border far to the West — thus consigning millions of Poles to life under direct Soviet rule. (Roosevelt and Stalin used roughly the same dividing line that Hitler and Stalin had used in 1939 to divide Poland into Nazi and Soviet spheres.)
Praise for increased power
Though Roosevelt continually seized power long after he gave the Four Freedoms speech, that oration is the one that is most frequently invoked by subsequent presidents to sanctify their own power grabs. President George H.W. Bush, speaking on the 50th anniversary of the Four Freedoms speech, called Roosevelt “our greatest American political pragmatist” and praised him for having “brilliantly enunciated the 20th-century vision of our Founding Fathers’ commitment to individual liberty.” The elder Bush loved to invoke the Four Freedoms speech in his appeals to vastly expand the federal war on drug users.
President Clinton declared in October 1996,
In Franklin Roosevelt’s view, government should be the perfect public system for fostering and protecting the “Four Freedoms”…. Roosevelt … enumerated these freedoms not as abstract ideals but as goals toward which Americans — and caring people everywhere — could direct their most strenuous public efforts.
In other speeches, Clinton made it clear that the government needed vastly more power to give Americans “freedom from fear” (except for fear of the government).
Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech provides a push-button invocation for any U.S. president who wants to sound as though he cares about liberty. President George W. Bush invoked Roosevelt in perhaps his most fraudulent speech — his “Mission Accomplished” strut aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003:
Our commitment to liberty is America’s tradition — declared at our founding; affirmed in Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms; asserted in the Truman Doctrine and in Ronald Reagan’s challenge to an evil empire…. When freedom takes hold, men and women turn to the peaceful pursuit of a better life. American values and American interests lead in the same direction: We stand for human liberty.
And any Iraqi or Afghan who refused to submit to the Bush-definition of freedom automatically forfeited his right to live.
Bush also invoked Roosevelt in his November 2003 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy celebrating its 20 years of interfering with foreign elections: “The advance of freedom is the calling of our time; it is the calling of our country. From the Fourteen Points to the Four Freedoms … America has put our power at the service of principle. We believe that liberty is the design of nature; we believe that liberty is the direction of history.”
Bush had a great belief in freedom in the abstract, as long as no one tried to meddle with his boundless power. For Bush to be invoking freedom — after he suspended habeas corpus, authorized torture, and destroyed much of Americans’ privacy — was typical of the shenanigans that politicians have long gotten away with in this country.
Bush again invoked Roosevelt in a March 2005 speech to the National Defense University, trying to vindicate his war on terror as part of “a consistent theme of American strategy — from [President Wilson’s] Fourteen Points, to the Four Freedoms, to the Marshall plan, to the Reagan Doctrine…. We are confident that the desire for freedom, even when repressed for generations, is present in every human heart.”
Bush may have given this particular speech to a military audience because the officers knew that they could not laugh outloud at his absurdities without wrecking their careers. Unfortunately, Americans are still paying a price because Franklin Roosevelt’s freedom demagoguery was not laughed off the national stage decades ago.
H.L. Mencken wisely observed, “One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.” Any politician who seeks more power now to give people more freedom at some distant future point deserves all the derision Americans can heap upon him. Citizens should not tolerate any president who invokes freedom as he tramples the Bill of Rights.
This article originally appeared in the February 2011 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.