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Who’s Afraid of FDR?
George Segal’s Depression Bread Line

Who’s Afraid of FDR?

FDR wanted the federal government to help with poor relief. He never meant for Uncle Sam to do it alone.

Mary Ann Glendon

Dismay at hardening divisions between right and left is drawing centrists closer together in search of a political program that could unite a majority of Americans. Inevitably, that effort will have to wrestle with the fact and idea of the welfare state, where the positions of party regulars on both sides appear to be set in stone. Yet a fresh look at the principles actually guiding the nation’s approach to “poor relief” at the country’s Founding, as adapted to modern conditions by President Franklin Roosevelt, would appeal to many of today’s voters.

An important point about the Founding has been overlooked in today’s heated debates about our national origins. The American democratic experiment owes its distinctiveness to a blend of three main traditions: classical liberalism, with its emphasis on freedom and limited government; biblical religion, with its emphasis on our duties to God and to our fellow human beings; and civic republicanism, as practiced even before the Revolution in the country’s self-governing townships. These influences both reinforced each other and pulled in different directions, contributing to both the new regime’s dynamism and its capacity for self-correction.

All three of these sources acknowledged the relationship between the maintenance of freedom and the acceptance of civic and personal responsibilities, but the emphasis on responsibility was most pronounced in the civic republican and biblical strands. From the earliest days of the Republic, it was generally accepted that assistance to persons in need was both a public and a private responsibility; but individuals, in turn, were obligated, to the extent possible, to take responsibility for their own and their families’ needs. Public funds were widely used at the township, county, and, later, state levels to provide basic necessities when family support systems and private charity failed.

Much later, when the Depression required the federal government to step in, the intervention was justified by Roosevelt in the same dual terms of freedom and responsibility. It was a matter of freedom, Roosevelt said, because “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security;” it was a matter of responsibility because government in the current economic crisis had “certain inescapable obligations to its citizens, among which are protection of the family and the home, the establishment of a democracy of opportunity, and aid to those overtaken by disaster.”

As for the way this responsibility would be implemented, Roosevelt envisioned that public assistance would remain primarily in the hands of local institutions and private providers. “In the days before the great depression,” he said, those needs “were cared for by local efforts—by States, by counties, by towns, by cities, by churches and by private welfare agencies. It is my thought that in the future they must be cared for as they were before.”

Essential to FDR’s vision was the role of religious and other private providers of social services working in “partnership” with government: “[T]he Federal Government cannot, and does not intend to, take over the whole job. Many times we have insisted that every community and every State must first do its share. Out of this picture,” he said, “we are developing … an unselfish partnership … between great church and private social service agencies and the agencies of Government itself.” A “vital reason” for this partnership was that “[n]o governmental organization in all history has been able to keep the human touch to the same extent as church and private effort.”

What happened to that liberal democratic vision of an “unselfish partnership” between public and private organizations, in which religious organizations played such a vital role?

Well, while FDR was promoting his idea of “unselfish partnership,” instances of which were then flourishing in communities across the nation, a Supreme Court majority had other ideas. In particular, a series of Court decisions in the 1940s deemed almost any governmental cooperation with religious groups a kind of religious “establishment.”

In characterizing those Supreme Court decisions, one might fairly echo what Mark Twain said about preachers who deny the Devil due process by never giving him a chance to tell his side of the story. That, said Twain, “is irregular; it is un-American; it is un-English; it is French!”

We needn’t go that far; we can stop at the “un-American.” That has been harmful enough.

In Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union speech, he made a change: It was the first time he described his goals for addressing poverty in terms of rights. His doing so was rhetorically clever but unfortunate, because it blurred the distinction between the rules marking specific borders that government must not cross (“Congress shall make no law …”) and government’s virtually limitless open-ended obligations, the implementation of which depends on many factors, including resources, feasibility, and opportunities.

This distinction does not mean that the open-ended obligations—like assuring that everyone receives “adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment”—are less important than the rules forbidding government to interfere with basic rights. The distinction does mean, though, that implementation of the open-ended obligations is far more challenging and requires far more creativity. That creativity was precisely what FDR called for when he asked Congress “to explore the means for implementing” what he described as “a second bill of rights.”

This “second bill of rights,” viewed as the legislative program that in fact it constituted, was hardly controversial: employment enabling citizens to provide for themselves and their families; freedom from economic unfairness in the marketplace; adequate housing, medical care, and education; and security against need arising from old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment. (In particular, popular sentiment against unfair trade practices is probably stronger today than it was in 1944.)

The devil, of course, is in the details. Most conservative hostility to the welfare state is directed not to its goals but to ill-conceived programs pursuing those goals, most of which did not arrive until later in the 20th century. At that time, many anti-poverty measures were instituted with little regard for ways in which they might discourage personal responsibility.

Groups whose aim was to maximize the state’s provision of services gained power despite evidence that private groups can often provide such services more economically, efficiently, and humanely. FDR’s New Deal became—well, a New Deck. What was lost, among other things, was FDR’s understanding that well-designed programs must not only address immediate problems, but empower individuals and communities to deal with these problems effectively as much as possible.

To be sure, there is a lot not to like about the New Deal—the creation of an administrative fourth branch of government, for example, or the dramatic centralization of power. But those who are currently trying to form a centrist majority could take a couple of cues from FDR’s better ideas. Today’s centrists will, of course, have to address problems beyond the 1930s issues of welfare and monopoly power; but well-thought-out proposals in both the old and the new areas could well win support across the political spectrum.

It is not impossible for America to repair the links among its cherished freedoms, its traditions of individual and social responsibility, and its pursuit of better standards of living, all of them ideals that this country has done much to shape and exemplify.

Whether that repair is still feasible will depend in no small part on whether the American people, so deeply divided at present, can be led to embrace, once again, the dynamic and potentially self-correcting tension among the elements that shaped our distinctive political traditions: the love of freedom and the sense of a polity in which all citizens bear responsibilities.

Here, though, is an encouraging thought: In meeting this challenge, American heterogeneity, which many now think is a weakness, may turn out to be a strength. What makes us different from other advanced welfare states—the diversity of our racial and ethnic groups, the opportunities for experiment provided by our distinctive form of federalism, our unique traditions of voluntarism and private philanthropy, our profit-making, risk-taking, economy—may turn out to be our greatest set of assets.

Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law, emerita, at Harvard University, and a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. She received the National Humanities Medal in 2006.