Politics & Policy

The Roosevelt Mystique

Who cares what FDR would do today?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been having a good year. Inspired by George W. Bush’s–alas, sputtering–Social Security reform proposals, liberals have sought to elevate FDR to a rank just a few hairs shy of divinity.

On another front, in response to the fight over Bush’s judicial nominations, some liberal legal scholars have invented a movement to rally around what they call “the Constitution in exile.” According to these frightened acolytes of the “living Constitution,” a secretive band of Federalist Society types is hell-bent on restoring the pre-New Deal constitutional order.

Meanwhile, Cass Sunstein–a legal scholar who has never failed to find a pulse in our founding charter–has written a book urging the adoption of FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” and arguing that Roosevelt’s socialist–or “statist,” if that word goes down easier–1944 plea for sweeping new economic rights should be injected into the living constitution like a new stem-cell therapy.

Sunstein’s appeal may not seem nutty, even if its goal is. Everybody–including Republicans from Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich–has lionized FDR to the point that all that’s necessary to clinch an argument for X or Y is to postulate that Roosevelt would have wanted it. It’s like discovering a new page from the Bible which speaks to, say, the budget deficit.

Hence the batty disputes between various would-be oracles over whether the Great FDR Spirit supports add-on or carve-out private accounts for Social Security. In case you’re wondering, the correct answer is: Who cares?

The idea that there was this defined, ideologically and intellectually coherent thing called “The New Deal” is nonsense, as almost any historian worth his salt will tell you. And it’s even a little funny that liberals so uniformly admire FDR’s “legacy.” After all, the military-industrial complex and the marriage of big business and government are as central to that legacy as Social Security.

Indeed, the notion that FDR had a clear idea about what he wanted to do, what needed to be done, or anything else that might be described as “New Deal” liberalism is poppycock, too.

“To look upon these policies as the result of a unified plan,” wrote Raymond Moley, FDR’s right-hand man during much of the New Deal, “was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter’s tools, geometry books, and chemistry sets in a boy’s bedroom could have been put there by an interior decorator.”

In his excellent Liberalism and its Discontents, historian Alan Brinkley recounts that when Alvin Hansen, FDR’s influential economic advisor, was asked (in 1940!) whether the “basic principle of the New Deal” was “economically sound,” Hansen responded, “I really do not know what the basic principle of the New Deal is.”

Today liberals denounce conservative efforts to “repeal” the New Deal. But in fact most of the New Deal was repealed a long time ago, much of it by FDR himself when it failed. And what remains is a mixed bunch. The reforms of the financial markets, speaking broadly, are worth keeping. There’s no reason to nuke the Tennessee Valley Authority. But who misses that spectacular failure, the NRA? Who wants to see dry cleaners thrown in jail for not charging what federal bureaucrats claim is a fair price? And who wants to see millions of pigs slaughtered by the feds just to prop up pork prices?

If the measure of the New Deal is whether it boosted confidence in activist government, it was a huge success. If you evaluate it according to whether it ended the Depression–its intended purpose–the historical judgment is in: It was a miserable failure.

It did calm a nation that was, in the words of one publication at the time, wracked by “fear, bordering on panic, loss of faith in everything, our fellowmen, our institutions, private and government.”

Calming such panic is worthwhile. But why should we be forever wedded to decisions made amid fear and panic? “Take a method and try it,” FDR was fond of saying. “If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all try something.” The only coherent policy Roosevelt subscribed to was “bold, persistent experimentation.”

Even if many of Roosevelt’s policies were horribly misguided at the time–like his early decisions to slash government pay and veterans’ benefits–experimentalism made a certain intuitive sense when the modern economy didn’t seem to operate according to 19th-century laissez-faire rules. But since the 1930s the industrialized world has experimented a great deal with the New Deal model, while we’ve only been applying free-market solutions since the mid-1970s, to considerable success.

Today, liberals and conservatives alike favor experimentation to a certain extent. One side believes that some great panacea, untried by the welfare states of Europe, is around the corner. The other side believes the great answers aren’t in a bureaucrat’s filing cabinet but in an entrepreneur’s imagination. Which sort of experimentation would FDR favor? That’s easy: Who cares?

(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services


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