One of the most impactful speeches in American history has just passed its 80th anniversary—Franklin Roosevelt’s famous 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech.
The speech introduced cognitive dissonance into Americans’ understanding of freedom that is still cited today as justification for expanding government power over citizens’ lives. If we want to advance our “General Welfare,” as the Constitution aims for, it is particularly important that we reconsider that speech and reclaim resonance with freedom, rightly understood, rather than dissonance.
On the surface, an articulation of multiple freedoms would seem to be consistent with freedom for all. But FDR’s version was not.
The first two of FDR’s “four essential human freedoms”--“freedom of speech and expression” and “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way”--are consistent with freedom for all. Both can be enjoyed universally, because the freedom of one person to speak or worship as he or she chooses does not take away from the same freedom for others. Government need only disallow intrusions on those rights, including by government, the agency with the greatest power to invade citizens’ rights.
Improving our potential for mutual advancement depends on the rediscovery of a consistent understanding of freedom.
In contrast, FDR’s third freedom—“freedom from want”—cannot be similarly broad. It commits the government to provide some people more goods and services than arise from their voluntary arrangements with others. However, in a world of inescapable scarcity, that commitment by an agency whose only resources have to be extracted from its own citizens must necessarily constrict those others’ equal freedom to enjoy the fruits of their self-ownership and productive efforts through voluntary cooperation with others. That is, such a freedom is inescapably at odds with freedom for all.
Similarly, FDR’s fourth freedom—“freedom from fear…that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor”--seems unobjectionable on the surface. After all, protecting citizens from foreign aggression is a central role of government. However, it ignores similar abuses at the hands of their own government, which history is replete with. In particular, since FDR’s third freedom requires government aggression against its citizens to get the required resources for its “benevolence,” his “freedom from fear” omits the most significant agency citizens need fear when it comes to their freedom. It also ignores any serious understanding of Constitutional restrictions, particularly the Bill of Rights, which have been called the “Thou shalt nots,” designed to disallow such violations by our government.
Freedom is wonderful and inspiring, full of hope and possibilities. But the word has long been repurposed to mean something that reduces our shared freedom.
FDR’s “Four Freedoms” rhetoric dramatically changed the meaning of freedom into something inconsistent with freedom for all Americans. And that same distortion has continued to this day. Consequently, we must remember that the central freedom our founders sought to guarantee was, as Ludwig von Mises summarized it, “freedom from the government…the restriction of the government’s interference.” It creates no positive claim on the beneficence of government (forced charity from others), but preserves everyone’s freedom from government dictation, broadening the canvas for peaceful, voluntary arrangements that respect everyone’s rights. Unfortunately, those on whom such burdens are imposed are simply ignored when “freedoms” that are inconsistent with general freedom are declared.
Freedom is wonderful and inspiring, full of hope and possibilities. But the word has long been repurposed to mean something that reduces our shared freedom. A host of abuses have found a foothold in that cognitive dissonance, diminishing our greatest possibility for societal advancement. And more are promised. That is why improving our potential for mutual advancement depends on the rediscovery of a consistent understanding of freedom as universal freedom from government coercion, not something for nothing promises to some that force nothing for something terms on others.
Editor's Note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Gary Galles’s latest book, Pathways to Policy Failures, just published by the American Institute for Economic Research.