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Could a Second Bill of Rights and capitalism merge?
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Forsyth County News

Northview at North Forsyth

By: Jim Dean
I recently saw a film clip, embedded in a movie, that gave me great pause for thought. I thought it worth sharing, in a different context than the movie.

Every year a wonderful film festival is held in Sedona, Ariz. This year, one of the movies shown was Michael Moore’s latest: “Capitalism: A Love Affair.”

Just so you know where I am coming from, I don’t like Michael Moore’s work. Although he picks important topics that need to be addressed, the way he deals with them is counter to everything I believe. He shows only one side of the story and is prone to exaggeration. His keen sense of humor is offset by his narcissism. And he offers few solutions, and when he does they are weak -- like here, where he seems to propose a change to socialism as the solution to all the ills of capitalism.

Moore ignores questions of fundamental human behavior. Any economic or governmental system is only as good as the morality, integrity and commitment of the people involved. When the latter deteriorate, when greed sets in, when people focus on their own short-term maximization at the expense of others and the future, the unhappy results are easily predictable. Every system devised by mankind suffers this vulnerability -- and it is superficial to think that changing the system, without addressing the underlying behavioral and moral issues, will make much difference.

Thousands of years of recorded history seem to support this tenet. Moral failures and lack of commitment are factors that allow otherwise good systems to be abused, just as the benefits of automobiles or fine wines can be reversed by misuse.

Recently, a note from a friend on a totally different subject addressed at least one aspect of this issue. He said, “The very capitalism that brought huge wealth to my part of South Carolina, allowed millions of Americans to buy homes and all kinds of whatnots ... this is the capitalism that we want to throw away just because Mr. and Mrs. Nitwit maxed out their seven credit cards?”

It wasn’t only individual behavior that concerned him. He went on to talk about the need for government regulation of the capital markets and the need for integrity and balance within regulatory processes.

But this is not an article about Michael Moore positions. It’s about the film clip contained within the movie showing Franklin Delano Roosevelt presenting a portion of his Jan. 11, 1944, message to the Congress of the United States on the State of the Union. In that address, given just three months before his death, the president outlined a second “economic” bill of rights.

The president praised the political rights granted by the Constitution: “They were our rights to life and liberty.” However, he went on to say, “these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness” and “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”

"'Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

And so he proposed “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.” He stated, “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 farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living; the right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad; 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. All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.”

Moore’s movie contends that these rights are inconsistent with capitalism. But are they? This is the question that the film clip raised for me and which I want to present for your consideration. I guess if the idea is that you give everyone what they need without demanding anything in return, we’ve got a problem. But this need not and should not be the way.

For me, the key to everything that President Roosevelt presented in his second Bill of Rights seems to rest in his first four points. I would take some liberties by paraphrasing these four points as following: providing every American with the opportunity to obtain a reasonable-paying job or engage in a business endeavor in an environment which is fair and devoid of control by special interest groups. Homes, medical care, elimination of economic fears of old age and education are likely to flow from the prosperity that these first four “rights” can provide.

My sense is that the system we currently live under can provide this if we can figure out how to address two interirelated needs. One is to build confidence in the future -- so businesses expand, so people have jobs, so consumers spend. The second is to achieve a balance (and here I see the most vital role that government must play) so that special interests are held in check and so that unfettered competition does not lead to monopoly and greater inequalities. With those checks and balances in place, trust is formed which builds optimism which is likely to pave a self-fulfilling road to all the other things contained in Roosevelt’s second Bill of Rights.

But now comes the catch: how do we achieve these two critical elements, trust and balance? I believe it will happen only through widespread citizen involvement. The interplay between democracy and capitalism is critical. “Democracy” is more than a political concept -- it is an imperative, requiring involvement.

Removing incentives to create, to achieve, to excel -- is a path to nowhere. But developing a moral code that reaches out to everyone, that provides opportunities for individuals to contribute to society in their own ways and to take pride in those contributions, that will move us onward and upward. It is my belief that the goals FDR enumerated in his second bill are worthy objectives to strive for, and that capitalism, with moderation, may be the best route yet devised to get us there. What do you think?

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at melcopen@hotmail.com.