We Have Nothing to Fear But the Fear of Fear

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One of the most famous speeches in American history is FDR’s First Inaugural.  The most memorable quote from this address occurs early on when he intones, “we have nothing to fear, but fear itself.”  It is one of the most oft-quoted bits of political rhetoric.  It is also one of the most profoundly silly.

Even if one grants that the line is not to be taken literally, it is wrong.  Here is the entire first paragraph of the speech to provide some context.

I AM certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

For a  rundown of why this is an absurd sentiment, see this excellent blogpost by Keith Spillet.  Keith delves into some of the philosophical problems with this line, and I largely concur with his assessment.  Beyond that, I also find the line to be, somewhat ironically considering the subject matter, demagogic.  Though it is ostensibly a call for optimism in the midst of dark economic times, it is a fairly cynical attempt to brush back criticisms of his program.  It is a rhetorical device that is employed today, and it is one that I find highly insulting. 

We see this whenever a new regime is installed, especially during times of economic stress.  The new regime has an ambitious plan – then as now of dubious constitutional and practical merit – and opponents of this plan are dismissed as fear-mongers.  FDR may have made this claim more artfully than today’s administration is capable of, but nonetheless the underlying message is the same: just let me do whatever I want to do to save the country, and never you mind about potential problems that may arise.  If you’re worried that the current regime’s program will only make matters worse, then you’re just being crippled by fear.

This type of claim is not necessarily relegated solely to the left, though the leftist ideology, being of a “progressive” bent and thus always seeking to transform society, is more prone to such appeals.  It is nothing more than an attempt to cut off debate and dissension.

These bromides against “fear” are not only cheap rhetorical ploys, but they also belie a fundamental political truth: fear, for lack of a better word, is good.

Don’t misunderstand me (or misquote me).  I am not defending panicked, irrational fear as being a positive good.  But what is good – indeed, what is essential for a functioning republic, is a healthy dose of concern about rapid change.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with rationally and logically expressing one’s concerns about a proposed legislative or system-wide change in course.  Not only is this concern (or fear or whatever you want to call it) essential, but it was in fact the motivating drive behind the founding of this very country.

What do I mean by that?  Glad you asked.   At the core of the political thought of the Founders – both Federalist and Anti-Federalist alike – is fear.  The Anti-Federalists feared government, while the Federalists feared both the people and the government.  It’s a somewhat simplistic and broad explanation, but it captures the heart of their political disagreements. Both sides, motivated by fear of tyranny of one sort or the other, argued that the other party’s political theory would result in turmoil, chaos, and ultimately degradation. Each side wrote invectives against the other, warning the masses that their liberty was at stake in this political fight. The Anti-Federalists believed that the Federalists were plotting to consolidate the Union, eliminating states’ rights, and thereby threatening the very liberty that the patriots of 1776 had valiantly fought to secure. The Federalists, on the other hand, saw a nation imperiled by a weak system of government under the Articles of Confederation, and predicted the demise of the union unless the national government was strengthened. The Anti-Federalists worried that government under Federalist control would be too strong, while the Federalists were concerned that a tyranny of the masses was developing, casting a shadow of anarchy over the United States.

It would be possible (and in fact, has already been done) to write a paper on this topic, but I think an example on each side demonstrates the respective fears of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists.  As I said, the Anti-Federalists were largely concerned about the overwhelming powers of the federal government that sprang from the new constitution.  The writer who styled himself Brutus, in particular, fretted over the taxing power:

Exercised without limitation, will introduce itself into every corner of the city and country. It [the national government] will wait upon the ladies at their toilett, and will not leave them in any of their domestic concerns; it will accompany them to the ball, the play, and the assembly; it will go with them when they visit, and will, on all occasions, sit beside them in their carriages, nor will it desert them even at church; it will enter the house of every gentleman, watch over his cellar, wait upon his cook in the kitchen, follow the servants into the parlour, preside over the table, and note down all he eats or drinks; it will attend him to his bed-chamber, and watch him while he sleeps; it will take the cognizance of the professional man in his office or his study; it will watch the merchant in the counting-house or in his store; it will follow the mechanic to his shop and in his work, and will haunt him in his family and in his bed; it will be a constant companion of the industrious farmer in all his labour, it will be with him in the house and in the field, observe the toil of his hands and the sweat of his brow; it will penetrate into the most obscure cottage; and finally, it will light upon the head of every person in the United States.

If nothing else, this is a marvelous bit of rhetoric.  And, over 200 years later, it’s hard not to grant that some of these fears have been realized.

The Federalists were also concerned about a massive government intervening in all affairs, but they also feared mass democracy as well.  They had witnessed some of the unjust laws passed against Tories in New York – laws that confiscated property without due process.  The example of the popular uprising of Shays’s rebels was still fresh in their mind.

