Rights are a relatively new means for achieving human dignity, but they have become indispensable to the American conception. One's capacity for self-esteem stems from the possession of rights that others must respect.
During the nation's first century, the civil and political rights associated largely with negative liberty were sufficient supports for dignity for much of the American population. Most people were born into relatively large families and lived in households that owned life-sustaining property. The traditional American conception of human dignity thus came to be closely associated with self-reliance. The dignified American lived free from both predatory government tyranny and supportive government paternalism.
Self-reliance, however, was not well suited to the industrial America that began to develop between the Civil War and the Great Depression. During the progressive era a few state govern-
ments tried to adjust public policy to fit the changing character of American society, but no general progress with respect to wage dependence and vulnerability was made until the 1930s, when worldwide economic calamities led the Roosevelt administration to propose the New Deal. It is well worth remembering that the programs initiated by FDR were largely designed to cope with the nation's immediate problems, rather than to inaugurate a competing concept of human dignity.
But the creators of social security, a relatively insignificant part of the overall effort, used the concept of individual accounts of earned rights to give social security a special status and dignity among American efforts at public social provision. In contrast to public assistance that was applied to indigency, social security benefits were earned throughout the beneficiary's working life. Individual workers paid taxes into a personal account that provided a right to draw on the program's trust fund when aging disrupted wages.
The creators of social security may rightly be faulted for sacrificing the immediate well-being of the needy elderly and others during the depression years in order to develop a long-term social insurance program that was in fact and in symbolism different from public assistance. Benefits were not paid out until 1940, and the program initially provided extremely modest benefits to a limited number of people. However, the concept of individually earned rights enabled Americans for the first time to view public social provision within the realm of dignified human activity.
In the half century since the New Deal, Americans have increasingly come to reject as too restrictive the traditional conception of human dignity. Through the example of social security, we have come to see dignity in planned participation in earned public entitlements that offer protection from social hazards. Put another way, earned rights are now viewed as a dignified way to cope with the social hazards caused by wage dependency. Dignity is no longer afforded solely by self-reliance; it can also be achieved through public benefits earned by conscientious efforts at self-help.