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(HOST) The national dialogue about the future of Social Security has reminded commentator David Moats of a similar debate that took place over 50 years ago.

(MOATS) My parents never thought much of Franklin Roosevelt. They were good Republicans, and he was the Father of Big Government. And big government, as they thought, was a destroyer of initiative. It would turn us into a nation of lazy bums.

Well, my mother is 87 years old and, whatever she thought of Roosevelt then, she is happy to receive her Social Security check now. So is my disabled brother. Still, I remember the angry tone in my father’s voice when he described what he saw as the wastefulness of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Back in the ’50s Big Government was still new, and there was still a lot of resistance to the idea that government might intervene in the economy to provide security for people. This debate has begun all over again.

President Bush’s effort to privatize Social Security challenges one of Roosevelt’s fundamental assumptions: that government has a role in providing an elementary level of economic security. In reaction, people are rediscovering Franklin Roosevelt, who said this in his final State of the Union address:

“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.”

It’s important to look at how Roosevelt linked the two ideas, economic security and independence. My Republican father, resisting the New Deal in the 1950s, would say those were mutually exclusive; that if government provides security, it will erode our independence. But Roosevelt understood the connections among his famous Four Freedoms:

“Freedom from fear,” he said, “is eternally linked with freedom from want.”

What kind of freedom would my mother have if she were shackled in poverty in her old age? The disabled had all kinds of freedom before Social Security: the freedom to go out on the street corner and beg. Roosevelt wanted to give workers the chance to work. He didn’t want people to lose their independence through unemployment or the crushing burdens of illness or old age. Government has a role to play in providing the security that forms the basis of our freedom.

Here’s something else Roosevelt said: “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

My mother raised six kids. She was no lazy bum. If they’re lucky, people who are raising kids today are able to put away some money in a 401(K) or a mutual fund. But if they can’t, they shouldn’t have to worry that old age will rob them of their dignity and independence. That is Roosevelt’s legacy and it helped build up our middle class and make our nation strong.

And it’s worth remembering today.

This is David Moats from Salisbury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke to us from studios at Middlebury College.

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