The perfect encapsulation of this fear of the tyranny of the masses was penned by James Madison in Federalist 55:

In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason.  Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates; every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.

This quote shows that the Federalists realized that even the most enlightened citizenry could turn into a dangerous mob with the potential to tyrannize the rights of the minority.  Passions of the moment had to be quelled, and the framers were intent on devising a system that as much as possible protected liberty, allowed for some deal of sovereignty in the hands of the people, and produced order.

The Federalists believed that they accomplished this through the Constitution they produced at the Philadelphia convention.  The system of separation of power and checks and balances, they were fervently convinced, would prove to be a bulwark against tyranny.  By putting power into different hands they had made despotism less likely.  There were both constitutional and extra-constitutional means of accomplishing this goal.  In the latter category, the creation of an extended republic was one answer to majority tyranny – or, in other words, pluralism.  With regards to the former, the answer was the separation of powers and checks and balances.

Madison’s oft-cited passage from Federalist 51 cuts to the heart of Federalist philosophy, both as regards to the nature of man and the way to address the reality of his fallen nature within the political realm:

But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?  If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.  In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this:  You must first enable the government to controul the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to controul itself.  A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary controul on government, but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

This perfectly encapsulates Federalist thought.  Man is imperfect; we are not angels.  As such it is necessary to form a government based on this reality.  It must be a government carefully balanced, one with great limits.  The people are to be a check on the government, but government, too, must be a check on both itself and the governed.  In short, all parts of society must be on guard against one another, and because man is primarily concerned about his own concerns, he will zealously guard his liberty and his rights and make sure that none usurps those rights.  Action will thus be limited because it will be greatly difficult to form majorities in so extended a republic.

Of course there’s much, much more.  The electoral college and the indirect election of Senators were methods of curtailing the majoritarian impulse.  On the other hand, the system of checks and balances, the separation of powers, a limited delegation of authority in Article I, and the federalist system itself were all means to keep the federal government within a limited sphere of power.  It was an intricate web designed to limit both mass democracy AND the power of government.

Though the Federalists prevailed,  the Anti-Federalists and Federalists had a symbiotic relationship, and one that was beneficial to the American polity.  Almost all Americans had in mind their experience with Great Britain, and all greatly feared a return to that state of affairs.  Both sides had a conception of human frailty and imperfection, and as such understood the tenuous nature of individual liberty. They agreed that man was by nature corruptible, and that America could slip into despotism unless significant safeguards were put into place to protect liberty.  The Anti-Federalists saw too much government as the greatest threat to liberty, and believed that the people were the surest repository for freedom.  The Federalists were much more suspicious of the masses, and feared democratic despotism as much as monarchial or aristocratic despotism.  Despite this difference, the common concern was sustaining a stable structure that interfered little in the affairs of men.  The American polity, it could be said then, was founded on principles of limited government action, with the protection of liberty as its ultimate end.

So what is the point of all this?  Fear imposed limitations, and kept the government within appropriate bounds.  This fear guided the creation of a Constitution that achieved an almost perfect balance.  Those that chirp about fear are trying to strip away those limitations.  In the end, what we should fear are people who yelp the loudest about fear.

More to explorer

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  1. Excellent post Paul!

    I think another admirable event and action in this nation’s founding was how the Bill of Rights came into existence. Borne out of the fear you speak of, it was a great compromise to bring the parties into agreement and it has proved to be very beneficial to our nation (and perhaps other parts of the world by the standard it set). I doubt we’ll ever see another win-win compromise like that again.

  2. Thank you, Rich. In the paper that I alluded to and which I borrowed some of the ideas for this post from, I brought up the Bill of Rights. It was perhaps the major contribution of the Anti-Federalists and a great compromise, as you mention.

  3. Fantastic article, Paul. Your connections to Federalist 51 and 55 were extremely impressive. The point about the sublime brilliance of checks and balances was also quite insightful. Thanks very much for citing my article.

    By the way, your title was hysterical!

  4. Um, Paul, their was a context you neglected, which was the banking panic which erupted in November 1932. It ran on for four months and resulted in the closure of some 4,000 banks. Fractional reserve banking requires confidence and the loss of it can generate a most unsalutary feedback loop. Roosevelt was addressing this very phenomenon.

  5. Art, I’ll concede not knowing the background of this speech as well as, say, Lincoln’s inaugural, but it seems the context of the paragraph and speech in total refers to general policy matters. That said, your point does emphasize the distinction we ought to make between the type of irrational fear that cripples us and can lead to bad results vs the sort of rational fear that motivates genuine opposition to policy.

  6. “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.” This speech was (and continues to be) offensive to Catholics and Protestants who believe that Fear of the Lord is a gift of the Holy Ghost and that “our help is in the name of the Lord Who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:8). The Anti-Federalists were right; Roosevelt continued the centralization of power started by Lincoln.

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