Discover more from The Zero Hour Report: A Newsletter from Richard (RJ) Eskow
Social Security, FDR, and the Real Meaning of Liberty
The phrase “Social Security” promises a more profound liberty for both individuals and communities.
The Declaration of Independence describes liberty as a fundamental and “self-evident” human right. Unfortunately, the word has been usurped by right-wingers who fight for the freedom of the powerful to exploit everyone else. As someone once said (or as I’ve misremembered it), “The rich man is as free to cross a bridge in a carriage as the poor man is to sleep under it.”
That’s their definition of liberty. It’s become so widely accepted that some of us flinch when we hear the word. We shouldn’t. Social Security, whose 88th ‘birthday’ took place this week, offers insight into a broader definition of liberty. Even the name – “Social Security” – contains the seeds of a broader and more profound liberty for both individuals and communities.
The word “security” emphasizes its goals for individuals. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt told Congress in June of 1934, “Among our objectives I place the security of the men, women and children of the nation first.” Financial insecurity makes it impossible to pursue the rights promised in the Declaration of Independence.
The word “social” emphasizes the concept’s broader goals. As Roosevelt said in the same speech, “there can be no security for the individual in the midst of general insecurity.” That goes both ways. People are insecure in an unjust and unstable economic system, and society’s stability and harmony are threatened when large numbers of people suffer hardship. Security for the one and security for the many form a seamless whole; one can’t exist without the other.
That’s why Roosevelt presented Social Security as a vision, not just a set of policy prescriptions. It was created as many nations were making the transition from agrarian to industrial economies, bringing profits for the few and challenges for the many. Shrewdly, he framed his response to this transition in distinctly American terms, saying in 1938:
“... as the nation has developed, as invention, industry and commerce have grown more complex, the hazards of life have become more complex. Among an increasing host of fellow citizens, among the often-intangible forces of giant industry, man has discovered that his individual strength and wits were no longer enough ... Where heretofore men had turned to neighbors for help and advice, they now turned to Government.”
Roosevelt framed his social programs, not as a challenge to American ideals of liberty, but as a refinement of them. From a 1934 “fireside chat”:
“I am not for a return to that definition of Liberty under which for many years a free people were being gradually regimented into the service of the privileged few. I prefer and I am sure you prefer that broader definition of Liberty under which we are moving forward to greater freedom ...”
This is liberty for the many, not the few. It includes freedom from corporate totalitarianism – from unfair pay, from bosses who track workers on social media, from timed bathroom breaks, and from the hundreds of other insults to dignity and liberty working people suffer every day. It’s the freedom to receive medical care when you need it, not when corporate bureaucrats give you permission. It’s freedom from the constant state of precarity that plagues most of working America.
This security was never meant to be limited to one or two programs. It was envisioned as a comprehensive program of financial security for all. Social Security’s initial form included unemployment compensation, aid to dependent children and services for the protection and care of homeless, neglected, and disabled children.
It also included federal aid to state and local public health agencies and an expanded Federal Public Health Service. While it did not include national health insurance – “at this time,” to use Roosevelt’s words – that was clearly the goal. Roosevelt convened a “National Health Conference” in 1938 and the Senate Subcommittee on Health and Labor conducted hearings on the topic, “To Establish a National Health Program,” in 1939.
Sen. Robert Wagner’s (D-NY) 1939 “National Health Act” would have provided the states with federal funding for a variety of uses, including “prefunded health plans.” Unfortunately, it faced heavy resistance from special interest groups like the American Medical Association and failed to pass. Still, FDR and his allies remained hopeful. I suspect they would be astonished, as well as disappointed, to discover that we still don’t have national health insurance 88 years later.
Roosevelt had been fine-tuning his vision of liberty since at least 1912, when as a state senator he spoke to a gathering called the People’s Forum in Troy, NY. As historian Harvey J. Kaye notes, it was there that the future president began to identify what the future president called a “new theory of the liberty of the community rather than liberty of the individual.” FDR used the exploitation of New York state’s forests as an example, saying, “it is necessary for our health and happiness (and) the rights of individuals that the lumber companies not do what they please with the wooded growths ...”
And Roosevelt went further, calling for a planned economy as another form of liberty. “There is,” Roosevelt added,” no valid reason why the food supply of the nation should not be put on the most economical and at the same time the most productive basis by carrying out co-operation.”
Tragically, the broader vision of Social Security – as a form of individual and collective liberty – has largely been lost. Instead, working people have once again been “gradually regimented into the service of the privileged few.”
State and local communities, and the national community, should have the freedom to manage themselves. Instead, our political system is overwhelmed by wealthy and powerful interests. States block the self-determination of progressive cities and prevent workers from organizing. Dark money buys congressional seats. The undemocratic Senate, a sclerotic relic of slavery, thwarts the people’s will. Meanwhile, fossil fuel companies and other corporations destroy our air, water, and livelihoods.
That’s an infringement, not just on democracy, but on liberty. A truly free society would have greater rights to unionize, to regulate, to break up big banks and mega-corporations, and determine the working lives of its members in a more democratic fashion.
When Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act of 1935, he said it was “a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.” He later articulated his Four Freedoms and Economic Bill of Rights, both of which built on the idea that real liberty and economic justice are inseparable. These ideas are not un-American. Like Social Security, they are at the heart of this country’s self-professed ideals.
As Roosevelt said,
“This seeking for a greater measure of welfare and happiness does not indicate a change in values. It is rather a return to values lost in the course of our economic development and expansion ... we must still look to the larger future.”
That’s the vision of Social Security: a vision of liberty, justice, and security for each, and for all. It’s a vision that calls us to exercise our imaginations and our will, now and in the future, to expand the social web of interconnection and mutual support. It is a vision, not only of security, but of liberty.
Photo: FDR signs the Social Security Act of 1935.