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The Second Bill Of Rights 

February 21, 2023 |  1,431 words  |  Politics, Philosophy, Religion

More on Christianity versus Liberal Democracy

Everyone is always singing the praises of liberal democracy, but these days many enthusiasts are expressing concern about the future of the institution.  Populist uprisings here in the United States and across Europe are seen as threatening the rule of law, and the idea of free and fair elections.  It seems the will of the people is not always a reliable arbiter of social policy, at least not when it contradicts that of our leading opinion-makers, or of the cognoscenti already in power.

But hasn’t that always been the dark underside of the radical autonomy ushered in by classical liberalism a half a millennium or so ago, and which defines the liberal democratic order?  

Most democracies have historically tried to mitigate the potential damage of an unrestrained outbreak of radical autonomy by limiting the franchise to the right kind of people.  While still describing their elections as “free” and “fair.”  In the case of our country’s Founders, some of the most revered signers lobbied hard for only property owners to cast ballots.  The common rabble was thought of as not having a vested interest in the outcome, and couldn’t be relied upon to vote responsibly.  This sort of gerrymandering has been happening ever since, both here and abroad, in one form or another.

The current state of classical liberalism, like that of liberal democracy, is also being hotly debated, at least among certain elite thinkers and opinion-makers.  Some are explaining “Why (Classical) Liberalism Failed.”  Others are contributing to forums asking “Is (Classical) Liberalism Worth Saving.”  The crux of the problem seems to be the way individual autonomy, when taken to an extreme, threatens the civil liberties of the wider community.  This puts a strain on the rule of law and makes it difficult to keep things from unraveling completely.  The potential for complete social unraveling has been a recurring theme under classical liberalism and liberal democracy, since it’s hard to avoid such extremes of behavior where flawed human beings are concerned.

As a culture we have agreed this strain is worth putting up with, in return for enjoying wonderful everyday liberties like religious freedom and freedom of speech.  Not to mention the crown jewel of classical liberalism: free market economics.  This last has bestowed untold riches on even ordinary working people, as basic income has increased 25 times in real terms since 1800.  

That is quite an impressive statistic, one many economists are fond of citing.  But there is more to the story, now that we are several centuries into the grand narrative.  After envisioning the ideal of a truly globalized economy for hundreds of years, we have finally arrived at its universal implementation.  And what is there to report?  The interests of most people in developing countries are being served quite well, along with the interests of elites in advanced countries.  Meanwhile, the interests of the working and middle classes in developed countries are being served hardly at all.  The very people that did so well in the three decades after World War II.

Which goes a long way toward explaining the populist uprisings being experienced here in the United States and across Europe.

It’s not that we should have stuck with the so-called “mercantile” economic system that proliferated in the 16th Century.  Only that when we started to substitute laissez-faire economics as part of an embrace of classical liberalism, we unfortunately turned our back on Christianity.  This expressed itself in a new focus on individual freedom as opposed to a concern for the common good.  This change in focus has yielded the injustices and glaring inequities we are experiencing in our free market system today.  Despite the post-1800 “enrichment” economists are forever raving about.  

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We are taught the liberties and freedoms espoused by classical liberalism and codified in the liberal democratic order are contingent on limiting the size of government.  But when classical liberalism was first getting off the ground a half a millennium or so ago, it wasn’t “big government” in the cross hairs.  The new, revolutionary concept of individual emancipation was seen as a liberation from all previously held authority, custom, and tradition.  In other words, the elite thinkers and opinion-makers of the day were making a conscious decision to topple Christianity, the authority of record and primary keeper of custom and tradition, in favor of having us all go our own way.  In morals, politics, and economics.

The irony is that so many of today’s most enthusiastic advocates of limiting government so as to unleash economic growth consider themselves to be faithful Christians, without realizing their economic prescriptions are often at odds with the essential precepts of Christianity.

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The presidential administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945) remains an object of ridicule for those who see a commitment to limited government as the driving force behind our nation’s remarkable success.  FDR is still a poster child for what many regard as socialist policies that are anti-American and stifle economic advancement.  While I am not qualified to debate the relative merits of Roosevelt’s many legislative initiatives, or care to defend his long and varied record in public office, I will say this: There is no denying the man’s life-long interest in social justice issues, first developed during his time at Groton Prep School in Massachusetts,  which he entered at age 14.

A much older FDR unveiled what he described as a “Second Bill of Rights” during his last State of the Union address, delivered to Congress  in January 1944.  (His better known and more frequently cited “Four Freedoms” speech was presented during his State of the Union address of three years earlier.)  By 1944 he had accumulated quite a bevy of boisterous critics, and they pounced on this particular speech as nothing less than a radical reworking of the American creed.

Instead of simply ratifying the central idea of classical liberalism, which defines “freedom” as protection from the abusive powers of government (described by some as “negative freedom”), Roosevelt proclaimed government could provide citizens with “positive freedoms,” in the form of tools they need to live lives of honor and dignity.

Here is the slippery slope of “How Classical Liberalism Morphed Into New Deal Liberalism,” as one scholar has put it.  FDR’s wacky and wild-eyed 1944 bullet points included:

  •  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.

Roosevelt’s many ideological opponents, then and now, abhor even the slightest hint that government should provide any of the above.  And who knows, maybe they are right.  Maybe it is Corporate America that should take a closer look at this Second Bill of Rights, and figure out how to work a social conscience into its playbook.  Maybe being profitable isn’t the only thing a successful corporation owes the wider community. 

Regardless of who does what, it’s obvious there is a shortfall being generated by our current approach.  It is equally obvious that everything in Roosevelt’s idealistic (quixotic? unrealistic?) Second Bill of Rights aligns with the precepts of Christianity, and constitute what might be described as the Christian social order.  That we are no longer willing to acknowledge that, and no longer wish to discuss the situation in those terms, reveals how our commitment to the liberal democratic order has led to our complete rejection of Christianity.

So, listen, by all means let’s continue with this emancipation of the individual and this limiting the size of government.  Or, emancipating the individual and expanding government as needed to address the social fall-out.  Either way, if the objective is a well-ordered society, where every citizen has a reasonable shot at leading a life of honor and dignity, all these liberated individuals (and corporations) should consider an emergency infusion of empathy.  

Especially that segment of the population who are clever or advantaged and get to live above the fray.  For they too often employ a radical autonomy as their modus operandi.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

www.robertjcavanaughjr.com

bobcavjr@gmail.com

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