Modern Debates on Rights
Decades later, both the purpose and the consequences of the Great Society are disputed. More fundamental is the question of the nature of rights themselves. Do they come from God and/or nature, or do they come from government? Or some mixture? The controversy over the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a modern example. The ACA requires that companies provide insurance that covers birth control - including drugs that prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg, which some consider to be abortion - and sterilization. Catholics and some Protestants see these practices as wrong and contrary to the word of God. Conservatives also think it is against what is best in human nature that individuals be promised entitlements.
Rights and the New Deal
Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt responded to the Great Depression by asking for - and receiving - much greater powers to intervene in the economy. Congress passed hundreds of bills and created dozens of new offices and agencies, dramatically expanding the size and power of federal bureaucracy. In his 1944 State of the Union address, FDR proposed a “second bill of rights.” The political rights in the 1791 Bill of Rights, he argued, had “proven inadequate” for the challenges of the times. While the natural and inalienable rights in the U.S. Bill of Rights are mostly negative in nature, the new rights FDR proposed were positive in nature. Rather than protecting the individual’s natural liberty so he would be free to pursue happiness, FDR’s list of rights was a set of entitlements and services to be provided to certain individuals at the expense of certain others.
The Great Society
The Progressive Era charted a course away from the Founders’ design of limited government to secure individual rights toward the entitlement state that guarantees benefits. Essentially, the Progressives put in place government interference to protect people from corporations. The New Deal sought to make the people more economically equal. The Great Society championed by President Lyndon Johnson continued that trajectory, focusing on protecting minorities. Under LBJ’s leadership, the national government took on the project of building a “Great Society” based on the progressive vision of wise and sophisticated leaders guiding the populace towards enlightenment. By providing basic needs and more, the view went, the government would be freeing people to pursue higher goals and achieve self-actualization. The 1960s saw the institution of sweeping new powers for the national government in the areas of civil rights and affirmative action, education, environmental protection, and many others.
The Great Society and Beyond
In this lesson, students will examine the role of civic and economic liberties historically. They will look at these in the light of the Supreme Court Case, Citizens United v. FEC (2010). The students will conclude this lesson by comparing and contrasting the opinions of Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan.