In my high school U.S. history class, I often argued with my teacher about the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. My youthful contention was that FDR had expanded the scope of government beyond the intent of the founders and harmed the economy. My teacher took the conventional view of Roosevelt as a hero who got us out of the Great Depression. But I wouldn’t budge.
I had been shaped by my parents, especially my mother—a staunch opponent of Roosevelt since the time she was a teenager. We sometimes forget the passion that Roosevelt enkindled both pro and con. During the depression, my mother would argue vigorously with her father, a Hartford fireman and committed Democrat, that Roosevelt’s New Deal was exacerbating the depression and placing America on a path toward statism. Her father said that she would grow up and know better. “I did,” she told me, “and I was right.”
My mother is older now but only slightly less passionate, and was happy when I showed her The Forgotten Man, Amity Shlaes’s new history of the Great Depression. Three quarters of a century out, Shlaes takes a dispassionate look at the history of the depression with a focus on economics. She argues that while Roosevelt may have done some good, many of his policies had grievous consequences and that his experiments with the economy did untold harm to the many he tried to help. The Forgotten Man shows the dangers of economic planning, and echoes Friedrich Hayek’s critique that, despite even the best intentions, planning an economy can never work because there is just not enough information to make all the right decisions. The New Deal was a classic example of the remedy being worse than the disease.
Shlaes unravels the myth of Roosevelts heroic New Deal as the cure of the Great Depression, and shows how Roosevelts attempts to have the government plan its way out of the depression only deepened and lengthened it. FDR—and Herbert Hoover before him—tried to stop the depression through a myriad of government programs and interventions; and both failed because they did not understand and could not predict the effects of their policies.
The title of the book, The Forgotten Man, is not what one first expects. Imbedded in it is the tension between Roosevelt’s use of the term to mean the poor and downtrodden as contrasted with its first use by William Sumner. Almost prophetically, Sumner wrote in 1883 that whenever one group tries to alleviate the suffering of another group and comes up with a plan to do so there is always a third, forgotten group that bears the burden—it is not the poor nor the rich nor the intellectuals but it is usually the one in the middle. He works, he votes, he generally prays—but he always pays.
Shlaes develops the many characters central to the time, from Coolidge, Hoover, and Mellon, to FDR and his brain trust of intellectuals whose untiring work and penchant for novelty led to one experiment after another. It was a time where excitement was high everywhere about the possibilities of planning and large scale projects—from the Hoover Dam to the five-year plans of Stalin to the corporatism of Mussolini. One of the most illuminating quotes in the book comes from Rex Tugwell, a Columbia economist and one of FDR’s main advisors. Tugwell and several others made a trip to the Soviet Union several years before he was convinced that government should take an active role in managing the economy. He was suspicious of entrepreneurs as obstacles to prosperity and the volatility of the market. Tugwell also witnessed his father’s business failure during the depression and that only solidified his enthusiasm for big plans and distrust of the “forgotten man.” “We are no longer afraid of bigness” he wrote, “Unrestricted individual competition is the death, not the life of trade.”
Shlaes’s history is engaging and balanced. It does not demonize either Roosevelt or Hoover, but does show the folly of economic planning and the reality of unintended consequences. It also reveals the naiveté of the intellectual classes of the time, those who were so enamored by both the Soviets and Mussolinis corporatism and the idea of bigness. It is an important book not only for its historical value but for the lesson it can provide for today.
As we come full swing into the election cycle of 2008, Shlaes’s book gives a warning against the dangers of the populist rhetoric coming from both Democrats and Republicans. In times of economic uncertainty the promises of populism and the government coming to the rescue can be attractive. But despite the rhetoric, populism always fails wherever it is tried because no matter how good the intentions, government bureaucrats can’t plan an economy and can never create the prosperity like the entrepreneurs that Tugwell mistrusted.
When government usurps the role of individuals and families it harms more than the economy, it weakens the fabric of society and reduces human freedom. Planners don’t like freedom because of the uncertainty and the risk of failure. It is true that freedom does entail risk. But if you try to eliminate the risk you end up suffocating the human spirit. If we look at Europe today we see huge social welfare programs that were supposed to eliminate the vagaries of the market, but instead of creating an atmosphere where people, knowing they are safe, can be free to live out their dreams, we see countries where people are afraid to start businesses, afraid to get married, and afraid to have children—all of these are connected to the fear of taking risk and a lack of hope. When the state takes over what individual families should do, it undermines their integrity and infantilizes them.
Amity Shlaes’s The Forgotten Man is a good reminder of the reality behind the rhetoric of big government schemes. Let’s work to make sure that the one who “works, votes, and generally prays” doesn’t again end up being the one who pays.
Michael Miller is the director of programs at the Acton Institute.