05/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Change We Need II: An Economic Bill of Rights

What is freedom?

In the context of the ongoing economic crisis, this word has acquired a morbid new meaning. Some of us have been freed from the confines of our homes to live outdoors in tents. Many of us--nearly 700,000 in March alone--have been freed from the chains of our old jobs and can search for new ones. Millions of us are suddenly free to develop second careers as we approach retirement without sufficient savings to live out our post-employment lives. 1

These are not the usual privileges we associate with freedom. We normally think of freedom in terms of political and civil liberties such as the right to elect our representatives, to express ourselves freely, and the other rights contained in the Bill of Rights. We usually think of democracy as a system of government that guarantees these rights, and in which those who govern derive their authority from us.

Now we have to ask: Just how free are we when our lives can be so drastically upended by the Market, in which the most powerful players are people we haven't elected, and institutions in which most of us have little say?

What does it mean to live in a democracy when our elected representatives have not only failed to control the actions of these players but have actively aided them in their crimes and follies?

In a word, what is the meaning of freedom when the pursuit of happiness is reduced to the pursuit of economic survival?

If there is a positive side to the economic crisis, it is this: We can no longer avoid confronting the limits imposed by the market on our freedoms and democracy. Its authority over our lives is more diffuse than that of despotic governments, but now we see that it can exert just as much power over us.

This power has always been present, but prosperity, or at least the illusion of it, has blurred its edges for many of us. Now it has snapped into sharp relief as millions of us face homelessness, unemployment, and destitution.

Even those of us who haven't yet felt this power in its most brutal form may do so in the future. It is the nature of capitalism to swing from prosperity to slump, and the timing of these swings is unpredictable. Your job may be safe now, but disappear just when you have a new child. You may not be close to retirement now, but the market could make off with your savings just when you are. You could be safe in your home today but turned out of it by the bank next year.

The current crisis should prompt us to recognize this quality of capitalism not primarily as a social or economic problem, not even in terms of economic inequality, but as a fundamentally political issue: We cannot be truly free when we live at the mercy of the market.

Freedom from the vagaries of the market will require much more than the Obama administration's proposed economic stimulus and financial regulation. These are undeniably important, but no amount of stimulus and regulation will guarantee that recessions and financial crises won't happen again.

We need an expansion of our understanding and practice of democracy to include some fundamental "economic rights." This concept was articulated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with whom President Obama is frequently compared. As the Second World War approached its end, FDR declared in his State of the Union address:

"We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence...In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, 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 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 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."

Today what we may find most startling is FDR's characterization of these not as social protections, welfare, or safety net, but as rights. His assertion that true individual freedom cannot exist without these rights goes well beyond anything we've seen from mainstream politics in this country since at least the 1960s, Obama included.

The last few months have painfully confirmed the limits of our freedom in the absence of these rights. The real change we need is a deep, lasting expansion of our democracy to incorporate them.

This is a daunting task. However, democracy is a living, growing thing, not a once and for all accomplishment. This we know; this is our history. It is up to us to fight for these economic rights just as those who came before us fought for, and won, the civil liberties we enjoy today.

1 Here are the March unemployment data, and a county-level map of unemployment rates. Baseline Scenario evaluates the retirement prospects of people aged 55 to 64.

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