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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.