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From FDR to today’s GOP: How the meaning of ‘freedom’ changed

Franklin D. Roosevelt offered “four essential human freedoms,” but today’s right has been successful at justifying its policies on freedom grounds.

Tea party supporter Susan Clark of California protesting in front of the Supreme Court building during the third day of legal arguments over the Affordable Care Act in 2012.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

In his 1941 State of the Union Address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt rather famously enumerated what he called the “four essential human freedoms.” They were: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from fear and freedom from want.

On his PBS interview show, Bill Moyers recently interviewed University of Wisconsin historian Harvey Kaye, who’s out with a book “The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What made FDR and the greatest generation truly great.”

Thinking about the times in which we now live, what struck me was that fourth freedom — “freedom from want” — and that a great liberal lion like FDR, as recently as the 1940s, could not only declare a global crusade against “want” but could couch it as a fight for “freedom.”

It’s surprising to my 21st century ears because, in general, “freedom” and “liberty” have become buzzwords of the anti-government right — especially the Tea Party and “liberty” wings of the Republican Party. When freedom-talk occurs in those contexts, most often the subtext is about freedom from government taxes and regulations and mandates — so much so that the subliminal argument (and sometimes it’s more explicit than subliminal) is that everything a government might do is a subtraction from our liberty.

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In the context of that rhetoric, the spectrum of possibilities runs not from freedom to tyranny, but from freedom to government, almost as if any action by “government”equals “tyranny.”

The idea that the leader of the U.S. government could — in 1941 — announce a plan to guarantee “freedom from want” sort of scrambles the whole picture. If I imagine a contemporary righty hearing such a proposal, it must seem like the opposite of freedom. Taken literally, it seemingly opens the door to an unlimited expansion of government spending and government programs as long as there is anyone still in a condition of “want.”

Of course, that’s taking things a bit too literally. Roosevelt — who had already signed into law Social Security, the first of the great entitlement programs — didn’t actually lay out a list of the programs, or the cost to the taxpayers, of a crusade to eliminate “want.”

But in today’s climate, the Republican “freedom” talk is likewise seldom linked to an actual list of the various government functions, programs and benefits that would have to be eliminated in order to restore to the taxpayers the “freedom” to hang onto their hard-earned dollars.

President Franklin Roosevelt
Photo by Elias Goldensky
President Franklin Roosevelt

Twasn’t always thus. Let’s take, for a moment, the separate cases of the two Koch brothers, the oil billionaires who have spent and raised (through the amazing “independent expenditures” gag) great googobs of money to spread the less-government-is-more-freedom gospel.

One of the brothers, David Koch, used to be an active member of the Libertarian Party. David Koch was actually nominated as the vice presidential candidate on the Libertarian ticket way back in 1980 (meaning he was opposing Ronald Reagan from the right).

Having Koch on the ticket gave the Libertarians a significant budget, which may have helped the party garner more than 1 percent of the total popular vote for the only time since the party started fielding a presidential ticket, 46 years ago.

One of the things I respect about the Libertarians is that they have a coherent philosophy and generally don’t run away from its implications. They believe that maximum liberty flows from minimal government and minimal taxes. Republicans often say similar things, but when put on the spot to specify the government functions and programs that would reduce or eliminate, they generally resort to ambiguity.

Not so the Libertarian Party.

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What the Koch brothers want

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the only avowed “socialist” in the Senate, recently wrote and published on various lefty sites a  piece headlined “What Do the Koch Brothers Really Want?” He presumed that what the Koch Brothers really want is along the lines of the program on which David Koch ran in 1980. That year, the Libertarian Party platform advocated:

  • An end to the individual and corporate income and capital gains taxes, leading eventually to “repeal of all taxation,” but with a possible interim step in which all criminal and civil penalties for tax evasion would be “terminated immediately;”

  • The “abolition” of Medicare, Medicaid and (“the fraudulent, virtually bankrupt, and increasingly oppressive”) Social Security system, although with a possible interim step of making participation in Social Security voluntary;

  • Abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Department of Transportation, the U.S. Postal Service, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission…

  • A “complete privatization” of public roads and highways, also complete privatization of all schools and repeal of compulsory education laws and all minimum wage laws;

  • An “end to all subsidies for child-bearing built into our present laws, including all welfare plans and the provision of tax-supported services for children;”

  • Opposition to “all government welfare, relief projects, and ‘aid to the poor’ programs,” which the party declared to be “privacy-invading, paternalistic, demeaning, and inefficient.”

