Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Radio Address on Social Justice Through Social Action

delivered 2 October 19321

Audio mp3 of Address


[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]

My friends, I want to talk to you today very simply about government. I am not going to refer to parties at all. But I am going to refer to some of the fundamentals that antedate parties, antedate republics and empires, fundamentals that are as old as mankind itself. They are fundamentals that have been expressed in philosophers for I donít know how many thousands of years in every part of the world. And today, in our boasted modern civilization, we are facing just exactly the same problems, just exactly the same conflicts between two schools of philosophies that they faced in the earliest days of America, and indeed the earliest days of the world.

One of them -- one of these old philosophies -- is the philosophy of those who would let things alone. And the other is the philosophy that strives for something new, something that the human race has never attained yet, but something that I believe the human race can attain and will attain: social justice, through social action.

Now, the philosophy of letting things alone has resulted in the days of the caveman, has resulted in the jungle law of the survival of the so-called fittest. But this philosophy of social action results in the protection of humanity and the fitting of as many human beings as possible into the scheme of surviving. In that first philosophy of "letting things alone," I am sorry to say, that there are a lot of people, in every community, in my community back home, which is a little village, and in the farming districts of the Nation and in the great cities of the Nation. We can fit in a great many splendid people in that category, splendid people who keep saying, not only to themselves and to their friends, but to the community as a whole, something like this: "Why shouldn't we let things alone? In the first place, things are not as bad as they are painted, and in the second place they will cure themselves for time is a great healer."

And in the same way, there are two theories of prosperity and to well-being. First, the theory that if we make the rich richer, somehow they will let a part of their prosperity trickle through to the rest of us. And the second theory -- and I suppose this second theory goes back to the days of Noah. I won't say to the days of Adam and Eve, because they had a less complicated situation to face. But very, very early in the history of mankind, there was that second theory that if we make the average of mankind comfortable and and make them secure in their existence, then their prosperity will rise upward through the ranks.

Now, my friends, the philosophy of social justice that I am going to talk about today, the philosophy of social justice through social action, calls definitely, and plainly, for the reduction of poverty. And what do we mean when we talk about the reduction of poverty? We mean, I think, the reduction of the causes of poverty. When we have an epidemic of disease in this land, in these modern days, what do we do? We turn to find out, in the first instance, the sources from which the disease has come; and when we have found those sources, those causes of the disease, we turn the energy of our attack upon them.

We've got beyond the point in modern civilization of merely trying to fight an epidemic of disease by taking care of the victims after they are stricken. Of course we do that, but we do a great deal more, too. We seek to prevent disease, and the attack on poverty is not very unlike the attack on disease. We are seeking the causes and when we have found them, we must turn our attack upon them. What are these causes? What are the causes that destroy human beings, driving millions of them to destruction?

Well, you and I know that there are a great many of them, and there are a great many of us who are alive today who have seen tremendous steps taken toward the eradication of many of the causes of poverty -- matters of public health, matters of child welfare, matters of the welfare of mothers, matters of the care of the people that are mentally afflicted matters of the care of prisoners, matters of restoring people to a better life in their own community, and so forth and so on. They're all aimed at the eradication of poverty.  

Now, there are all these causes, the causes that have destroyed in past ages thousands and countless thousands of our fellow human beings. They are the causes that we must attack if we have to make the future safer for humanity. We can go on taking care of the handicapped and the crippled and sick and the people lined in the unemployed, but common sense of humanity causes us to turn our back definitely on these destroyers.

Poverty resulting from these destroyers is largely preventable. But, my friends, poverty, if it is to be prevented, requires a broad program of social justice. And that means the interest of government in social justice. We cannot go back to the old prisons, the old system of mere punishment under which when a man when a man came out of prison he was not fitted to live in our community alongside of us. We cannot go back to the old system of asylums. We cannot go back to the old lack of hospitals or the old lack of public health. We can't go back to the sweatshops of America. We can't go back to children working in factories. Those days, my friends, are gone.

And there are a lot of new steps to take. It is not a question of just not going back. It is also a question also of not standing still.

For instance, the problem of [unemployment] in the long run --and I am not talking about the emergency of this year, but the long run -- the problem of unemployment can be and shall be solved by the human race. We cannot regard the difficulty as something that comes merely in cycles and cannot be avoided. Some leaders have wisely declared for a system of unemployment insurance throughout this broad land of ours; and we're going to come to it pretty soon. Justice, after all, is the first goal that we seek. Believing that when justice has been done, individualism will have a greater security to devote the best that individualism itself can give, means that our long-range objective is not a dole, but rather a job.

