Every Man a Kingfish


Over at Concurring Opinions, law professor Gerard Magliocca argues that Amity Shlaes's superb history of the New Deal, The Forgotten Man, pays too little attention to FDR's success in neutralizing populist Louisiana Gov. Huey Long:

Let's assume for purposes of discussion that Shlaes is right about the economics. Is that the end of the matter? I don't think so. The next question is whether activist government was necessary to prevent something worse from happening. I'm not talking about a dictatorship. I'm simply referring to a political movement in favor of even more interventionist or redistributive policies that would have gained traction because the government was not doing enough.

The problem is that there is a forgotten man in "The Forgotten Man"—Huey P. Long. "The Kingfish" of Louisiana became a national figure in 1934 and 1935 with his "Share Our Wealth" movement, which was the organization that he intended to use for a presidential bid in 1936. (Long was assassinated in late 1935). Among other things, he wanted to establish a personal income cap through massive wealth and income taxes to pay for public works and subsidies for the poor. FDR told his aides that he "needed to steal Long's thunder" in 1935, which led to the proposal of Social Security and a much more modest wealth tax. (FDR was also responding to other protest movements—Father Coughlin and Dr. Francis Townsend come to mind).

It's an intriguing argument. But as Magliocca himself notes, Long "became a national figure in 1934 and 1935." By that point, FDR had already saddled the economy with the disastrous National Industrial Recovery Act and National Recovery Administration, which a unanimous Supreme Court thankfully struck down in 1935. There's certainly no question that Long's authoritarian populism would have been far worse for the country than the New Deal, but that's hardly a ringing endorsement of FDR's misguided policies.

For more on The Forgotten Man, don't miss Nick Gillespie's classic 2008 interview with Amity Shlaes.