Well, you get the idea. The full Ayn Rand vision.

I don’t know if it’s fair to assume that what the Koch brothers “really want” can be literally taken from that platform. But I do know that since those days the Kochs, like many Republicans, have figured out that people like to talk of more freedom, less government, lower deficits, lower taxes and more individual liberty, but that it is much less clear that people like the specific budget cuts and program eliminations.

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David Koch
REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
David Koch was nominated as the vice presidential candidate on the Libertarian ticket in 1980.

In more recent cycles, the Kochs have given their support to Republicans. The ideological center of that great party has moved to the right in the sense of portraying government as intrusive, excessive, socialistic and liberty-destroying. But — unlike the Libertarians — Republicans generally avoid specifying the litany of programs they wish to disestablish.

The elder Koch brother, Charles G. Koch, followed that practice in an op-ed piece he recently wrote for the Wall Street Journal that illustrated the politically shrewd way to wrap oneself in the language of liberty and freedom, and to define government as the antithesis of freedom but without specifying any of the benefits that some people might receive from government intervention. Wrote the other Mr. Koch:

Instead of fostering a system that enables people to help themselves, America is now saddled with a system that destroys value, raises costs, hinders innovation and relegates millions of citizens to a life of poverty, dependency and hopelessness. This is what happens when elected officials believe that people’s lives are better run by politicians and regulators than by the people themselves. Those in power fail to see that more government means less liberty, and liberty is the essence of what it means to be American. Love of liberty is the American ideal.


The central belief and fatal conceit of the current administration is that you are incapable of running your own life, but those in power are capable of running it for you. This is the essence of big government and collectivism.

These are interesting, if familiar assertions, and the use of “collectivism” is a nice touch, avoiding the inflammatory words “socialism” and “communism” but eliciting the same reaction. Still, in keeping with the current practice of calling for less government in general, Charles Koch’s essay does not specify any of the elements of the current fabric of what liberals like to call the “safety net” that would have to be abolished in order for us to get our liberty back. The really big and generally most beloved — Social Security and Medicare — and the one that is most sacred to the right — military spending — would presumably have to be sacrificed or shrunken. But, unlike the 1980 Libertarian platform, Koch does not say so.

‘Freedom and liberty’

I called Harvey Kaye, who wrote the “Four Freedoms” book, to ask about my impression that “freedom and liberty” language has moved from the left in FDR’s day to the right today.

“Liberty,” he said, has been a magic word in America since at least the time of the revolution. It “trumps democracy,” he said. Advocates of causes in all periods and across the spectrum have fought to associate themselves with it. Slaveholders defended their peculiar institution on “liberty” grounds, he said, arguing that their property rights, including the right to own slaves, was a fundamental American freedom, Kaye said.

“There’s a solid argument to be made that the most valued and contested idea in U.S. history is the idea of freedom,” said. Those who want to transform America inevitably argue that whatever it is they are advocating would liberate us. And you could argue that when political power passes from one group to another, it passes because the group that wins the argument has associated its ideas with freedom and liberty in a way that convinces others who are outside their core group.

Kaye agreed with my premise, that in the most recent period the right has been more aggressive and successful at justifying its policy preferences on freedom grounds. But FDR demonstrated in his day that even a leader who seeks to increase the power and reach of the government and use it to redistribute wealth can do so with freedom talk.

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In fact, Kaye mentioned that FDR had asserted the fundamental freedom argument for progressive policies when he said that “Necessitous men are not free men.”

I must confess, I didn’t know the quote, nor had I ever heard the word “necessitous.” Turns out, FDR borrowed the quote, including the word, from an 18th century British court ruling.

FDR dusted off the quote in his 1944 State of the Union Address in which he enunciated a “Second Bill of Rights.” He translated the quote to mean that “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made” because they are so needy they will sacrifice their freedom.

FDR’s ‘second Bill of Rights’

Speaking as World War II was coming to a successful close and his own life was also nearing its end, speaking as the worst period in U.S. economic history was ending and the best was beginning, Roosevelt told the Congress and a national listening audience:

  • These economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed. Among these are:

  • The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;

  • 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;

  • The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

Effective Democracy is a year-long series of occasional reports supported by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, as part of a grant made to MinnPost and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.