A Journal for Western Man



Franklin Roosevelt versus

Ronald Reagan and the

American Heritage

G. Stolyarov II

Issue LVI- May 8, 2006



           Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his "Commonwealth Club Address" (1932), articulated his desire for a government of expansive economic powers –  used to hold back "economic oligarchy" and assure positive "economic rights." Roosevelt considered public welfare considerations to overshadow individual sovereignty in importance; he was ready to use government power to force individuals to behave in the “public interest.” Ronald Reagan, unlike Roosevelt, recognized that government was the problem – not the solution– in economic crises, and that its authority over the economy must be curtailed to secure the freedom of entrepreneurs and all hard-working, self-directed Americans. In his First Inaugural Address (1981), Reagan represented the American heritage– arguing against restraints on free enterprise and  defending individual sovereignty, natural rights, and limited government.

            Roosevelt saw government as a social contract between the rulers and the governed; under it, "rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights.” But Roosevelt did not consider the rights granted under such a contract to be eternal and immutable: “The task of statesmanship [is] redefinition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order. New conditions impose new requirements upon government and those who conduct [it].” To Roosevelt, the very principles on which government is based ought to change with the times.

            Roosevelt claimed that an older equality of opportunity had been eroded; he asserted that “equality of opportunity as we have known it no longer exists” and that “we are steering a steady course toward economic oligarchy...” For Roosevelt, government was the solution to this problem; “the task of government in its relation to business is to assist the development of an economic declaration of rights, an economic constitutional order.” Government ought to equalize opportunity where financial oligarchs' activities had given some people tremendous advantages over others.  Roosevelt hence advocated redefining rights to encompass positive "economic rights." Rather than adhere to the older definition of the right to life as a negative right to be free of active violations of one's physical integrity, Roosevelt believed that every man "has also a right to make a comfortable living... Our government... owes to everyone an avenue to possess himself of a portion of that plenty sufficient for his needs...” Rather than viewing a right to property as a right not to have one's property coercively taken away, Roosevelt redefined it as "a right to be assured... in the safety of  [one's] savings”. Under the new "right to property," government could  interfere with some people's property to "protect" others'; Roosevelt especially advocated “restrict[ing] the operations of the speculator, the manipulator, even the financier” to shield people's savings.

            Roosevelt saw individual sovereignty as subordinate to a "public welfare" defined in terms of the new "economic rights." He did not believe that each man ought to be left alone to pursue his own interests; rather, people– especially successful ones– ought to "sacrifice this or that private advantage; and in reciprocal self-denial must seek a general advantage”. Roosevelt  unambiguously wished to restrain those whose business practices and personal interests did not conform to his vision of an equitable society: “whenever.. the lone wolf... declines to join in achieving an end recognized as being for the public welfare... the government may properly be asked to apply restraint”.

            Roosevelt's view of government was at odds with the ideas of John Locke– on which many of America's founding documents are based. Locke's social contract is not between rulers and the ruled, but rather among the individuals comprising a commonwealth, entered into to protect pre-existing natural rights. According to Locke, “[t]he only way whereby anyone... puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to... unite into a community... in a secure enjoyment of their properties” (Second Treatise on Civil Government).  Roosevelt thought that rulers grant rights to their subjects under the social contract, but Locke emphasized that such rights stem from eternal natural law predating all governments.  Furthermore, Locke recognized that  the "chief end... of men's... putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property” (Second Treatise on Civil Government), an end Roosevelt was ready to subvert whenever assuring "equality of opportunity" demanded it– limiting the property of some to protect the savings of others.

            Unlike Roosevelt, Reagan was not optimistic about government's ability to solve social problems. Criticizing inflation, economic stagnation, and government restrictions on individual freedom and economic development,  Reagan recognized that “[i]n this present crisis... [g]overnment is the problem”. Reagan opposed crushing tax burdens levied by government on productive citizens. Yet even the revenue thus obtained had "not kept pace with public spending”; rather, a mounting deficit imperiled America's economy and future. In order to restore economic growth, Reagan proposed “removing the roadblocks that have slowed our economy and reduced productivity”; he especially recommended getting "government back within its means" and "lighten[ing] our punitive tax burden”. Less government, not more, was needed to restore prosperity.  Reagan's desire for removing government economic restraints is reminiscent of Andrew Jackson, who sought to abolish “complicated restrictions which now embarrass the intercourse of nations” and wanted commerce "to flow in those channels to which individual enterprise– always its surest guide– might direct it” (“The Majority is to Govern”).

            Reagan– contrary to Roosevelt– did not consider entrepreneurs and men of wealth to be responsible for America's crises. Quite the contrary, he recognized their crucial, even heroic role in facilitating a life and standard of living worthy of Americans. He saluted “entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth, and opportunity” and desired for them freedom to innovate for everyone's benefit. Unlike Roosevelt, who wished to restrain and restrict some– especially businessmen– to grant a specious "equality of opportunity" to others, Reagan recognized that “[t]he solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.” Reagan wanted to grant entrepreneurs the same protections under the law that all other Americans had.   Reagan's respect for entrepreneurs and his recognition that entrepreneurship is a social good– not an evil– are consistent with Andrew Carnegie's insight that “[n]ot evil, but good, has come... from the accumulation of wealth by those who have the ability and energy that produce it” (“Wealth”). Carnegie would have detested Roosevelt's attempts to perfect society and "equalize" opportunity by penalizing the best and most productive Americans: “We might as well urge the destruction of the highest existing type of man because he failed to reach our ideal as to favor the destruction of Individualism, Private Property, the Law of Accumulation of Wealth, the Law of Competition; for these are the highest results of human experience...” (“Wealth”). Reagan, like Carnegie, recognized that individuals– when left free to use their property as they wish– generate far more social good than an intrusive, regulatory, redistributive welfare state.

            Reagan also sought to limit the government that Roosevelt wanted to expand. He recognized that America is "a nation that has a government– not the other way around”. American government, Reagan realized, does not have unlimited powers subject to changing circumstances. Rather, “[o]ur government has no power except that granted it by the people"; Reagan wished to "check and reverse the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.” Reagan repudiated Roosevelt's idea that government must expand due to modern society's increasing complexity: “[W]e have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule... But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?” His words directly echoed Thomas Jefferson: "Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others?” (Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address).  Reagan shared with Jefferson a vision of permanently limited government, which “shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned” (Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address).

                Reagan's vision of individual freedom, limited government, and respect for entrepreneurial activity reflects the American heritage as conceived by Locke, Jefferson, Jackson, and Carnegie. Reagan wanted government restricted to its proper functions while respecting everyone's property rights and leaving all people free to pursue prosperity and happiness. In contrast, Roosevelt violated the very basics of the American heritage, denying the primacy of individual self-sovereignty, rejecting the eternity and immutability of individual natural rights, and giving government full license to expand in conformity with social changes. 

G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent filosofical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at gennadystolyarovii@yahoo.com.

This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA’s Statement of Policy.

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's new comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, at http://www.geocities.com/rational_argumentator/rc.html.