A tale of two dignities

Neomi Rao Associate Professor, George Mason Law School
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Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama both spoke of human dignity in their second inaugural addresses. Yet what a difference the years have made — from the dignity of individual liberty and smaller government to the dignity that comes from government security and protection.

President Reagan repeatedly sounded the theme of dignity in his speech. He spoke resoundingly of reducing dependency, cutting back government, and ensuring that “every American enjoys the fullness of freedom, dignity, and opportunity as our birthright.” In the context of race relations, Reagan spoke of keeping us “on the road to an America rich in dignity and abundant with opportunity for all our citizens.” In foreign policy he would push aside “those in the world who scorn our vision of human dignity and freedom.”

For Reagan, dignity captured the inherent nobility of the individual. He linked the value of each person to a natural yearning for freedom and peace — universal values regardless of race or culture. As a practical matter, Reagan argued that less government would best promote dignity because it would allow opportunity for individual fulfillment and progress.

Obama referred to dignity, but invoked a different, communitarian, and European understanding of dignity. He explained that “every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity” and spoke of dignity in the context of health care, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. His speech exalted the dignity derived from the security of government programs.

Although both presidents used the word “dignity” to convey an elevated idea, they appealed to very different understandings of the relationship between the individual, the community, and the government.

Reagan channeled the traditional American understanding of human dignity implicit in our Constitution. In the United States, dignity exists alongside classical liberal values of freedom, liberty, and autonomy. As Reagan said, “Freedom is one of the deepest and noblest aspirations of the human spirit. People, worldwide, hunger for the right of self-determination, for those inalienable rights that make for human dignity and progress.” An individual’s dignity comes from freedom and self-determination both in private and public life. Government retains a role, but it must be a small one.

By contrast, Obama channeled a view of dignity more commonly found across the pond, where human dignity depends importantly on certain social-welfare goods, of being part of a community effort in which such goods are provided to everyone. It is the dignity of being provided for by the state.

Modern constitutions in Europe link dignity and equality with the welfare state, rather than with individual freedom. The Swedish Constitution, for example, provides that “Public power shall be exercised with respect for the equal worth of all and the liberty and dignity of the private person. … In particular, it shall be incumbent upon the public institutions to secure the right to health, employment, housing and education, and to promote social care and social security.” Dignity as a guarantee of communitarian security is the norm and the ideal.

Obama reaffirmed the equality of the Declaration of Independence, but his understanding of dignity reflects newer American sources, such as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1944 proposal for a “Second Bill of Rights.” Roosevelt pressed that our Founders’ old-fashioned notions of individual freedom were inadequate to the equal pursuit of happiness. Instead “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security.” Obama amplified this connection between dignity and a collectivist security.

In political life, these dignities have rarely provided a clear either/or. Reagan acknowledges that sometimes government will be necessary and Obama acknowledges some skepticism of central authority. Governing requires a balance between the individual and community. Yet where the balance is struck will make all the difference.

The divergence in emphasis and belief here is clear. Obama’s speech celebrates progress as the discovery of all of the things government can do. Reagan celebrates progress as the march of individual liberty and political freedom.

The different accounts of dignity, progress, and freedom are not easily compatible. More government protection does not simply “enhance” our freedom by making us more secure — rather government programs choose a particular dignity of security and public protection, often at the expense of the dignity of the individual and private choices.

Neomi Rao, Associate Professor at George Mason Law School, has written extensively about the role of dignity in constitutional law.