Tuesday, September 11, 2007


When I was younger there were two things everyone knew about Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The first was he had built the foundations of much of modern American society, and of subsequent liberal (in the American sense) political success. Indeed, part of what drove the Democratic party to hard times by the time of the disastrous Carter presidency was excessive nostalgia for Roosevelt and John Kennedy at a time when the body politic had changed (which looks much like Republican lionization of Ronald Reagan now).

And the second thing we all knew had to do with the measure of his opposition. There was a certain sort of older person who despised FDR, and he was the relic of a bygone age – someone who had never reconciled himself to the progress represented by Social Security and farm subsidies, who could only angrily fulminate against that socialist traitor to his class.

But I have just read Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man - the story of the Great Depression, starting during the second Coolidge term and ending with the 1940 election campaign. It is a different Roosevelt that is depicted there. Ms Shlaes herself leaves much unsaid, but the nature of the New Deal comes through inescapably. Among the things that Roosevelt did that seem disgraceful seventy years on:

Propaganda. The extent to which FDR used New Deal arts and culture activities – designed merely to provide work and buck up the spirit of a sullen land – is shocking. Movie directors, photographers (Dorothea Lange, most famously) and unemployed reporters were put to work by the Works Progress Administration, the Federal Theater Project, etc. with instructions, some explicit and some sotto voce, to promote the New Deal and Roosevelt. A theater director used her public works to trash Wendell Wilkie, whose opposition to the federalization of the power grid was a thorn in FDR's side. This was propagandizing (radical, given how much FDR was proposing to change American society) on an immense scale and on the taxpayer dime. It makes the outcry several years ago over an Education Department grant to the talk-show host Armstrong Williams look ridiculous.

Thuggery. The administration engaged in numerous politically motivated prosecutions of wealthy businessmen, in an attempt to make the others fall into line. Andrew Mellon, former Treasury Secretary, stout believer in the free market and man of impeccable reputation, was the most famous. He was acquitted, as was the utilities executive Samuel Insull, but both were in many respects broken by the experience. But they were rich, and in FDR's way, so their rights were of no consequence.

More revolting still was the behavior of the National Recovery Administration, which quickly took the role of setting prices and wages in a huge variety of companies, in conjunction with unions and management. It seems incredible now that such an expansion of government power would be tolerated, but so desperate were the times that it was welcomed by many. Among those who did not welcome it were the Schechter brothers, immigrant poultry merchants in New York. Soon after the NRA was established they were beset by inspectors seeking to find a way to encourage the government takeover of the poultry business. The inspectors were able to justify charges of paying wages that were too low, selling unfit chickens, and, incredibly, selling a chicken to a customer that he had requested instead of giving him one randomly (a higher-quality chicken at the minimum price required by the NRA presumably being a way to evade the minimum-price laws). The charge of selling unfit chickens was particularly galling, in that the brothers sold kosher food and thus answered to a much higher authority than Roosevelt and his minions. The brothers ultimately won at the Supreme Court, which found the entire NRA unconstitutional. That the brothers are so unknown is a shame; their resistance to the intrusion of FDR on free commerce ranks them with Rosa Parks as civil-liberties heroes.

Collectivization. Many of Roosevelt’s senior advisers had traveled to Stalin’s USSR together in 1927, and they found much to admire there. Some of them grew queasy in the 1930s as the deaths mounted, but their attempt to collectivize American society once they got their hands on power was profound. Farming cooperatives were set up with taxpayer funds, promoted by government artists and heavily subsidized. Private utility properties were gradually stolen, first through subsidized competition and then through outright takeover, through the construction of the Tennessee Valley Authorities and other public utilities. When he took office, federal law ran 2735 pages. In one year of his administration 10,000 pages were added. The Supreme Court before “the switch in time that saved nine” stopped some of the worst of it, but America was irreversibly changed.

A sense of limits. FDR believed the Depression ushered in a period of permanent stagnation. The state had to expand its control of society to manage the bust that capitalism’s fatal excesses had brought about. The problem was to manage pain, not to ensure the conditions for Americans to achieve ever-broader human dreams. This is a notion that Jimmy Carter would embrace during the oil crisis of the 1970s, but which most other American politicians have rejected. Indeed, it was one of Bill Clinton’s great achievements to embrace globalization as an optimistic trend to be managed rather than a destructive force, a belief far from universally held by the modern left.

Arrogance. Roosevelt constantly changed his mind about how to apply his newly obtained power, with devastating effects on entrepreneurial confidence. He raised taxes arbitrarily; he imposed new limits on business conduct and then repealed them when they failed; he randomly targeted businessmen for prosecution. He adjusted the gold standard repeatedly on a whim, once contemplating raising the price of gold by $0.21 because 21 was a lucky number. The breathtaking willingness to alter the incentives and possibilities of millions of Americans without regard for the consequences is the classic hallmark of the know-it-all social engineer. His officials contemplated relocating entire communities and sought to set the “proper” prices of thousands of goods. The more famous court-packing plan is only one of many examples of his insatiable desire to discard the framework of American society in pursuit of greater control over the lives of others.

The promotional work for the book emphasizes the way Roosevelt created the modern special-interest state, turning farmers’ incentives from those provided by market prices to those provided by the political system, and locking labor and management into eternal government-mediated conflict, all the better to force them to pony up with political support and campaign funds. One might also note the deification of untrammeled democracy; much of Roosevelt’s language invoked the often-specious notion of a unitary “public will,” before which all of government, including the independent judiciary, should bow. All in all, FDR radically transformed American society for the worse, but all in all we could have come away even worse than we did.



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