Liberally yours: Are you free? Time for a national debate

Thom Hartmann Host, the Thom Hartmann Program
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Liberally Yours is a weekly column featuring progressive radio host Thom Hartmann, in dialogue with TheDC’s opinion editor J. Arthur Bloom or other conservative and libertarian guests. This week, we’re proud to present an edited excerpt from Thom’s forthcoming book The Crash of 2016: The Plot to Destroy America–and What We Can Do to Stop It.

In her writings, which have become foundational for libertarian and modern Republican theology, author Ayn Rand suggested that the only purpose of government should be to promote “freedom” by preventing “oppression by force.” In her mind, having lived through the Russian Revolution, “force” was government goons with guns.

What she neglected to consider was all the “force” inherent in nature.

If you are hungry, there is the “force” of biology. If you’re homeless, you confront the “force” of wind and storms, ice and snow. If you’re sick, you confront the ravages and “force” of disease.

These were the forces that provoked the first governments. The first communities, clans, and tribes. The first nation-states.

It’s easy for libertarian elitists, such as multimillionaire TV talking heads or college kids reading Atlas Shrugged, to talk about how there should be “no government beyond police, the army, and courts.” They all have enough resources that they don’t need to deal with the forces of raw nature. And that explains why billionaires would bankroll libertarian-leaning think tanks that will, when the crash comes with its full force, tell us it was “caused” by “big government.”

However in the real world, humans must confront both nature and other humans. Which is why we create governments, and why we create economies.

But it wasn’t until 1776, when Thomas Jefferson replaced John Locke’s right to “life, liberty, and property” with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” that the idea of a large class of working people having the ability to “pursue happiness” — the middle class — was even seriously considered as a cornerstone obligation of government.

(That was also the first time in history that the word “happiness” had ever appeared in any nation’s formative documents. As Jefferson wrote in 1817 to Dr. John Manners, “The evidence of this natural right, like that of our right to life, liberty, the use of our faculties, the pursuit of happiness is not left to the feeble and sophistical investigations of reason, but is impressed on the sense of every man.”)

As Jefferson realized, with no government “interference” by setting the rules of the game of business and fair taxation, there could be no broad middle class — maybe a sliver of small businesses and artisans, but the vast majority of us would be the working poor under the yoke of elites.

The Economic Royalists know this, which gets to the root of why they set out to destroy government’s involvement in the economy.

After all, in a middle-class economy, they may have to give up some of their power, and some of the higher end of their wealth may even be “redistributed” — horror of horrors — for schools, parks, libraries, and other things that support a healthy middle-class society but are not needed by the rich, who live in a parallel, but separate, world among us.

As Jefferson laid out in an 1816 letter to Samuel Kercheval, a totally “free” market, where corporations reign supreme just like the oppressive governments of old, could transform America “until the bulk of the society is reduced to be mere automatons of misery, to have no sensibilities left but for sinning and suffering. Then begins, indeed, the bellum omnium in omnia, which some philosophers observing to be so general in this world, have mistaken it for the natural, instead of the abusive state of man.”

Although this may come as a sudden realization to many, we’ve really known it all our lives.

In fact, in the six-thousand-year history of the “civilized” world, a middle class emerging in any nation has been such a rarity as to be historically invisible.

The United States has had two great periods of what we today call a middle class. The first was from the 1700s to the mid-1800s, and was fueled by virtually free land for settlers (stolen from the Indians) and free labor (slavery in the South and indentured immigrants in the North).

The result was (as de Tocqueville pointed out) the most well-educated, politically active, middle-class “nonaristocrats” in the world.

The second period didn’t take hold until after World War II, during my dad’s lifetime. Unlike the first, which was fueled by free land and slaves, the second had to be carefully constructed with specific (and what some might define as “socialist”) policies put in place during the New Deal, which asserted more democratic control over the economy and workplace in order to hold the Royalists in check.

With more revenue coming in to the government thanks to the progressive taxation of the new Deal era from 1933 until the mid-1980s, the middle class saw early protections by an emerging social safety net.

In announcing his third run for the White House in 1912, former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt laid out the basis for what would become the New Deal a generation later. He named it the “Square Deal,” and said:

We stand for a living wage…[which] must include:
Enough to secure the elements of a normal standard of living;
A standard high enough to make morality possible;
To provide for education and recreation;
To care for immature members of the family;
To maintain the family during periods of sickness;
And to permit of reasonable saving for old age.

With the Social Security Act of 1935, FDR created Social Security and laid the groundwork for states to implement unemployment insurance programs, borrowing some of the policies in his distant cousin Teddy’s Square Deal. For the first time, our nation’s elderly population could enjoy a decent quality of life after retirement and be reassured that those who fell on hard times and experienced severe disability, including widows and orphans, wouldn’t be swept away into destitution.

In his 1936 Democratic National Convention speech — the same speech in which he first called out the Economic Royalists — Franklin Roosevelt quoted an old English judge who once said, “Necessitous men are not free men.”

