Freedom of speech and expression. Freedom of worship. Freedom from want. Freedom from fear.

As President Franklin Roosevelt said in his 1941 State of the Union address, those were and are not “visions of a distant millennium.” They instead are a vision of liberty that we progressives should embrace and advocate with pride. (More)

Whose Liberty, Part III – Four Freedoms (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature examined libertarianism. It’s become a hot topic with the victory of Tea Party Republican Rand Paul in the Kentucky senate primary, but our focus was not on him. Thursday we talked about about whether libertarianism would offer as much “liberty” as it claims, and for whom. Yesterday we saw that its claims of “liberty and justice for all” are based on myths rather than facts, and that in Realworldia libertarianism works out to “more privilege for the privileged.” Today we offer a progressive concept of “liberty” that is as relevant today as when President Franklin Roosevelt spoke it in 1941.

Some old new ideas.

As we saw a few weeks ago in our discussion of availability cascades, we humans are prone to favor what seem like new ideas. That seems reasonable, as many of our problems have been around for a long time. It’s easy to conclude the old ideas haven’t worked and we should try something new. Except the “new idea” is often just new packaging on an old idea that failed, like libertarianism, which smells a lot like 19th century horse manure.

We had Libertaria in the U.S., in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It gave us a civil war, repeated economic depressions, thousands of workers dying every year in mines and factories, widespread poverty and disease … and business monopolies that made a relative handful of families obscenely rich. Libertarians, who are disproportionately wealthy, look at the clause after the ellipsis and decide the rest of the sentence isn’t their problem.

But the progressive movement is about Fred – our archetypal median American – and the rest of that sentence was and is becoming again Fred’s problem. Our progressive ancestors took down monopolies, company towns, and child labor. They backed unions and safer working conditions. They worked for improved food and product safety, health, sanitation, emergency services, and Social Security. They worked for Fred, and Fred voted for this man:

Whose liberties are those?

President Roosevelt didn’t think of liberty as a privilege for the privileged. He spoke of freedoms of speech, expression, worship, and from poverty “everywhere in the world,” and of freedom from fear of aggression “anywhere in the world.” Yes, he was in part preparing Americans for what he believed was certain to happen soon: our entry into World War II. But to dismiss his Four Freedoms as merely prewar propaganda is to ignore the work of his lifetime and the legacy of the progressive movement.

While President Roosevelt’s vision remains unfulfilled 70 years later, it would be a grievous mistake to describe that vision as a failure. More humans enjoy those Four Freedoms now than ever before in recorded history. Hundreds of millions live in societies that might evoke FDR’s famous grin. Germany is a respected leader in a European Union that, despite its weaknesses, makes another bloodletting like the two World Wars very unlikely. Japan has prospered and, despite recent economic unease, has shown no sign of renewed military aggression. An ironic measure of the success of President Roosevelt’s vision is that in 2010 when the U.S. laid a foundation for universal health care – one essential element of Freedom from Want – we were following rather than leading the rest of the industrialized world.

In the depths of the Conservative Winter that pushed us nearer Libertaria here at home, many around the world feared the U.S. as threatening a “‘new order’ of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.” Their fears were not unreasonable. U.S. military spending accounts for 41.5% of the world’s total, almost all of it to support “interventions” in other nations. Yet that same Conservative Winter saw Americans almost deafened by the drumbeat of fear, to the point of daily terror alert levels.

While much of the world chose the path of social democracy that brought them nearer FDR’s Four Freedoms, American conservatives chose a path toward Libertaria that threatens or denies those Freedoms, both here and abroad. Rather than a beacon of liberty, Libertaria promises only a return to the misery of the many for the benefit of the few, which our ancestors fought and hoped they had defeated.

Reclaiming liberty.

Progressive Democrats must reclaim the concept of liberty, for Fred here in the United States and “everywhere in the world.” We don’t need a new idea, nor a return to an old idea that failed. We need a return to old ideas that worked:

  • Regulated markets that permit innovation but curb dangerous speculation and “too big to fail” monopolies;
  • Progressive taxation and lower defense spending that enables us to renovate and maintain the civic infrastructure on which we all rely;
  • Renewed support for labor unions and a social safety net to balance the scale for workers;
  • Better education to prepare all of our children for the challenges of the future; and
  • An inclusive society that recognizes the dignity and worth of every human being.

Freedom of speech and expression. Freedom of worship. Freedom from want. Freedom from fear. I want my children and grandchildren to wake to the scent of that liberty, not the stench of Libertaria. Our children and grandchildren can wake to that scent, if we progressive Democrats work together. And once they do …

we shall be free.


Happy Saturday!