Franklin Roosevelt and the Difficult Balance of Liberty with Equality


President Franklin Roosevelt attempted to reform the U.S. government and economy, in a time of great economic and political distress. He attempted to balance liberty with equality and do so in a domestic dichotomy of irrational obstructionism and abject desperation at home, and the rise of Fascism and Militarism around the globe.

Liberty and equality are at first blush, concepts that seem difficult to mesh. Yet liberty without out equality disadvantages people whose skill set isn’t aggressively mercantile. Equality without liberty disadvantages everyone, except the least capable. Equality, with liberty may lead to meaningful prosperity and freedom. Liberty without guidelines is license, and equality without freedom is servitude.

The President attempted to find a way to combine Liberty with Equality harmoniously within our historical and cultural context. He was never able to counter the false argument that one can only lose ones liberty to the government per se. One can lose their liberty to the private bureaucracy of corporations and not even have the recourse to a democratic vote. Though he pushed the matter in his desired direction, further than ever before in our history, Roosevelt’s victory was incomplete and failed to revive the economy.

In 1937 President Roosevelt announced plans to reform the Supreme Court. This attempt at reform failed in the wake of charges of court packing. On March 9th, 1937 the President gave a speech, one of his famous fireside chats, in which he defended his policy. The President reiterates a metaphor previously used, of the government as a three horse team. He states that the Supreme Courts both exceeds their authority in the area of judicial review but also, do so out of base motives of personal opinion. The President indicates that his own motives are the good of the country as a whole, and probably were. Nevertheless the charge of court packing sticks and the President may not have been fully forthcoming in his stated opinion. The fact remains that these nine justices have been an impediment and irritant throughout our history. The Supreme Court doesn’t have the power or support to execute a coherent policy, but they can gum up the works, and do so with regularity. The court restructuring plan fails.

The President argues the case that the Constitution allows for the federal government to engage in economic activity for the benefit of the general welfare. The issues would be “that they were all the powers needed to meet each and every problem which then had a national character and which could not be met by merely local action.” The implication is that the government can actively work toward equality without impairing constitutional liberty. The President is using a more original definition of liberty. For many of those opposed to Roosevelt’s policies liberty means individual property rights, taken to an extreme. Yet it seems an obvious fact that without government sponsorship large scale, large risk, and multi-state projects would not occur without government participation. Rural Electrification, and various power generation projects helped both the people as a whole and corporate investors. The obvious benefit to all seems apparent, and there is no diminution of personal or property rights.

There were those, like Herbert Hoover, who claimed that The President was pursuing security at the expense of liberty. Then Hoover condemns the centralization, he and others too, thought that The President’s policies would require. A crushing soviet style bureaucracy was anathema to Hoover, but also to Roosevelt. Hoover equates security with equality, and finds it undesirable. Equality is conflated with Communism though that is an unsupportable belief. This is an old and continuing debate, as yet unsettled.

Hoover seems to support an idea of liberty that would allow people who can act, to do so regardless of consequence. Hoover can see no time when nongovernmental action would result in denial of liberty. Hoover’s fear of centralizing tendencies and security seems a fear of restriction not on personal liberty but property. Hoover seems to view liberty as unique and absolute, rooted in property control. The President seemed to envisage liberty as meaningful only when people were free to choose without calamity.

Hoover feared that a centralizing government would have to avail itself of Fascist or Soviet methods of repression. He couldn’t see that liberty in name, without economic power is no liberty. He failed to realize that the public bureaucracies of the federal government he feared weren’t the present threat, but that the private bureaucracies of corporatism were deniers of liberty. Somehow, in the American lexicon, private is synonymous with free, irrespective of the evidence.

Interestingly Hoover condemned the American Liberty League, which he argued favored “the Wall Street model” of liberty. The Wall Street model of liberty is the sovereign ability to dispose of property as one wishes, and the people be damned. The difference between the Hoover and Wall Street definitions of liberty seem to be that Hoover believed in good faith, and he saw only cynical bad faith in Wall Street. Hoover never considered that there isn’t a practical difference between the two from the bottom.

FDR quips that as for the American Liberty League their God is property, and they ignore their fellow man: quite a strange take for men who would call themselves Christian, claim to love God and their neighbor. FDR could see that liberty, without equality was empty; His measures were astute and limited. FDR was preventing more radical or revolutionary measures from taking place. For the American Liberty League, their protection of their own property was paramount. The separation of powers allows wealthy members to stymie reform with critical failure at a number of points, thus their irritation at FDR seeming enhancement of executive authority. There is a fear of the wealthy that is hard to describe, but it has a feral albeit irrational quality. A student of Soviet studies would surely recognize that FDR’s policies were not in any way shape or form like the Soviets, or the Russian revolution.

The New Deal is actually described as Totalitarian by Jouett Shouse, President of the American Liberty League. The accusation also condemns FDR creation of “new instruments of public power,” as though newness was itself, a crime. Shouett continues claiming that a political promise is a sacred promise: he seems to be eager for a return to business-government collusion.

FDR announces an Economic Bill of Rights in January of 1944. He spoke of “overcoming distinctions based upon race or creed,” certainly a self evident step necessary for equality. FDR spoke of education, health care, and housing. Liberty required protection from both government and capital. Finally FDR argues that Liberty and Equality were mutually fortifying. FDR tries to tackle the widespread belief of the wealthy that the have nots were lazy and dishonest, and that the system was fair and self correcting.

FDR tries to explain that in the context of our modern economy, protecting capital without protecting labor leaves the working man at a severe artificial disadvantage. He stresses that a high GNP, that is not equitably distributed leaves people destitute despite their hard work and that would surely deny individual pursuit of happiness. FDR states that ”necitious men are not free men.” The President remarks that industrialism and the current technology were not even known at the founding, and are solved with equality under the general welfare clause.

Equality is a man made creation not found in nature. Equality has intrinsic value in holding together a society without the need for a hierarchy. Equality is only found when either a law or a custom of equality exists. When it is not found in custom, we rely on law. FDR enumerates decent, American, Christian reasons to explain his view that we suffer from a lack of equality. The wealthy seem to have no sense of proportion, or love of country, and enough is never enough. The wealthy cannot see that FDR is preventing a revolution. FDR’s moves though described as radical by some were very conservative and favorable to his class. In fact his moves are reminiscent of reforms by late Victorian England or Bismarck’s Germany and with a similar purpose of undercutting revolutionary change. FDR wanted a system that was free and equitable, yet protected his own property rights. He rightly understood that the advantage of property and education would likely leave his class in power, but the reforms were likely to prevent a revolution. It is generally unappreciated in our day and age how close was the possibility of revolution in America.