What Roosevelt was touching on was that if you have necessities that are not met — if you’re in need — then you’re not free. If you’re hungry and don’t have food, you’re not free. If you’re homeless, you’re not free. If you don’t have health care, you’re not free. If you don’t have a job, you’re not free.

Roosevelt went on to say, “Liberty requires opportunity to make a living — a living decent according to the standards of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.”

For a middle class to take hold, basic necessities must be met. And so, in 1944, FDR went a step farther and proposed a Second Bill of Rights. He explained the need for it by saying, “It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known.”

He noted, “We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people — whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth — is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.”

And thus he proposed his Second Bill of Rights, which included the following:

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’s Second Bill of Rights never came to fruition in America (although it largely has in northern Europe). But, in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” built upon FDR’s “New Deal” Social Security Act and created Medicare — a single-payer healthcare system for Americans sixty-five and older. And LBJ’s Great Society cut poverty in half in a decade – expanding the number of Americans who were “free” from the oppressions of biological and cultural want.

After World War II, our nation spread freedom to more and more Americans by caring for one another by everyone — even the rich, who paid an income tax rate over 70 percent after their first million or so and sometimes above 90 percent — pitching in to create a social safety net.

Then there was the GI Bill, which sent millions of young men like my dad to college and technical schools in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It built the strongest and freest middle-class and history, and turned America into the beacon of innovation and freedom for the world that it was known as before Reaganomics began its destruction of America

What happened was that more and more Americans were free to chase down their dreams — to be entrepreneurs and inventors, to find that perfect job, to teach and to build. They were free to spend more time with their families and to take vacations. The explosion of innovation and opportunity, and the rise of the American middle class, was the result of that freedom.

The billionaires and corporate class, who already experienced “freedom” from hunger, homelessness, sickness, and lack of education want us to think that “freedom” means the freedom to build a business empire or to work for minimum wage or below. Generations of Americans, from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt Franklin Roosevelt to Bernie Sanders would strongly disagree.

It’s time for America to once again have a national dialogue about what that word – “freedom” – means.

J. Arthur:

Like most conservatives, I believe it behooves a free country to be stingy with what it considers a right. This is a proud tradition in America, going back to the anti-federalists who opposed an explicit charter of them, through the great New England ex-transcendentalist Orestes Brownson, all the way up to Mary Anne Glendon’s excellent 1991 volume on the abuses of “Rights Talk.” Deeming something an inalienable “right” has been a device used by charlatans to defend such outlandish nonsense as post-birth abortions, animal personhood, and urban planning schemes. Those are all obviously absurd, but is it any less absurd or opportunistic for a president to make up a list to gain votes?

Rights conflict, especially when one believes in so many. Liberals like to argue that the only reason one would insist on the importance of property rights is greed or ideology, but tell that to poor blacks who have had their houses seized under eminent domain by civic-minded busybodies. The ‘right to the city’ didn’t work out so well for them.

Whether or not positive rights are something a free country ought to recognize, before saying a person has a right to a government-funded education, or a pension, or a home, or healthcare, it must be asked whether it has the ability to provide these things for everyone, and what costs must be imposed on others to do so.

The society to which FDR pitched his egalitarian aspirations does not exist anymore, and the promise he made to Americans in 1935 in the form of Social Security will be broken with my generation. Until then it – along with Medicare – will function as a subsidy from the young, poor, and healthy, to the old, relatively secure, and infirm. Obamacare does the same thing.

This what a society looks like that recognizes mutual obligations but tries to meet them, vainly, with a federal program.

It was once true that many of the obligations defined in FDR’s Second Bill of Rights were met by local communities and voluntary associations, but the story of 20th-century America is of them being crowded out by an ever-expanding government. The insight of communitarian conservatives like Robert Nisbet is that benevolent egalitarian governments increase individualism and social atomization, not decrease it. When people like E.J. Dionne argue that America’s concern for debt and deficits is actually a loss of community values, they get this exactly backwards and make a mockery of what community used to and ought to mean.

The debate over the exact causes of America’s post-war prosperity is the subject of considerable popular and scholarly debate that can’t be rehashed here, but suffice it to say that there’s a pretty good case that instead of New Deal-era programs it was significant cuts to tax rates and the deficit, soldiers becoming productive citizens again, and the end of state management of the war economy.

Lastly, I cannot conclude without expressing my exasperation over the constant snarking about objectivism and Ayn Rand coming from the left, often applied to completely ordinary Republicans. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, I know objectivists. I’ve written about objectivists. And Paul Ryan, sir, is no objectivist. He’s Catholic for god’s sake! Saying the Republican Party adheres to Rand’s godless “theology” is the left-wing version of calling Obama a communist. It’s just a silly, reductive cliché; most libertarians don’t share her genocidal foreign policy views, and the man credited with founding the modern libertarian movement even wrote very critically of the weird cult surrounding that nasty Russian émigré (Whittaker Chambers too). I assure you, many of us find her as unlikable as you do.

Thom Hartmann