The Electric Commentary

Monday, April 18, 2005

Legislating Rainbows

In today's NYT, Bob Herbert lovingly discusses FDR's "Second Bill of Rights."

After talking about the war, which was still being fought on two fronts, the president offered what should have been recognized immediately for what it was, nothing less than a blueprint for the future of the United States. It was the clearest statement I've ever seen of the kind of nation the U.S. could have become in the years between the end of World War II and now. Roosevelt referred to his proposals in that speech as "a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race or creed."

Among these rights, he said, are:

"The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation.

"The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.

"The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living.

"The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.

"The right of every family to a decent home.

"The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.

"The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment.

"The right to a good education."

Why not just promise everyone their own private jet and an end to the kicking of cute little puppies? The purpose of having constitutional rights is not to make a bunch of crazy utopian promises. Constitutional rights exist to let you know what the government will not be doing. This FDR speech gets much more attention than it deserves. (Homer Simpson came up with a similar idea in this episode.) As a public service, here is a modern day translation of the actual Bill of Rights, followed by the "Second Bill of Rights" (original text in normal type, modern translation in italics).

The Bill of Rights

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

You guys just worship whoever you want, say whatever you want, and write whatever you want, and we'll stay out of it. We also won't make up our own religion like the Brits did. I mean, that was just wacky. Also, you can even gather in front of our building and shout mindless slogans at us. And you can always ask us to for assistance if you feel you've been treated unfairly. We may ignore you, but you can ask.

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

It's a scary world out there, so no one is taking away your guns.

No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Your house is your kingdom, and we can't just barge in and use you as a cheap motel. In the event of some disastrous wartime national emergency we may change our minds on this, but we have to pass a law first.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Not only will we not put troops in your house, but we won't even come in unless we have a very good reason. We won't just look through your stuff, or your person, without going through a big ordeal first, with judges and hearings.

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

We realize that, as a government, we have a propensity to persecute certain people. Therefore, if we do prosecute you for something, we only get one shot at it, and then you go free. If you are accused of a serious offense, it is your peers who will decide to indict you, not us. You don't have to help us make our case, and we can't take your stuff.

In fact, if we take anyone's stuff without asking we'll pay them a fair amount.

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

We can't just leave you languishing in prison awaiting trial, we have to hurry. We have to keep you well informed, let you see your accusers, let you summon favorable witnesses, and you get to have a lawyer.

In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

We don't get to decide your guilt. Your peers will do that. And what they say, goes.

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Not only can we not keep you languishing in prison awaiting trial, we can't set an impossible bail either. Nor can we make you pay us an obscene amount. And we will not engage in any torture or sadistic punishments. But really, that should go without saying.

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

This is all we could think of right now. There may be a few other things that we can't do to you. We'll try to use our best judgment, but if you think of any, you may want to amend this document. Just in case. We are, after all, the government.

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

The rest of this document, you know, the part that comes before these Ten Amendments, spells out what the federal government may do. There may be a few things that the fed would like to do, that have not been stated in the Constitution. They may not do these things. The states may do these things, and the people may do these things, but the fed may not. Frankly, we think that we've given them enough to do, and that if they are charged with any more tasks, they probably won't do a very good job. If something big comes up and you all decide that they should be doing something else, then you can amend this document. Until then, they should mostly stay out of your business.

Now let's look at the "Second Bill of Rights."

1. The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation.

We will give you a job, but only a really bad job.

2. The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.

But don't worry. Your job may be bad, but we will also give you cold hard cash.

3. The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living.

And if you're a farmer, we'll artificially raise your prices. To all non-farmers worried about starving, see previous amendment.

4. The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.

We don't like some competition, so we'll help you deal with that. We're not exactly sure which competition is fair and which is unfair, but we think that we'll know it when we see it. We do know that as a business gets bigger we will become more suspicious of it. We will also have a lot of trade restrictions.

5. The right of every family to a decent home.

Have a house.

6. The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.

And some "free" health care too. Can I get you anything else? You know, you're looking a little pudgy, why don't you go exercise?

7. The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment.

We'll take care of everything. After all, we're the government.

8. The right to a good education.

As soon as we figure out how to provide one of these, everyone will have one.

See the marked difference between the two? The real Bill of Rights keeps the government off of your back. It is distrustful of government. BOR #2, on the other hand, simply makes a bunch of crazy promises without explaining how it will pay for anything, or create something like "a quality education for everyone." It expresses ideals without any realistic plans for implementation of those ideals. It would have been as useful (and as realistic, in my opinion) for Roosevelt to suggest that we all move to Candy Land.

The Bill of Rights is a serious document expressly stating what the government can not do. The "Second Bill of Rights" is nothing more than empty rhetoric designed to make desperate people feel good.

1 Comments:

  • Nice post Paul. I think you're right on target here. The good news is that the idea that government is the provider of supplier of the good life is dying out. Even our last Democratic President declared the end of big government. This is not to say it can't resurrect, but there is little chance that a single payer health care system, for example, will be adopted by our government any time soon.

    By Anonymous Brian, at 1:12 PM  

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