With the possible exception of the Civil War, no event has transformed American politics more fully than the Great Depression. From the stock market crash of 1929 through U.S. entry into World War II, the country’s economy floundered tragically, with the unemployment rate typically in the high teens. First under the misguided and generally ineffective policies of President Herbert Hoover and later under those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the federal government became increasingly interventionist, at times attempting to dictate all aspects of economic production.
When accepting the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1932, Roosevelt proclaimed “a new deal” for the American people. Once in office, he began radically transforming the federal government while seeking to ameliorate the nation’s woes. He pushed subsidies for farmers, changed the banking system, and created the National Recovery Administration, which regulated many aspects of business until it was declared unconstitutional in 1935. Through the creation of the Social Security system and related programs, Roosevelt vastly expanded the scope and size of the federal government and created the political world in which we live. The shift was so complete that even as vocal a foe of big government as Ronald Reagan, who started his political career as a New Deal Democrat, approvingly wrote to Congress in the early 1980s of the “nation’s ironclad commitment to Social Security” and praised FDR’s visionary leadership in creating the program.
In her meticulously researched new history of the Depression, The Forgotten Man (HarperCollins), journalist Amity Shlaes describes the received catechism of the era: “Roosevelt made things better by taking charge. His New Deal inspired and tided the country over. In this way, the country fended off revolution of the sort bringing down Europe. Without the New Deal, we would all have been lost.…The attitude is that the New Deal is the best model we have for what government must do for weak members of society, in both times of crises and times of stability.” But that conventional account, she writes, fails to capture “the realities of the period.” Shlaes shows how both Hoover and Roosevelt “overestimated the value of government planning” and intensified and prolonged the very problems they were seeking to fix.
Told in a rich narrative style, The Forgotten Man follows dozens of historical figures through the Depression, weaving the stories of people as varied as American Civil Liberties Union co-founder Roger Baldwin, Alcoholics Anonymous creator Bill Wilson, power utility magnate (and failed presidential candidate) Wendell Willkie, and African-American evangelist Father Divine into a rich human tapestry. In this, the book calls to mind one of the Depression’s landmark literary texts, John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy (1930–36).
Shlaes is a columnist for Bloomberg and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. A former member of the editorial board at The Wall Street Journal, she is also the author of The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It (2000) and Germany: The Empire Within (1991).
In June she was interviewed on C-SPAN’s After Words program by reason Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie. What follows is an edited transcript of that program, which can be viewed online at reason.tv. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
reason: Your book is subtitled “a new history of the Great Depression.” What’s new about your take?
Amity Shlaes: One of the important things about the existing argument is that it’s all about Keynesianism, about whether government spending can cure the economy when it’s ill. Scholars have overlooked the cost of uncertainty in an economy, what we would now call the “unknown unknowns.” Both the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations (but especially the Roosevelt administration) were so unpredictable. That hurt the economy very much, and when I went back and saw the extent I was astounded. Uncertainty is a factor that I thought needed to be explored. There were lots of people who said, “I will not invest ’til I know what’s going to happen.”
During the Depression, you heard the phrase “bold, persistent experimentation” all the time. We’ve been taught that was good. Somebody had to do something, was what we learned. But what I saw was this enormous cost, especially during the second half of the 1930s.
There’s a second thing too. I look at the government’s action using the lens of public choice theory. Very simply, public choice says that government is no better or worse than a business, it’s a competitor. Sometimes I use a crustacean image; The government is like a lobster. It will eat anything, it wants to survive, it will compete with anything, and it can be a cannibal. When you look back at the ’30s using the public choice lens, what you discover is the extent to which the Depression wasn’t about a virtuous government and bad business people. Rather, it was about people in office competing with the private sector for power. Much of the struggle described in the book literally inhered in the power business: utilities. There’s something about power that attracts strong people. And of course the government wins and the private sector loses in the form of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was created in 1933.
reason: Where does your title, The Forgotten Man, come from?
Shlaes: In 1932, on a radio program called The Lucky Strike Hour, Franklin Roosevelt gave a speech that was written in part by Ray Moley, his adviser. Moley was a man you’d want to have at your dinner table today. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. In that speech Roosevelt spoke of the “forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” Moley wrote to his sister that he wasn’t quite sure where he had gotten the phrase, but it was in the air.
In the late 19th century, there was a book, a collection of essays, called The Forgotten Man and a famous lecture called “The Forgotten Man.” The author was a Yale professor called William Graham Sumner, who had quite a different forgotten man in mind. He put it algebraically. Sumner said a wants to help x, with x being the man at the bottom. And b wants to help x too. That’s our philanthropic impulse, we want to help. There’s nothing wrong with that. We all have that impulse to provide charity. It becomes a problem when a and b get together and pass a perhaps-dubious law that coerces c into funding their maybe-good project for x. In Sumner’s original version, c is the forgotten man, the man who pays, the man who prays, the man who is not thought of.
That phrase meant a lot to people at the time, and when Roosevelt people debated Hoover people they were all familiar with William Graham Sumner. So [Roosevelt’s supporters] said, “You have the wrong forgotten man! The forgotten man is the man waiting for the recovery that you are not delivering or that you are preventing.”
I think Sumner’s concept of the forgotten man also has to do with today. When you talk about the upcoming presidential election, you see great powerhouses, the Democratic powerhouse (Hillary Clinton) and the Republican powerhouse (maybe McCain, maybe someone else). And the individual voter says, “Where do I fit into this? I feel like the forgotten man.” There’s something very un-fun about this election as it’s beginning to unfold. Given our challenges with the funding of entitlement programs, the forgotten man in the future will be the generation who will pay for what Roosevelt created during the Depression.