The New Deal Made Them "Right"

Remembering FDR's principled liberal opponents

(Page 3 of 3)

As far as Nock was concerned, it was the New Dealers who had forfeited their liberal status. He was the one keeping true liberalism alive so that future generations might bring it back into vogue. “Considering their professions of Liberalism,” Nock wrote in a 1934 introduction to Herbert Spencer’s The Man Versus the State, “it would be quite appropriate and by no means inurbane, to ask Mr. Roosevelt and his entourage whether they believe that the citizen has any rights which the State is bound to respect. Would they be willing . . . to subscribe to the fundamental doctrine of the Declaration? One would be unfeignedly surprised if they were.”

Today, a chorus of distinguished economists and legal scholars has joined Nock’s lonely voice of New Deal opposition, suggesting that his efforts to preserve classical liberalism paid off in the end—as did the efforts of Mencken, Flynn, Smith, and Wheeler. Though they didn’t defeat FDR or even inspire a particularly effective opposition movement at the time, their positions have since been rediscovered by generations of libertarians and conservatives seeking to rein in the post-New Deal state. With President Barack Obama now wielding a similar array of sweeping executive powers in the face of a growing economic crisis, their principled examples have become more important than ever.

Damon W. Root is an associate editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared in the September/October 2009 edition of Cato Policy Report.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • John Tagliaferro||

    So can we sell off TVA now?

  • Attorney||

    Great article, Damon!

  • Colin||

    Yes -- very well done, indeed.

  • ||

    Walter Lippmann would be another one to add to the list, considering that he was a founder of the New Republic and an adviser to President Wilson, but his The Good Society was pretty scathing about the New Deal.

  • Mad Max||

    From the article:

    ‘As America’s most famous political journalist for several decades, [H.L.] Mencken routinely championed the individual against the collective, siding with . . . the embattled high school science teacher John Scopes . . .’

    That depends on how you define ‘champion[ing]’ Scopes. If you mean that Mencken viciously denounced the rural Tennessee Protestants who opposed evolution, then yes, Mencken championed the teacher. But if you mean that Mencken sided with Scopes’ legal argument that the Tennessee evolution statute was unconstitutional, the opposite is the case. In the July 1, 1925 issue of The Nation magazine, Mencken wrote that the Tennessee legislature had every right to regulate what teachers taught in the government schools, even if that meant banning the teaching of evolution. The magazine later paraphrased Mencken’s article as follows, ‘One of the country's great journalists says that freedom of speech is just an illusion when it comes to teaching.’ I’ve read the article in print (it doesn’t seem to be available on the Internet, at least not for free), and Mencken basically makes the king’s-shilling argument: The government gets to regulate the behavior of its own employees. To be sure, Mencken didn’t think the Tennessee evolution law was wise, but he *did* believe it was constitutional.

    What Mencken ‘championed’ was not the legal defense of Scopes, but a broader cultural narrative about retarded hicks and their superstitions.

  • John Tagliaferro||

    Too bad he was not championing the abolition of public schools. Then we would have someone to admire.

  • mark||

    I agree with Mencken here, as I imagine Clarence Thomas does (though strip searches for aspirin go to far, of course). Freedom of speech is an illusion in school.

  • CH||

    Freedom on ANYTHING is an illusion in school.

  • ||

    Not true. You have the freedom to comply or get expelled.

  • Paul||

    And he wasn’t the only one to feel the shift. By the late 1930s, a handful of prominent liberals suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of the New Deal consensus.

    It's funny. I always am quick to credit liberal in my transformation to libertarianism. All of the ideas that made me "not a republican" came from liberal doctrine. I'm reluctant to give the era so as not to date myself...

    However, when I finally got to the 'liberal party', all the liberals had left. Suddenly my Democrat friends were preaching duty to country, limits to free speech, collective 'rights' over individual rights, deference to authority, national service, rooting for military intervention and foreign entanglements.

  • zoltan||

    The words liberal and conservative have certainly been dirtied in the last century.

  • ||

    Intentionally, by both sides, I think.

  • Paul||

    “a destructive rather than a constructive force” who “should be barred hereafter from the columns of any presentable daily paper, monthly magazine, or national quarterly.”

    Every time I think I'm too hard on Roosevelt, I find something out about him that just fucks everything up, and I realize the guy was nothing more than a tyrant with a smile on his mug.

  • mark||

    And were it not for the war, I believe history would not have been so kind to him.

  • Russ 2000||

    Mencken voted for Roosevelt in 1932 and voiced cautious support for the New Deal’s first stirrings, writing in March 1933, “I have the utmost confidence in his good intentions, and I believe further that he has carried on his dictatorship so far with courage, sense and due restraint.”

