Rao: A Tale of Two Dignities

Citing use of the word "dignity" in the second inaugural addresses of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, Professor Neomi Rao compares and contrasts the two mens' different understandings of the relationship between the individual, the community, and the government. 

In her op-ed appearing in The Daily Caller, Rao writes that while Reagan argued that less government would best promote dignity by allowing opportunity for fulfillment and progress, Obama invoked a different, communitarian, and European understanding of dignity as derived from the security of government programs. 

"In political life, these dignities have rarely provided a clear either/or," says Rao. "Reagan acknowledges that sometimes government will be necessary and Obama acknowledges some skepticism of central authority. Governing requires a balance between the individual and the community. Yet where the balance is struck will make all the difference."

A Tale of Two Dignities, The Daily Caller, January 24, 2013. By Neomi Rao.

"Reagan channeled the traditional American understanding of human dignity implicit in our Constitution. In the United States, dignity exists alongside classical liberal values of freedom, liberty, and autonomy. As Reagan said, 'Freedom is one of the deepest and noblest aspirations of the human spirit. People, worldwide, hunger for the right of self-determination, for those inalienable rights that make for human dignity and progress.' An individual’s dignity comes from freedom and self-determination both in private and public life. Government retains a role, but it must be a small one.

"By contrast, Obama channeled a view of dignity more commonly found across the pond, where human dignity depends importantly on certain social-welfare goods, of being part of a community effort in which such goods are provided to everyone. It is the dignity of being provided for by the state.

"Modern constitutions in Europe link dignity and equality with the welfare state, rather than with individual freedom. The Swedish Constitution, for example, provides that 'Public power shall be exercised with respect for the equal worth of all and the liberty and dignity of the private person. … In particular, it shall be incumbent upon the public institutions to secure the right to health, employment, housing and education, and to promote social care and social security.' Dignity as a guarantee of communitarian security is the norm and the ideal.

"Obama reaffirmed the equality of the Declaration of Independence, but his understanding of dignity reflects newer American sources, such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1944 proposal for a 'Second Bill of Rights.' Roosevelt pressed that our Founders’ old-fashioned notions of individual freedom were inadequate to the equal pursuit of happiness. Instead 'true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security.' Obama amplified this connection between dignity and a collectivist security."

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