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America, land of liberty? Part I: The New Deal and the Four Freedoms


Yaz Naji

By

January 30th, 2017


In this three-part series, Yaz Naji traces how the idea of freedom in the United States has shaped its economic policy from the Great Depression to modern times. Part I explores the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt in shaping American concepts of positive freedom.


It’s hard to imagine the United States of America without the notion of ‘freedom’. Whether you truly believe America is the land of the free or otherwise, freedom has been at the core of America’s most significant moments. Whether it be the American Revolution or the abolition of slavery, a sure-fire way to generate debate in the US is to question whether people are truly free. Unfortunately, the concept of freedom is not easily defined.

In fact, two versions of freedom have been strongly tied to America’s (at present) diametrically opposed political parties. Perhaps the most historical and literally correct version is tied to the current Republican Party. To them, freedom is the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants. For many years, this has been construed to mean that state intervention in any matters at all should be minimal, or preferably non-existent. Hence, GOP policy actions typically aim to bring about low taxes, deregulation, and minimal government intervention in the economy — modern day neoclassical economics, sometimes referred to as “neoliberalism.”. This category of liberty is defined as negative liberty, “the absence of obstacles external to the agent”. Thus, the individual is free as there is no one obviously stopping the individual from doing whatever they please.

However, following the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover, a Republican proponent of the classical definition of freedom, became deeply unpopular due to his unwillingness to stimulate the economy through government spending in order to ease the effects of the Depression. Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected as a result in 1932 and rose to unprecedented popularity, becoming the longest serving US president of all time, remaining in the White House until his death in 1945. Defining American liberalism for years to come, Roosevelt instituted a series of policy reforms called the New Deal that promised equal opportunity for all people through policies such as unemployment benefits, larger government institutions and greater regulation of private industry.

Roosevelt joined a growing chorus of thinkers by questioning how ‘free’ an individual is under the tenants of negative liberty. Regardless of whether one is not actively impeded by a force such as the government, if you are not given the ability to act in your own true interest due to societal ills such as recession or addiction that can often be unavoidable and systemic, in a sense you are being forced into acting a certain way. This thought process led to the definition of positive liberty, “acting in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes”. The negative view of freedom prioritises how many possibilities can be realised by the individual, while the positive view focuses on realising the right options for the right reasons. In his 1941 State of the Union address, Roosevelt coined the main tenants of the New Deal as instruments to achieve what he defined as the “Four Freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Roosevelt’s first two freedoms are easily linked to the negative definition of freedom. Freedom of speech and freedom of worship are beliefs that America’s founding fathers would have no problems supporting and requiring little active state involvement. However, Roosevelt’s other freedoms were contentious enough for his opponents at the time to brandish him a communist.

Roosevelt’s third freedom, freedom from want, states that all individuals should be guaranteed a minimum standard of living. This is accompanied by policy actions such as public housing and unemployment benefits. This freedom is directly contrasted to conventional Republican ideology, as it calls for individuals to sacrifice their freedom to spend their money however they please in the form of high taxes to individuals who technically have done nothing to deserve income from the government.
Roosevelt’s final freedom, Freedom from fear, demands “a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbour—anywhere in the world”. Such a declaration was at odds with a large majority of Americans who desired a more isolationist foreign policy following America’s involvement in World War I.

Roosevelt’s more contentious freedoms are quite clearly positive freedoms. While these freedoms drew the ire of his political opponents, they were widely popular and have been greatly expanded in the modern day through more advanced forms of welfare, and through worldwide institutions such as the United Nations.

Put simply, Roosevelt’s positive freedoms ensured the government was ever-present in people’s everyday lives, albeit with the intention to secure them more ‘freedom’, an almost paradoxical idea. This was accentuated by Roosevelt’s adoption of Keynesian Economics following the Great Depression, essentially mandating that in times of weak economic activity, the public sector should greatly increase investment to compensate for the lack of investment from the private sector. Ostensibly, to Roosevelt, the use of government intervention when necessary enhances both social and economic outcomes. This view would remain dominant for the next four decades.

Stay tuned for Part II, when (spoiler alert), the New Deal Coalition, and the idea of positive freedoms, come crashing down due to war abroad and unrest at home.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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