This essay was one of four finalists in a student essay contest on the New Deal and today sponsored by the Roosevelt Institution and The Nation. Visit StudentNation to read the winning essays and the other finalists.
Since its founding, America has been a country with a political philosophy based largely on negative rights – those rights that are best served when government checks itself against interfering with its citizenry. The Founding Fathers incorporated these rights into the Constitution, and this country has always cherished the liberty of the individual. Yet, negative rights have a limiting constraint, both from a philosophical and an economic perspective: the individual is sovereign only insofar as he can exert control over whatever affects him. That is, once things are out of the control of the individual, it is up to society, through the government, to assist the individual.
When the Great Depression hit, most Americans were unprepared; worse still, when President Herbert Hoover attempted to alleviate their suffering with negative rights-based policies, they became even worse off, because the causes of their suffering were out of their control. But, under New Deal Programs such as Social Security and the WPA, the government helped restore to the people control over their lives. While these programs ran contrary to the country’s negative rights philosophy, they were welcomed because they were not handouts. Instead, they were positive rights – rights which the government actively provides – which helped Americans begin to lift themselves up again.
Today, America is again at a similar crossroads: the world has simultaneously become more complicated and integrated, once more wresting control of our lives out of our hands and subjecting us to the whims of global economic and political forces. Now, for instance, economic resurgence and pollution in South and East Asia can cause economic and environmental problems at home. Our lives are no longer in our control; therefore, the government has a responsibility to intercede on our behalf, ushering in a new era of positive rights. However, the government must understand that any positive right is necessarily an abridgment of the liberty of at least some of its citizens, and that the New Deal was successful because it was not a handout; therefore, the government should seek to strike a balance between positive and negative rights.
To address globalization, the government should institute a broad-based, multi-field job retraining program that will help prepare citizens for a globalized world with skills that are resistant to global economic changes. While no government can turn back the tide of globalization, ours has a responsibility to enable its citizens to succeed in this new world. For climate change issues, the government should guarantee, as a positive right, a clean environment by supporting, both domestically and internationally, the creation of a cap-and-trade system which rewards innovation and hard work. Since the environment is a public good, it is up to the government, with the help of the free-market, to ensure that it remains clean and safe. Through simple programs that create positive rights, but are not handouts, the government can put Americans back in control of their lives. FDR offered a New Deal to all Americans; in today’s world, we need a new New Deal for ourselves and the whole world.