Wednesday, March 25, 2009


One good thing about the recession and all the debate it has engendered: it is making many people re-consider FDR, what he actually did, and what the actual results were. This can occasion some debates which are lively, and perhaps more fruitful, in a way, than the necessary discussions about what to do right now.

I haven't read Jonah Goldberg's book on fascism, and I probably never will, but I gather he clarifies that there is a lot of conventional wisdom that is not true. It is not true that Hoover opposed the use of government spending (and other kinds of government intervention) to stimulate the economy in a depression, whereas FDR wisely favoured this approach. Hoover was running deficits by the 1932 election, and he intended to run more. In 1932, it was FDR, not Hoover, who ran on balanced budgets.

Hoover favoured "works" projects--it is right that the Hoover Dam is named after him, although for a while the Democrats were going to deny him that honour. He no doubt tried to avoid paying people to dig holes and them fill them again, but he certainly favoured far-seeing projects that might not be strictly necessary for a few years. What he opposed, above all, was "relief" from the federal government--cash to the poor simply for being poor, or what became known as welfare. The poor (Hoover probably told himself) had other sources to turn to: churches, other charities, local government, and to some extent state government. In the Depression, all these agencies might have run out of anything they could give, from time to time; but Hoover I believe would still object to the federal government stepping in with cash.

So FDR innovated by being more willing to help the poor directly. Oddly, though, he probably did even more to help people who had some degree of economic security, and gave them even more security, even if this hurt the poor. He stabilized farm prices, thus making food more expensive. He presided over enshrining union rules, including the law that says union wages apply in any federal government project. This would raise wages for the lucky few, but would probably cause some businesses not to hire at all, and thus hurt the unemployed. Many prices and wages were frozen. Michael Barone has pointed out that fixing prices may have stopped a downward spiral in the economy, but it did litle to stimulate recovery. Roosevelt gave some support to protectionist measures (continuing from Hoover), which may have prolonged the Depression.

My son is saying he now wants to read about FDR. I mentioned Conrad Black's book, and I mean to read it myself. I gather part of Black's message is reminiscent of what Saul Bellow used to say: radical political alternatives in the air, and many sophisticated people said liberal democracy was dead, and the only choice was which kind of radical, demagogic and/or violent political brand to adopt. FDR said clearly, and showed by his actions, that he stood for the liberal democratic alternative.

I gather Goldberg says a bit nastily that FDR developed so many fascist trappings, it is hard to tell whether fascism is more characteristic of the left or the right. I guess before World War II it would have been legitimate to say fascism, defined as populism plus authoritarianism, was somewhat more likely to arise on the left than the right. Although there were bright people on the right--moreso than after World War II--the left often seemed to be where the action was. Post-War, however, there seems to be little excuse for pretending the confusion continued. Fascism is to the right as communism is to the left. Both extremes are likely to commit violence, create new elites, and oppress the common people while claiming to liberate them; but fascists are far more likely to work with the old, right-wing elites: property owners, church, military. Communism, in its crazy war on its own people for not being socialist enough, is pretty well forced to keep making a clean sweep of the old elites. William F. Buckley, Jr., founder of the publication Goldberg writes for, liked fascists insofar as they were Catholics, or supported the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church. He hated communists. Buckley accepted authoritarianism in his church, so he didn't want it from government. Enough is enough.

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