Defending a Century of American Progress

Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, in an oft-seen video clip, describes how a thriving industrialized economy is dependent on government taxation and redistribution for the creation of key institutions, infrastructure, and social programs:

She notes, “there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own.” She mentions factory owners who “move [their] goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for,” and “hired workers the rest of us paid to educate.” She adds that police and fire services, that “the rest of us paid for” kept them safe and prevented them from having to hire their own security and fire defense forces. She ends by saying, “Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

As Warren noted, social contacts are based on the notion that people are vulnerable on their own and need a framework to provide peace and security. People are willing to surrender some freedoms in exchange for protection of their natural rights such as those basic human rights outlined and guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

Negative and Positive Rights

Negative rights are those that require no government action to fulfill. In the Bill of Rights, for example, the government does not have to do anything in order to enable you to speak freely or to peaceably assemble. Positive rights, on the other hand, are those rights where government needs to intervene, and in the Constitution, two are the right to national security (a common defense) and the right to counsel in a criminal prosecution. In the 19th and 20th centuries, as European bourgeoisie revolutions were overturning monarchic rule, constitutions were adopted in Europe that contained additional positive rights.

In the U.S., certain administrations, especially President Franklin Roosevelt’s, successfully expanded the federal government’s commitment to additional positive rights, such as the right to be educated to a minimum standard, the right to have a job, and the right to have a fire department keep your house from burning down. Predictably, conservatives vehemently opposed Roosevelt’s expansion of rights, but he was largely successful because the Great Depression helped most Americans realize a need for such rights.

Undermining the Social Contact

It’s been both interesting and frightening to observe a large swath of politicians attempt to question and undermine many of the policies and institutions – those “positive rights” – that have been the bedrock of American governance in the 20th and 21st centuries. While some skepticism of conventional thinking is always good, it seems that a large group of Washington’s lawmakers have decided they want to eliminate government as we’ve known it. Many conservatives now question child labor laws, spending on our failing infrastructure, providing stimulus spending during recessions, and seem intent on attacking the Federal Reserve whose monetary policy has helped smooth the ups and downs of the business cycle for decades. In addition, many programs and policies are also under fire, such as the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP, which prevented a complete financial meltdown), comprehensive immigration reform (which President George W. Bush supported), unemployment and food stamp benefits. Conservatives previously embraced the health insurance mandate as the solution to America’s health care crisis before a Democratic president decided to enact it. Now they claim it is communism and socialism. This list goes on and on.

Turning our backs on the programs supporting some of our basic positive rights threatens to unravel over a century of progress. Over the next few posts, I will try to discuss how vital the guarantee of positive rights is to our society and economy.

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