Chapter 5 - Freedom from Want

Posted in The Forgotten People

The Four Freedoms
Freedom from Want

My subject tonight is the third of President Roosevelt's four freedoms - freedom from want.

Here we have one of the most complex of human problems. As we approach it we find ourselves pressed by two considerations, each of which is powerful, each of which acts in opposition to the other. Perhaps in the result we shall find ourselves using these competing pressures in order to establish a firm structure.

On the one hand we have the fact that the struggle for existence and for progress brings out the best in man, and leads, as history has repeatedly shown, to strength and endurance. On the other hand we have the equally clear fact that a never-ending and never-quite-succeeding struggle on the fringe of reasonable existence is destructive of hope and of humanity, which naturally looks for the time, in Browning's words, "when body gets its sop, and holds its noise, and leaves soul free a little".

Let me put the matter in another way. The arriving at a true answer to any difficult problem requires a just balancing of various factors. If our motto is to be, "Each for himself and the devil take the hindmost", then want will be the portion of the least active or the least fortunate, and our civilization will be disfigured by those extremes of wealth and poverty, of comfort and despondency, which have defaced our history in the past, and which a proper understanding of human dignity will roundly condemn.

But if the motto is to be that each citizen is entitled, whatever his own effort or deserts (sic), to a maintenance which will suffice without labour; in other words, that utter security in the economic sense is our divinely allotted portion; all incentive to effort will vanish and we shall become a race ready for the destroyer.

We would need to be blind not to have noticed already in this war the corroding effect of a generation of Government paternalism, of a political tradition of pandering and promises, of a growing belief that life owes the individual the fullest protection and security while the individual owes life nothing at all. We are threatened by the dry-rot of social and political doctrines which encourage the citizen to lean on the State, which discourage thrift, which despise as reactionary those qualities of self-reliance which pioneered Australia.

For a generation in Australia many of us have not been training for the battle of life, but have been disposed to sit back, to rest on our laurels, to leave the struggle to others - in particular, as we are now grimly reminded, to the Germans and the Japanese.

If then freedom from want means an absolutely guaranteed material life "come rain, come fine", it should not be welcomed by us, for it would surely mean national inertia and decadence. When the poet said, "for we all know security is mortal's chiefest enemy", his statement, odd as it sounds at first, had truth in it.

Should we then reject Roosevelt's third freedom - freedom from want?

Not at all!! We should and we shall struggle for it, but we should seek to understand what it means and what it involves. The President is not so superficial as to think that any freedom once purchased may be enjoyed for ever without labour and without sacrifice. Freedom is not a commodity you buy over a counter. It is a principle of life. It must be strong to resist its enemies. It is a source of power, not something passive or dead. My right to be free imposes on me obligations of the most absolute kind to defend my freedom. And so if I am to have freedom from want I must pay the price of that freedom. I must work and strive. In the seat of my brow must I earn bread.

Thus it is that freedom from want does not mean paid idleness for all. The country has great and imperative obligations to the weak, the sick, the unfortunate. It must give to them all the sustenance and support it can. We look forward to social and unemployment insurances, to improved health services, to a wiser control of our economy to avert if possible all booms and slumps which tend to convert labour into a commodity, to a better distribution of wealth, to a keener sense of social justice and social responsibility. We not only look forward to these things, we shall demand and obtain them.

To every good citizen the State owes not only a chance in life but a self-respecting life. But this does not obscure the fact that the State cannot and must not put a premium on idleness or incompetence. It must still offer rewards to the enterprising. It must at all times show that security is to be earned, to be merited, and is not to fall, like manna, from heaven.

I know that it is or was fashionable to speak of the new order which is to follow the war as if it will represent a sort of golden age of long life, reduced effort, high incomes and great comfort. It is a pleasing picture, but truth requires us to admit that it is probably false. Long years of the ruin and waste of war must be paid for. We shall work harder than before the war, not less. Most of us shall carry burdens greater than those we were accustomed to bear before the war. Materially we may well - as a nation and as a race - be poorer.

But all this will be more than compensated for by the facts that our sufferings and victory will have preserved our spiritual freedom, that our goods will be more justly shared, and that a better recognition of human values will have quickened our sense of human responsibility.

But let me say this in conclusion, that if to most or many of us the war is just an excuse for getting and spending more money, while the new order of our dreams is just a vista of an easy-going and comfortable majority supplied and fed by a laborious minority, we shall most assuredly lose the war, and the new order will be made in Berlin.

Roosevelt's freedom from want is therefore not a fixed and guaranteed state. It promises the just reward for the good citizen. Properly seen, it is not part of a gospel of ease, but calls us to action.

10 July, 1942