Politics & Policy

There Is No New Deal

President Franklin Roosevelt delivers a fireside chat from the White House, 1933 (National Archives)
FDR and his advisers made it up as they went along, with no coherent plan.

In his piece “There Is No Green New Deal,” Charlie writes:

What Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has thrust upon our national conversation is not, in any sense, a “Green New Deal.” It does not resemble a Green New Deal. It does not approximate a Green New Deal. It does not so much as represent the shadows or the framework or the embryo of a Green New Deal. It is, instead, the inchoate shopping list of a political novice who has managed to get herself elected to Congress and believes that this has turned her into a visionary.

I agree with that, but it’s worth reminding folks that there was never any single coherent thing called “the New Deal.” From the beginning, FDR was clear that he was winging it. At Oglethorpe University, he famously set the tone for what they were up to: “bold, persistent experimentation.” He added, “It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

Roosevelt fans on the left — and of late on the right — have lionized FDR’s “pragmatism” ever since. But this is a terrible credo for a nation committed to the idea that we live under the rule of law, not of men. Some avenues are supposed to be closed off from “experimentation.” Let’s try getting rid of the Bill of Rights for a bit and see if we can’t get great things done! Let’s be — as Tom Friedman puts it — “China for a Day.” Implicit in the idea of experimentation from Washington is the idea that planners should not be constrained. Implicit in the idea of a constitutional republic is that they should be. As we put it in our editorial on the Green New Deal, “The Left really has only one idea: control” — and that is the idea implicit in New Deal–style “experimentation.”

But there’s something else implicit in the idea of such experimentation: a total lack of policy coherence.

The New Deal cargo-cultists have a vexing habit of pointing at the things they like or liked about the New Deal and saying, “That’s the New Deal.” So they like Social Security but are silent — usually from ignorance — about the policies that caused blacks to protest the NRA (National Recovery Administration) as the “Negro Run Around” and “Negroes Ruined Again.” They like all the government makework for artists and writers but don’t talk about the little things, like Jacob Maged or the scuttling of the London Economic Conference, that helped deepen the Depression.

The simple fact, as I argued here, is there was no single New Deal (which is one reason why historians talk about the second New Deal, which produced most of the stuff people associate with the good New Deal). It was the steady pursuit of control and constantly updated wish lists. As FDR told Congress in 1936:

We have built up new instruments of public power. In the hands of a people’s government this power is wholesome and proper. But in the hands of political puppets of an economic autocracy such power would provide shackles for the liberties of the people.

In other words, so long as we have the power, whatever we want to do is “wholesome and proper.” But if our political opponents get power, look out!

“I want to assure you,” FDR’s aide Harry Hopkins told an audience of New Deal activists in New York, “that we are not afraid of exploring anything within the law, and we have a lawyer who will declare anything you want to do legal.”

The New Deal wasn’t a program, it was the by-product of ad hoc experimentation by people who thought their own power was self-justifying. And to look back on it as somehow more coherent than the would-be Green New Deal is to give it too much credit.

“To look upon these programs as the result of a unified plan,” wrote Raymond Moley, FDR’s right-hand man during much of his rule, “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.” When Alvin Hansen, an influential economic adviser to the president, was asked — in 1940 — whether “the basic principle of the New Deal” was “economically sound,” he responded, “I really do not know what the basic principle of the New Deal is.”

It was control. And wish lists. And it was ever thus.

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