A second Bill of Rights, by Franklin Roosevelt

If we wonder what was the genesis of the modern nanny state, listen to this speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It’s part of his State of the Union Address from 1944.

The purpose of the original Bill of Rights is to protect our freedoms from government. But to provide the things Roosevelt calls for — food, clothing, a decent home, adequate medical care, and a good education — requires an expansive government. These rights are called positive rights because they require action by the government, in contrast to the negative rights found in the Bill of Rights. Richard A. Epstein explains the consequences of the “Roosevelt Rights”:

All of these are positive rights, which means necessarily that some unidentified individuals or groups have the duty to provide decent wages, home, health, and education to the people. The individual so taxed can discharge that duty only by forfeiting his own right to reap the fruits of his own labor. Yet the incidence and size of these hefty correlative duties are left unaddressed by Roosevelt.

We are witnessing today a modern rerun of Roosevelt’s incomplete strategy. Obama’s healthcare plan, for instance, designates a generous set of “essential health benefits” to a large number of individuals entitled to affordable care on the newly created government exchanges. But these benefits cannot be funded with higher taxes on the “millionaires and billionaires,” whose combined wealth falls short of what is needed. So what duty will undergird the new right?

This sort of funding crisis could never arise under the Bill of Rights 1.0, whose correlative duties are negative — or, put another way, they impose a “keep off” sign on other people. If I have the freedom of speech, your duty is to forbear from disrupting the speech with force, and vice versa. Each of us can demand forbearance from the use of force by all others.

David Kelley elaborates further in a chapter from The Morality of Capitalism:

By contrast, welfare rights are conceived as rights to possess and enjoy certain goods, regardless of one’s actions; they are rights to have the goods provided by others if one cannot earn them oneself. Accordingly, welfare rights impose positive obligations on others. If I have a right to food, someone has an obligation to grow it. If I cannot pay for it, someone has an obligation to buy it for me. Welfarists sometimes argue that the obligation is imposed on society as a whole, not on any specifi c individual. But society is not an entity, much less a moral agent, over and above its individual members, so any such obligation falls upon us as individuals. Insofar as welfare rights are implemented through government programs, for example, the obligation is distributed over all taxpayers.

From an ethical standpoint, then, the essence of welfarism is the premise that the need of one individual is a claim on other individuals. The claim may run only as far as the town or the nation. It may not embrace all of humanity. But in all versions of the doctrine, the claim does not depend on your personal relationship to the claimant, or your choice to help, or your evaluation of him as worthy of your help. It is an unchosen obligation arising from the sheer fact of his need.


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