Leader Messages

A Second Bill of Rights

By May 1, 2020 No Comments

By Leader Dr. Joe Chuman

In January,1944, Franklin Roosevelt gave a state of the union address that deserves far greater recognition, indeed recognition that, in my view, is urgent in our times. In what is sometimes referred to as his “the Second Bill of Rights” address, Roosevelt called for a second Bill of Rights that would vouchsafe economic rights.

He noted that the Constitution and Bill of Rights guarantee political rights, but they need to be complemented with a parallel roster of economic entitlements to further ensure that happiness be achievable. Asserting that political rights alone are insufficient, he proclaimed that “necessitous men are not free men.” In short, we need political rights to agitate for economic justice. But without a guaranteed economic standard of living commensurate with human dignity, political freedom means little.

He listed eight economic entitlements, among them the right to a decent wage, the right to a home, the right to be secure in old age, sickness, disability, and unemployment, the right to a good education, and yes, the right to health care.

To be sure, Roosevelt was not calling for amending the Constitution, a process which is extraordinarily cumbersome, lengthy, and politically fraught. He was calling for these entitlements to be encoded into and guaranteed by federal law.

History notes that Roosevelt failed to achieve his noble and humane vision. Four years later, however, his widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, as chairperson of the drafting committee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, worked to ensure that those economic rights and others found a prominent place in the Declaration.

Let it be said that the states of Western Europe take economic rights very seriously, ensuring that the citizens of those countries are rendered secure by a safety net, again vouchsafed by federal laws and long-standing convention. By contrast, it remains the official position of the United States that economic rights are not rights at all, making the United States an outlier in the developed world. Our security is subject to the vagaries of politics and capitalism. We now see the tragic consequence of our unenlightened social values playing out at this moment in the economic misery caused by the pandemic.

The time is long past that we join the civilized world. And, after the plague has lifted, we need to struggle hard to make it so.

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