When the United States Constitution was drafted by America’s Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, George Mason, the influential delegate from the state of Virginia, was one of only three delegates who refused to sign it. His reason: “It has no declaration of rights.”
It was Mason who was most vocal in insisting that a democratic government could not stand without the constitutional protection of certain freedoms. He, above all others, fought passionately to ensure that basic human rights would be incorporated into the Constitution. American government, Mason believed, would turn to tyranny should citizens not be ensured sovereign rights. In the end Mason’s determined advocacy prevailed, and the Bill of Rights was eventually amended to the US Constitution.
The Constitution is the foundation of American government, and it is the Constitution’s Bill of Rights — and the First Amendment freedoms of expression in particular — that has served as the bedrock of American political democracy.
In the same way that political democracy requires a Bill of Rights, economic democracy also requires the declaration of certain fundamental rights. Without such rights, citizens would be (and are) at constant risk of erosion of their empowerment in the economic realm, and an economy of opportunity for all will degenerate into an economy for the wealthy.
For most of its citizens, America is no longer “the land of opportunity”. There is no longer an American economy that is by, for, and of the people. The skewed economic power enjoyed by the plutocrats has become so extreme as to fully corrupt political power, and the freedoms George Mason fought for now have little meaning. The Bill of Rights can no longer ensure the viability of political democracy.
Political democracy has been subverted by wealth: Corporations now have “personhood” rights, and they exert these rights backed by their massive coffers that buy political influence far beyond the means of common citizens.
The rights that George Mason fought to instill in the American Constitution served the nation well; political democracy long endured, protected by the bulwark of the Bill of Rights. But this bulwark is now breached. The political freedoms of the Bill of Rights are no longer enough; they no longer suffice.
What must be added to America’s political freedoms is a set of economic rights that ensure economic democracy — rights that can restore America’s political democracy in the process.
The fundamental economic rights required for economic democracy are four in number. Two of them define the economic rights of individuals, and two define the economic rights of communities.
The economic rights to be guaranteed individuals are:
1] The basic necessities and amenities of life should be guaranteed to all, according to standards appropriate to the region and the age.
2] There should be ever-increasing purchasing power enjoyed by all.
And the economic rights to be guaranteed communities are:
3] The power to make economic decisions should be vested in the hands of local people and their decisions should be made on the basis of collective necessity.
4] People outside the local community should not interfere in the local economy, and locally generated capital should not be drained from the local community.
With these rights securely established, America could enjoy an economy that is by, for, and of the people; and both citizens and local communities could feel empowered to develop fully their economic potentials.
With these rights, the American political system will no longer be bought and sold but will maintain its democratic integrity, its participatory vitality.
At the 1787 Continental Congress, George Mason drew a line in the sand: No bill of rights, no ratification of the Constitution. The American people must now draw a new line in the sand: No economic empowerment of people and local communities, no business as usual.
This is a cause worthy of struggling for. It is one that can unite the great majority of Americans in common cause and that can give them an expanded vision of democracy.
A juncture has been reached: Awareness of unbridled greed is now commonplace. Most people know the plutocracy does not serve them. In this milieu, Americans will embrace the rights of economic democracy, and they will come to cherish them every bit as much as they have cherished their political freedoms.