Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Old Deal

Over the course of the last four months – a period marked by the inauguration of a new president and that president’s response to an economic crisis increasingly comparable to the Great Depression – there’s been a steady stream of assertions from the political right that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal of 1933-1938 failed to achieve its core objective of ending the economic crisis of the thirties. This line of argument appears to have been launched in the aftermath of Barack Obama's election to the presidency last November with a rhetorical question from Conservative columnist George Will on the ABC program This Week: “Before we go into a new New Deal, can we just acknowledge that the first New Deal didn’t work?” In January, FOX news analyst Brit Hume made what he considered an obvious assertion: “Everybody agrees, I think, on both sides of the spectrum now, that the New Deal didn’t work.” And in February hosts Mika Brezinzski and Joe Scarborough of Morning Joe made similar off-hand claims that the New Deal failed to stem the unemployment crisis. Multiple additional examples can be unearthed with a simple Google search.

Such remarks did not go unchallenged in the blogosphere, where they were rebutted with varying degrees of emotional intensity and factual detail. What has been largely overlooked, however, is the degree to which there has been a longstanding scholarly consensus – a consensus that very much includes liberal historians – that the New Deal was a failure, a reality that had become apparent to many if not most Americans by the time of the so-called “Roosevelt Depression” of 1937. No less august a figure than Richard Hofstadter noted in his classic 1948 book The Age of Reform that “as Roosevelt was aware, [the New Deal] had failed to realize his objectives of distributive justice and sound, stable, prosperity.” William Leuchtenberg’s 1963 study Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, still considered the standard treatment, concludes that “The New Deal left many problems unsolved and even created some new perplexing ones. It never demonstrated that it could achieve prosperity in peacetime.” In his magisterial 2005 study Freedom from Fear, David Kennedy describes the FDR of 1938 as “a badly weakened leader, unable to summon the imagination or to secure the political strength to cure his own country’s apparently endless economic crisis.” Columbia historian Alan Brinkley devotes an entire 1995 book, The End of Reform, to anatomizing the Roosevelt administration’s retreat from the liberal dream of reconstituting a vibrant new economy by the late thirties. On the right, Amity Schlaes emphasizes what she regards as the excessive cost of the New Deal to "the forgotten man" in her new book of the same name -- the man who was not the recipient of government largesse.

Of course, such examples beg the question of how one defines the word “failure.” Indeed many of these historians and others would hasten to object that while it is clear that Great Depression only ended with the coming of World War II – itself a kind of vindication of the Roosevelt administration’s intervention in the economy – statistical economic measures of the New Deal’s success or failure hardly tell the whole story. There’s a long tradition in New Deal history and lore, most recently extended by Jonathan Alter in The Defining Moment (2005), that the New Deal mattered most in the realm of psychology. It has long since been established that while Roosevelt had no clear program for dealing with the Depression going into the presidency, and indeed implemented some of Herbert Hoover’s policies with Hoover’s own people when he took office, his famous 1932 call “for bold, persistent experimentation” was in effect the core of a vision that he carried out in the presidency and that had value in its own right in ultimately engendering a sense of confidence that not only ultimately helped end the Depression, but which gave Americans an enduring sense of hope that government could indeed be a solution to some of the most pressing problems of contemporary life.

To the extent such arguments are valid – and I believe they are – they also represent a reminder that invocations of the New Deal should be used with care. The whole reason comparisons between then and now are made by supporter and critic in the first place, of course, is that there is an underlying assumption that the past is prologue – that President Obama’s economic program has a relevant precedent and that it will achieve measurable results, just like the New Deal ostensibly did. A sense of legitimacy that rests on empirical improvement is probably unavoidable, and to at least some extent necessary. But it is also risky and potentially misleading. No one knows for sure how to get us out of the mess we’re in, and assuming we ever find our way out, no one will ever really know for sure it why it was that we did so (one thing we can know for sure is that historians will be arguing over how it happened). If there is a principle that might do us some good here, it may well be one provided by FDR himself during his 1936 acceptance speech for a second term: “Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-blooded in different scales.” If we can’t quite practice charity for all, let us at least aim for malice toward none. Amid the uncertainty that always accompanies questions of public policy, perhaps a bias for equality, when the facts can't contradict it, that more than anything else defines the fallible heart of liberalism.