    I stopped reading Root's article right there.

    I've read Mencken's political columns of the 20's and 30's in chronological order. The sentence Root quotes was mostly sarcastic, Mencken's support for Roosevelt was always tempered by an admission that Roosevelt's plank were mostly nonsens; Mencken voted for Roosevelt because he expected him to end prohibition.

    To describe one's self as a Mencken Scholar is to proudly admit that you don't understand your subject. I'm glad that these so-called scholars have worked to keep Mencken's work in print, but their opinions are buncombe.

  • ||

    Yeah, but Mencken was sarcastic and biting about all politicians and their bunkum. He only became really horrified by FDR later when he realized that FDR really meant all the worst things in his platform.

  • Paul||

    Russ, I have not read many of Mencken's columns, but whe I read the quote in Root's article, I scratched my chin when I read the word "dictator". That, to me seemed a sarcasm about his feeling regarding Roosevelt's presidency at large.

    But I'm not sure if the way Root presented it in his article nullifies the thesis.

  • Gabriel E||

    I may be mistaken, but I believe the word dictator did not have as much of a negative association attached to it back then. It was only after people knew about the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, that the word got it's bad vibe.

  • Pedantula||

    "I stopped reading Root's article right there..."

    Thank god, because who knows what harm might have come to you by going further.

    Is everyone else okay?

  • JoshInHB||

    No I'm not.
    The guv really can give me a free ride, cant they?

  • ||

    Excellent article, though I remain pessimistic.

  • Bruce||

    I sympathize with Mencken. I have not changed from Republican to Democrat, the Republican party has turned into a bunch of fascist, racist jesus-fuckers who abhor logic and common sense as "elistism." If he were alive today, Barry Goldwater would be tossed out of the GOP on his ass, called "communist" and "terrorist sympathizer" and "america hating socialist." Goldwater wouldn't be able to win so much as a local school board election as a Republican.

    Politically speaking (ignoring issues of race and sex), both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are several degrees to the right of Barry Goldwater. That's how much our country has changed. A change for the worse, I might add.

  • ||

    Your adjectives are a little harsh, but I agree with you on what the GOP has become. At the same time, the Democrat Party has changed from the states' rights, classical liberal party to the collectivist, statist party that couldn't give a shit about individuals.

    And on a side note, both parties are now in bed with businesses, even if they are different ones, though the GOP likes to say that they support all businesses, while the Dems like to say they don't care about business.

  • Ratko||

    Great article, it adds support to my theory that all politicians are bags of feces who manipulate the public to empower themselves. Little good knowing such can do, however, people are weak and Americans are no exception, enough will always eagerly exchange liberty for institutionalization on promises of immediate gratification to prevent any kind of organised attempts to prevent politicians from making themselves into rulers. The temptations to trade the fears invented by the politicians for a little of their warm comforting breast milk is too great for the bulk of the masses.

    There will be no roll back, a return of our freedoms. My belief, that the best we can hope for is enough of a balance between the two parties to bring them to stalemate, if they can't get anything "done" they can't take any more liberty, is a belief that remains unchanged.

    Nice work, though, hat's off to Mr. Root.

  • fashion life||

    There will be no roll back, a return of our freedoms. My belief, that the best we can hope for is enough of a balance between the two parties to bring them to stalemate, if they can't get anything "done" they can't take any more liberty, is a belief that remains unchanged.

  • Pooblicus||

    While doing retroactive economic analysis, it strikes me as quite remarkable that the US economy did not recover on its own within at least 3-4 years from the 1929 event. All micro-economic thoery says that prices of productive goods should fall to levels that would allow them to become profitable, and a recovery from the pain should commence. Looking back, it is clear that only a man with a plan could delay the recovery for over 10 years, and require a major war to overcome the economic disruption.

    Looking with the same jaundiced idea to today, I wonder how long the dear leader can prolong the admittedly painful recession with more "brilliant economic plans."

  • abercrombie milano||

    There will be no roll back, a return of our freedoms. My belief, that the best we can hope for is enough of a balance between the two parties to bring them to stalemate, if they can't get anything "done" they can't take any more liberty, is a belief that remains unchanged.

  • markross||

    Great article, thank you!

    Indeed, and sadly, history is repeating itself! This time, we, the people, need to make it our mission to eradicate Socialism from our shores, once and for all!

    Also, I refuse to call these people Liberals, as it continues to give them political cover. No, we need to call them precisely what they are: Socialists and Leftists.

    Even the word Progressive is not fitting for a group whose policies only cause regressive results!

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