Unbalanced Ideas of Liberty: Accentuate the Positive

There are two concepts of liberty called negative and positive liberties. In simple terms, negative liberty means freedom from something, and positive liberty means freedom to something. Put another way, negative liberties must be protected from government action, while positive liberties must be protected by government action.

The Bill of Rights (source)
Unfortunately, I don't think many Americans understand these concepts. The Bill of Rights is largely made up of negative liberties, and most of the well-known freedoms therein - freedom of speech, religion, press, petition, the right to bear arms, protection against unreasonable searches and seizures and cruel and unusual punishment - are freedoms that are by and large guaranteed by the absence of laws, not the presence of them (beyond the Bill of Rights itself).

Granted, there are some positive liberties in the Bill, such as the rights to due process and a speedy, public, and civil trial by jury. On the whole, however, the Constitution was written by rich white men who didn't need to have democratic government messing around with their privileges. For some Americans, this paradigm has continued to this day. But, there have also been many changes.

military districts of Reconstruction
(source)
After the Civil War, the Reconstruction Amendments really began to change the extent to which the U.S. government would step in to provide positive liberties for Americans. The abolishment of slavery (amendment XIII), the due process and equal protection clauses (XIV), and the right to vote regardless of race (XV) all had to be actively ensured by the reunified, empowered, and now truly modern American state. Just look at these lines from each of the amendments: "Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." "The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article." "The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

It was known at this point that without force behind them and the guarantee of action, these liberties would be worthless: The right to vote would be unevenly available, there would be discrimination under the law, and slavery might even persist. Granted, all but one of these conditions reappeared, but that was because President Hayes withdrew the federal troops from the South in 1877, ending Reconstruction and effectively ending the active, forceful guarantee of positive liberties for African Americans there.

screenshot from FDR's speech
Now I want to skip ahead to the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (See also this old post that references FDR, addressing this same topic from a slightly different angle.) After leading America through three terms, FDR proposed in 1944 a Second Bill of Rights - positive freedoms, guaranteed for Americans, that he had already heavily pursued through his policies during the Depression. Now I'll let him do the talking, through the text of his speech:
This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty. 
As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. 
We have come to a clear realization of the fact that 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. 
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 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.
Now in our day, some of these economic truths formerly accepted as self-evident often seem to have been forgotten or denied, even though many other nations value them. Some Americans seem not to understand that a government's provision of equal opportunity and fair treatment above and beyond what has been done in the past would not be overreach or unconstitutional expansion of power: Rather, it would represent further fulfillment of America's stated goal to expand liberty. Positive and negative liberties must be balanced, and they have the capacity to expand together. Today, however, as demonstrated by our mainstream political discourse and by the discourse of national politicians, things are way out of balance. It's time to restore positive liberties to their deserved place of self-evidence.

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