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Seeking the Four Freedoms Is as Important Today as It Was 74 Years Ago

06/14/2015 07:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2016
John Moore via Getty Images

Hillary Clinton's decision to hold the first major public rally of her campaign at Four Freedoms Park in New York City reminds us not only of the many challenges the United States has faced in the past, but also the many challenges we face today as we seek to build a better future for ourselves and for our children.

It was on January 6, 1941, in one of the darkest moments of the Second World War, after Hitler had announced his decision to establish a "new order" in occupied Europe, that Franklin Roosevelt took to the world's airways to propose a different idea -- a "moral order," based not on "the tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb," but on four fundamental human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Inspired by this simple yet eloquent vision, the United States and its allies would not only go on to defeat the forces of tyranny that sought to dominate the world in the early 1940s, but also construct the institutions required to ensure that humanity's advance toward the goal of the four freedoms would continue. Four Freedoms Park, where Secretary Clinton will speak, stands in the shadow of the most visible of these institutions -- the United Nations, which for all its imperfections has done more to advance the cause of peace and the four freedoms since its founding in 1945 than any other international body.

The successful establishment of the United Nations, and Eleanor Roosevelt's role in the adoption of the all-important Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the General Assembly in 1948, would no doubt have pleased FDR enormously. But the international push to advance the four freedoms was not the only issue that FDR was focused on as the United States and the world made the transition from war to peace. He was also deeply concerned about the state of the four freedoms here at home -- especially freedom from want and fear.

Having witnessed the rise of Nazism in the wake of economic crisis of the early 1930s, FDR observed two simple truths about the liberty of a democratic people: The first was that "the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself." The second was that "the liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way as to sustain an acceptable standard of living." In other words, inequality and the concentration of wealth in the hands of all but a few is not only immoral but also dangerous and inimical to the maintenance of a healthy democracy.

The programs and policies that FDR launched in the New Deal -- from the Social Security Act to the minimum wage provisions in the Fair Labor Standards Act -- were designed to help reduce the level of inequality in America. But as a recent report released by Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz shows, we once again find ourselves living in an America with levels of inequality not seen since the Great Depression. Since the late 1970s, for example, while the average hourly wage for the American worker has increased by a mere 0.1 percent per year, the average annual compensation for America's top 500 CEOs has skyrocketed from $1 million to $33 million. As a result, the ratio of average annual income of CEOs to workers now stands at 295:1, up from the average of 20:1 in 1965. Further evidence for the rise in inequality can be seen in the tax rates paid by the wealthy versus the rest of us, in the growth of the increasingly deregulated financial sector of the U.S. economy, and in the lack of upward mobility among the poor, especially among disadvantaged people of color.

As Stiglitz argues, these levels of inequality are no accident, but the result of a series of incremental changes made to the rules governing our economy over the past 30 years, rules designed to funnel more and more of the nation's wealth to the top, which have essentially destroyed the balance of economic power that was set in motion by the New Deal and achieved in the three decades after WWII.

Historians looking back 50 years from now will no doubt see the rise of income inequality as one of the defining moments of our time. They will also no doubt recognize that in spite the progress we have made and the election of the nation's first black president, a country where 30 percent of African American children, 28 percent of Native American children, and 23 percent of Latino children live in poverty -- as opposed to just 4 percent of white children -- is not a country free of racial discrimination. Nor is a nation where one in six black men has been incarcerated since 2001, and where the average young African-American male lives in terror of the police, a nation that can say it has rid itself of freedom from fear.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said -- echoing her husband's first inaugural -- that "democracy is not about words, but action." The generation that lived through World War II and built the great American middle class certainly understood this. One hopes that Secretary Clinton, moving forward from her speech today on Roosevelt Island, will inspire a new generation to take up the challenge of achieving the four freedoms with the same determination as our parents and grandparents. Doing so would bring FDR's remarkable vision of what he called "the kind of world achievable in our own time and generation" one step closer to reality.