The coronavirus pandemic in the United States has reignited long-standing debates about the relationship between freedom and economic and personal security. After barely a week of a partial lockdown in many parts of the country, Donald Trump and others are now complaining that overly risk-averse public-health officials are threatening to strangle the economy. Trump insists that excessive caution is counterproductive and dangerous: “THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (BY FAR) THAN THE PROBLEM,” he tweeted on March 22. During a briefing at the White House the next day he added: “Our country wasn’t built to be shut down. America will again, and soon, be open for business.”
Conservatives have supported and extended Trump’s position. Writing in The Washington Post on March 25, the columnist Gary Abernathy claimed that both the stimulus plan passed by the Senate and the shelter-at-home proclamations had completed the nation’s march to socialism begun “incrementally decades ago.” “The delicate balance between freedom and risk was less than an afterthought as our economy was gutted in a matter of days,” Abernathy wrote:
In real life, bad things happen to us that aren’t our fault, but we still have to find a way, usually on our own, to cope and recover. Only in the land of make-believe that is our government would anyone think that no one would miss a paycheck no matter how many businesses were closed or jobs were lost.
Other conservatives have framed protective measures as a threat not only to America’s rugged individualism but to masculinity. The Christian pastor Jonathan Shuttlesworth referred to social distancers as “sissies” and “pansies” who have been “neutered,” and described Christians who use hand sanitizer as having “fake faith” and “no balls.” Another minister said he would never close his church, because his congregants were not “pansies.” Some politicians, including the lieutenant governor of Texas, and pundits, including Glenn Beck, have gone so far as to suggest that older Americans should be willing to risk death to preserve the economy.
How did we get to the point where ministers, the president, many Republican politicians, and a variety of media outlets are calling for people to risk death to save the economy? This rhetoric has a long history. It grew out of the backlash to the New Deal and the social safety net it created, which conservatives viewed as anti-American, anti-capitalist, and emasculating—a challenge to what the historian Richard Hofstadter once called “the virile prerogatives of enterprise.” But just as few people today believe New Deal liberalism unmanned the country, future generations are unlikely to look back favorably on the campaign against social distancing.
Security—freedom from “fear itself”—was the central promise of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, in 1933. The concept appeared again in his 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech, as “freedom from want,” and in a 1935 address to Congress, as the goal of the New Deal, which he described as “the security of the men, women, and children of the nation against certain hazards and vicissitudes of life.” The aptly named Social Security Act of 1935 was the central domestic achievement of FDR’s presidency.
Conservatives condemned this emphasis on security as an infantilizing damper on the American spirit. A 1935 editorial in The Illinois State Journal on “the New Deal road to ruin,” for example, attacked what it took to be the Rooseveltian principle “that the federal government should govern its citizens like so many incompetent children.” The same year, Georgia’s Governor Eugene Talmadge dismissed what the New Deal had accomplished, in a phrase combining gender roles, statism, and naïveté, as “wet nursin’… downright communism, and plain foolishness.” In 1936, the Republican Senator Frederick Steiwer contrasted traditional American free enterprise with “the soft, spineless paternalism of the regimented state.” J. William Ditter, the Pennsylvania congressman, spoke for many critics of the New Deal in 1939, when he pitted “star-gazing” New Dealers against “practical men,” like himself, who recognized that Roosevelt's “make-believe security” provided no realistic basis for a free society.
After the New Deal took hold, conservatives continued to denigrate the desire for security, often as an assault on masculinity. In 1949, Strom Thurmond, the governor of South Carolina and Dixiecrat presidential candidate the previous year, said, “Nothing could be more un-American and more devastating to a strong and virile nation than to encourage its citizens to expect government to provide security from cradle to grave.”
One consistent note in mid-century conservative rhetoric is the praise of risk as the essence of American citizenship and manhood, and the insistence that a healthy economy is necessarily precarious: “We must preserve the American tradition of freedom to take a chance—to lose your shirt, if you want to,” Eric Johnston of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in 1943. “Freedom is not for weaklings,” H. W. Prentis of the National Association of Manufacturers said in 1942. Only “ultra-liberal and socialistic critics” misguidedly and dangerously “put security first,” thereby threatening American liberty. In 1950, Arthur H. Motley, the publisher of Parade magazine, singled out “the freedom to fail” as “our most important freedom.”
Rejecting FDR’s view that government-promoted security made freedom possible, one critic went so far as to proclaim that “freedom and security are fundamentally incompatible.” It was for this reason, according to Representative Howard Robson, that a “cradle-to-grave welfare policy” was not only undesirable but “not possible within a context of freedom.”
This criticism was rarely applied consistently, however. While decrying government security programs for individuals as “coddling,” many 1930s business leaders gladly accepted government action to help their companies. From the creation in 1933 of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which helped rescue the banks, to “cost plus” contracts, which guaranteed private profits to industry during World War II, business leaders relied on government-backed security. Such hypocrisy set the pattern for generations: Government support for individuals in need continues to be considered a threat to liberty, whereas government support for business is deemed necessary to preserve freedom.
FDR was correct when he said that the New Deal saved American capitalism. The creation and expansion of the federal safety net made possible the postwar prosperity that benefited both American industry and workers. Even so, conservatives to this day see expansions of the welfare state as mortal threats to society. Mitt Romney’s claim that the Affordable Care Act was putting “free enterprise on trial” was incorrect in precisely the way that opponents of the New Deal were incorrect. What these critics past and present cannot seem to understand is that some modicum of security makes people more, not less, likely to take risks: If you don’t have to worry about health insurance, maybe you’ll leave your dead-end job and start a new company.
For most Americans, as for most people around the world, the novel coronavirus exemplifies in the most concentrated form in their lifetime what FDR called “the hazards and vicissitudes of life.” To face these hazards and vicissitudes—to protect ourselves, assist our neighbors in need, and preserve our society—we need not tired, incorrect arguments about how security threatens freedom, but bold New Deal–style government action to beat the odds. The lesson of the New Deal was that freedom and security were not just compatible but conjoined.