Sunday, February 27, 2011

Four freedoms & seven steps

Staying on the beam about World War II-era culture here, today I'll take a look at a wartime leader's wishes for the world, and also how our government pressed citizens to help hold back inflation. One can tell us a lot about how we landed in our current fix, while the other exposes our refusal to do what it takes to get out.

In his 1941 State-of-the-Union address, less than a year before the Empire of Japan struck U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor, Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt enumerated what he called "four essential human freedoms":

  1. Freedom of speech & expression
  2. Freedom of worship
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear
Here was the President of the United States articulating not freedoms but aspirations. His first two points are enshrined in our Constitution, which protects opportunity; the third and fourth "freedoms" are not.

FDR's vision is seen by many as defining the core principles of liberal political ideology. Some consider his "Four Freedoms" speech as tipping America in the direction of socialism. There's little doubt that it laid the foundation for the United Nations.

I could make a value judgment about each of those effects -- and if I did, it wouldn't be pretty -- but instead I'm going to focus on more practical matters.

The goal of ensuring "freedom from want" has bankrupted America. Domestically it created a "social safety net" and a parasitic entitlement culture. Globally it made us the world's bank, cop and philanthropist, at the expense of stability and solvency here at home.

"Freedom from fear" is the ultimate expression of government-as-parent. (See the illustration by Norman Rockwell, above.) Integral to the constitutional provision "for the common defense" is the bearing of arms -- collectively and individually -- and yet the fourth of FDR's "freedoms" has been used to support the gutting of military readiness and the wholesale disarmament of citizens.

Humans aspire to happiness, and certainly we'd be happier free from want or fear. The Declaration of Independence acknowledges "the pursuit of happiness" among our "unalienable rights" -- not the achievement of happiness but its pursuit.

Independent humans are satisfied with opportunity. We'll do the rest on our own, thanks.

During the wartime years of the 1940s, Americans had roughly 40% more purchasing power than there were goods available to buy -- a prescription for runaway inflation. After watching prices jump by more than 60% during World War I, the federal government was determined to avoid a repeat performance.

It instituted rationing, price controls and other measures, all promoted by posters, ads and events. Central to the "Help US keep prices down" propaganda campaign were seven steps that ordinary citizens could take:

  1. Buy only what you need.
  2. Don't ask more than you must for what you sell.
  3. Pay no more than ceiling prices.
  4. Pay taxes willingly.
  5. Pay off your old debts -- all of them.
  6. If you haven't a savings account, start one.
  7. Buy and hold War Bonds.
From our perspective, a few of those suggestions ring of common sense -- be frugal, save money, get rid of debt. A couple of others -- don't overcharge, don't overpay -- fly in the face of today's pseudo-capitalism. The remaining two won't sit well with neo-cons mindlessly committed to reducing taxes.

The government wants to raise my taxes? What, and I'm supposed to pay them cheerfully? And the feds want me to buy War Bonds, too?

Yes, actually, to all of the above. The reasons were both patriotically sound and fiscally responsible.

The Greatest Generation knew that supporting the war effort meant supporting the revenue-generating measures required to pay for it, distasteful and difficult as that may have been. Second, increasing taxes during wartime was intended to be a pay-as-you-go strategy -- squaring the national ledger as money was needed and spent. And third, reducing American consumers' purchasing power was an important anti-inflation by-product of higher taxes.

That wasn't sinister -- it was smart. The feds' scheme worked, too, by most historians' accounts, holding World War II inflation below 25%.

Today our nation is crippled by ideology. The left has abandoned constitutional principles for entitlements and the illusion of safety -- the government will provide. The right has forsaken the role that sacrifice plays in patriotism, acting as if representative taxation is antithetical to freedom.

If we don't learn from our history we are, in a word, screwed.