In 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt identified "four essential human freedoms." Three of these—freedom from fear, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion—had long been understood as defining principles of liberalism. Roosevelt's fourth freedom—freedom from want—was not. Indeed, classic liberals had argued that the only way to guarantee this freedom would be through an illiberal redistribution of wealth. In Freedom from Want, Kathleen G. Donohue describes how, between the 1880s and the 1940s, American intellectuals transformed classical liberalism into its modern American counterpart by emphasizing consumers over producers and consumption over production.
Donohue first examines this conceptual shift through the writings of a wide range of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century social critics—among them William Graham Sumner, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Richard T. Ely, Edward Bellamy, and Thorstein Veblen—who rethought not only the negative connotations of consumerism but also the connection between one's right to consume and one's role in the production process. She then turns to the politicization of these ideas beginning with the establishment of a more consumer-oriented liberalism by Walter Lippmann and Walter Weyl and ending in the New Deal era, when this debate evolved from intellectual discourse into public policy with the creation of such bodies as the National Recovery Administration and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration.
Deftly combining intellectual, cultural, and political history, Freedom from Want sheds new light on the ways in which Americans reconceptualized the place of the consumer in society and the implications of these shifting attitudes for the philosophy of
liberalism and the role of government in safeguarding the material welfare of the people.
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