All of us, in the city and the country alike, have got to do everything we can to tide over. All agree that the first responsibility for the prevention of poverty and the alleviation of distress and the care of its victims rests upon the locality -- the individuals, the organizations and the Government. First of all, perhaps, upon the private agencies of philanthropy; and secondly, on other social organizations. And last, but not least, the churches. And yet all agree that to leave to the locality the entire burden would result very often in placing too heavy a proportion of the burden on those least able to bear it. So the State steps in next to equalize the burden by providing for a larger portion of the care of the victims of this poverty and by providing assistance and guidance for local communities. And then finally, above and beyond the States, the national Government has a responsibility as well.

I would like to enlarge on that today but I'm afraid that would be politics. My friends, the the ideal of social justice of which I have spoken -- an ideal that years ago might have been thought overly advanced -- is now accepted by the moral leadership of all of the great religious groups of the country. Radical? Yes, and I will show you just how radical it is. I am going to cite three examples of what the churches say, the great churches of America -- Protestant, and Catholic, and Jewish.2 And first I will read to you from the Sunday Sermon, the Labor Sermon sent out this year by the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, representing, as you know, a very large proportion of all of the Protestants in the United States.

Listen to how radical they are. They say:

The thing that matters in any industrial system is what it does actually to human beings....It is not denied that many persons of wealth are rendering great service to society. It is only suggested that the wealthy are overpaid in sharp contrast with the underpaid masses of the people. The concentration of wealth carries with it a dangerous concentration of power. It leads to conflict and to violence. To suppress the symptoms of this inherent conflict while leaving the fundamental causes of it untouched is neither sound statesmanship nor Christian good-will.

It is becoming more and more clear that the principles of our religion and the findings of social sciences point in the same direction. Economists now call attention to the fact that the present distribution of wealth and income, which is so unbrotherly in the light of Christian ethics, is also unscientific in that it does not furnish purchasing power to the masses to balance consumption and production in our machine age.

That's what they say.

And now I am going to read you another great declaration and I wonder how many of you people will call it "radical." It's just as radical as I am. It's a Declaration from one of the greatest forces of conservatism in the whole world, the Catholic Church. And it's a quotation, my friends, from the scholarly encyclical letter issued last year by the Pope, one of the greatest documents of modern times. And that letter says this:

It is patent in our days that not alone is wealth accumulated, but immense power and despotic economic domination are concentrated in the hands of a few, and that those few are frequently not the owners but only the trustees and directors of invested funds which they administer at their good pleasure....

This accumulation of power, the characteristic note of the modern economic order, is a natural result of limitless free competition, which permits the survival of those only who are the strongest, which often means those who fight most relentlessly, who pay least heed to the dictates of conscience.

This concentration of power has led to a three-fold struggle for domination: First, there is the struggle for dictatorship in the economic sphere itself; then the fierce battle to acquire control of the Government, so that its resources and authority may be abused in the economic struggle, and, finally, the clash between Governments themselves.

That is what is said by the head of the Catholic Church.

And finally, I would read you from another great statement, a statement from Rabbi Edward L. Israel, the Chairman of the Social Justice Commission of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Here's what he said:

We talk of the stabilization of business. What we need is the stabilization of human justice and happiness and the permanent employment of economic policies which will enable us to preserve the essential human values of life and all the changing aspects of the economic order. We must have a revamping of the entire method of approach to these problems of the economic order. We need a new type of social conscience that will give us courage to act....

We so easily forget. Once the cry of so-called prosperity is heard in the land, we all become so stampeded by the spirit of the god Mammon, that we cannot serve the dictates of social conscience....We are here to serve notice that the economic order is the invention of man; and that it cannot dominate certain eternal principles of justice and of God.

And so, my friends, I feel a little as if I had been preaching a sermon in reading to you these three statements made by heads of the three great religious bodies in this country. 

 I feel a little as if I had been talking too much of some of the fundamentals, and yet those fundamentals enter into your life and my life every day, more perhaps than we realize. And incidentally, every one of those fundamentals, every one of those ideals, are fully and entirely within the concepts of the American system of constitutional Government.

If we realized that, it would result throughout this country in a greater interest on the part of all of us of the problems of some of us. That, to my mind, my friends, is the true meaning of social justice.

Book/CDs by Michael E. Eidenmuller, Published by McGraw-Hill (2008)

1 Date/Location cited by the FDR Library. There was also an apparently different campaign address delivered in Detroit on/around the same day containing much of the same content as above.

2 The ensuing three sets of quotations have not been verified verbatim with respect to the original source material.

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