I am no FDR scholar, but I recently came across a speech he gave to the Commonwealth Club, San Francisco in 1932. In this speech, FDR reflected on the nature of government. His theme is the universal principles of government. Such principles, he says, transcend politics, or rather are only political in the larger sense that “nothing in human life is foreign to the science of politics”. (I think FDR is quoting someone here, but I don’t know who that person is.) In setting out his principles, FDR gives us a sweeping statement of his political philosophy. It is the political philosophy of the architect of the New Deal and so worth a moments reflection.
Having surveyed America’s economic history, FDR draws the following lesson: Private economic power is a public trust. I take this to mean that those individuals possessed of substantial private wealth owe a duty to the public. FDR refers to this relationship between those possessed of substantial private wealth and the public as a social contract. And it is the role of government to “assist in the development of an economic declaration of rights, an economic constitutional order.” Thus, through co-operation a safe and permanent order of things is established.
As an aside, it is fascinating to me that FDR does not reference the US constitution in his address. The word “constitution” itself is used only twice. It is equally fascinating that the Declaration of Independence is mentioned only once, in passing. In a way, perhaps, this is consistent with FDR’s theme of the universal principles of government. The US constitution, he might argue, is only one manifestation of an agreement by which these principles of government can be realized.
The remainder of the speech is given over to the various clauses in the social contract. These clauses are as follows. “Every man has a right to life; and this means that he has also a right to make a comfortable living….Every man has a right to his own property, which means a right to be assured, to the fullest extent attainable, in the safety of his savings…The final term of the high contract was for liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
In the fourth to last paragraph, FDR states that”liberty to do anything which deprives others of those elemental rights is outside the protection of any compact; and that government in this regard is the maintenance of a balance, within which every individual may have a place if he will take it; in which every individual may find safety if he wishes it; in which every individual may attain such power as his ability permits, consistent with his assuming the accompanying responsibility.” I take this to mean that individuals have a right to life. And that those who act in a way which deprives others of that elemental right, are outside the protection of “any compact”. This is kinda interesting. If it is taken as read that “right to life” somehow incorporates a right to access healthcare, and, equally, that the US constitution does not allow for a right to access health care, that there is a problem with the US constitution? (Of course there are all sorts of clarifications etc needed, but you get the thrust of question.)
I am not sure I buy this argument, but it does seem to follow fairly easily from FDR’s political philosophy. Interesting…