Today in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a landmark speech known as the “Four Freedoms.” The speech focuses on the looming threat of world war, but he concludes by listing four freedoms that he deemed essential. FDR’s first two freedoms, freedom of speech and of worship, broke no new ground. The fourth, “freedom from fear,” mostly involved freedom from aggressive war by other nations. But his third “freedom” exhibited a flaw in progressive thought that continues to today.
FDR’s third freedom, the “freedom from want,” meant “economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants everywhere in the world.” This politicism took on a more tangible form in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, [etc].” Similar ideas float around today in many forms, such as Obamacare (right to healthcare), minimum wage laws (right to income), and rent control (right to housing). While “freedom from want” may sound noble, it presents a flawed view of the nature of freedom and the role of government.
Liberty in the classical sense refers to freedom to act–to do, to earn, to speak, and so on. The freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights, for example, can be realized when government simply leaves us alone. Freedom of speech occurs just by letting people speak. On the other hand, Roosevelt’s freedom from want marks a different vision–the “right” to be given something. But the right to be given requires a giver. And if the right to be given is a right at all, the giver cannot withhold the gift.
Thus, Roosevelt’s “freedom” turns out to be just the opposite–it demands the sacrifice of someone’s right to use her own labor and its fruits as she pleases. Supporters of this Robin Hood reshuffle usually justify the shake-down by pointing to unequal distributions of wealth between those who are required to give and those who are entitled to receive. But rights do not diminish as people succeed. Nor do rights increase as people come on hard times. The freedom from want, as Ayn Rand put it, creates “a world where the more a man produces, the closer he comes to the loss of all his rights, until, if his ability is great enough, he becomes a rightless creature delivered as prey to any claimant.”
The needs of the poor are real, but the answer is not to restrict freedom. Rather, the wealth-generating power made possible by liberty is the best path forward. Present people with liberty, and they will free themselves from want.