All Americans—all citizens of the world, for that matter—have a right to a decent income, a good education, adequate health care, and freedom from economic domination.
So argues liberal stalwart Sunstein (Law/Univ. of Chicago; Republic.com, not reviewed), who notes that such guarantees are expressed or at least endorsed in the constitutions of South Africa, India, and the European Union, but not in that of the US. The omission owes to many causes. Franklin Roosevelt, writes Sunstein, considered freedom from want to be an essential element of world peace and progress, and his “Four Freedoms” speech of 1941 “connected the war against tyranny with the effort to combat economic distress and uncertainty.” In another speech of 1944, FDR revisited this theme, enumerating what he called “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”; Sunstein characterizes the later speech as marking “the utter collapse of the (ludicrous) idea that freedom comes from an absence of government.” Yet Roosevelt did not press for constitutional amendments to secure these rights, apparently in the belief that American society was headed toward accepting them as self-evident and that the courts would interpret the laws accordingly. The 1960s saw promise of these guarantees becoming law through the sweeping social reforms under LBJ’s administration, but Richard Nixon’s election by the slenderest of margins in 1968 undid half a century’s progress; Nixon, argues Sunstein, appointed four Supreme Court justices “who promptly reversed the emerging trend, insisting that the Constitution does not include social and economic guarantees.” So it is, he suggests, that today millions of Americans go hungry, without medical attention, unemployed, and illiterate—matters toward which the current president seems supremely indifferent.
Sunstein’s case suffers from repetitiousness, but it raises many good points worth arguing over as reformists seek to reshape American liberalism—and recapture its former power.