Social Democracy and FDR’s Second Bill of Rights
In 1944, just as World War II was coming to a close, and victory in Europe was in the offing, Franklin Delano Roosevelt outlined what he called the 2nd Bill of Rights. In his 1994, State of the Union Address, he argued that the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and original Bill of Rights were insufficient, or in his words, had proved “inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.”
From that premise, he pivoted to a Second Bill of Rights that he carefully enumerated in his speech. The main points were:
- 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.
FDR explained that a “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” he argued,
“People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”
So the purpose of the Second Bill of Rights or Economic Bill of Rights was really both economic and political. By guaranteeing a reasonable environment to ‘pursue’ happiness, he hoped to stabilize our democracy and banish the attraction of dictators and authoritarian strongmen who used economic distress to bolster their popularity.
“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.”
“America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for all our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.”
Even though FDR urged Congress to consider vesting citizens with these eight new rights, a Second Bill of Rights was never formally introduced in Congress and never was interpreted by the Supreme Court. Promises of basic human dignities—such as guaranteeing the right to housing or to be free from monopoly power, for example—historically have not blended well with raw capitalist economies.
As Jill Priluck writes in Lapham’s Quarterly, “Elite American political culture traditionally has favored a form of Adam Smith individualism in which the pursuit of self-interest, the sanctity of private property, and the right to be left alone are paramount.” These folks would be the market-fetish neoliberals of today.
I suspect our less elite political culture suffers a kind of Stockholm syndrome in this regard. Not only are they deprived of decent living standards and healthcare and retirement, they are told it’s their own fault. Sadly, too many believe this cruel tripe.
Despite our gross negligence in this matter, other countries across the world took FDR’s words seriously—and have benefitted as a result. These countries are largely what we now call Social Democracies: Nordic countries, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark. To lesser degrees, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Greece. Most of the western industrial world, in fact.
As Cass Sunstein notes in The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever, countries developing constitutions coming out of World War II were also quick to embrace FDR’s concept. The South African and Iraqi constitutions guarantee a right to education, health care, social security, and housing. Finland’s establishes that everyone has “the right to basic sustenance.” Norway’s requires the state “to create conditions enabling every person capable of work to earn a living by his work.” In Spain’s constitution, ratified thirteen years before Roosevelt’s speech, the nation “shall assure to every worker the conditions necessary for a fitting existence,” including “economic sufficiency through adequate and periodically updated pensions” to citizens in old age.
Constitutions in Portugal, Brazil, Poland, Uruguay, Paraguay, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Russia, Peru, and Egypt all recognize some form of Roosevelt’s economic rights. Mexico’s 1917 constitution included social-welfare provisions years before the Second Bill of Rights was proposed. U.S. state constitutions recognize aspects of the bill, such as the right to education.”
After Roosevelt’s death in 1945, his ideas informed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Article 25, for example, you can find many of FDR’s tenants summarized:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
It was the foundation for two covenants adopted by the UN General Assembly: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which, along with the declaration, are known as the International Bill of Rights. The two covenants are binding in countries that have ratified them. The treaty protects the right to work; the right to organize; the right to bargain collectively; the right to social security; the right to social and medical assistance; the right to social, legal, and economic protection of the family; and the right to protection and assistance for migrant workers and their families. Ultimately, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights was ratified by 167 countries—but not by the United States.
Social Democracies like Sweden, Finland or Norway that have implemented FDR’s Second Bill of Rights have built amazing economies and wonderfully sustainable systems for their citizens. Maybe it’s time we learned from our own history, and did the same for our own people? In the end, maybe we, too, deserve what FDR promised for us nearly a century ago.
Below is a link to archived footage of FDR’s speech on the Second Bill of Rights:
By Jack Johnson