Nonetheless, the myth of a grinning FDR leading America forth from the soup kitchens remains potent. And today's Democrats rely desperately on that fading falsehood, hoping to bolster their bad economics with worse history. Hillary Clinton routinely hijacks Rooseveltian language, most recently disparaging the "on your own society" in favor of a "we're all in it together society." John Edwards' "two Americas" nonsense drips of FDR's class warfare. Never mind that Keynesian economics does not work. Never mind that it promotes unemployment, discourages investment and quashes entrepreneurship. For Democrats, the image of government-as-friend is more important than a government that actually protects the rights that breed prosperity.
"The impression of recovery -- the impression that a President was bending the old rules and, drawing upon his own courage and flamboyance in adversity and illness, stirring things up on behalf of the down-and-out -- mattered more than any miscalculations in the moot mathematics of economics," novelist-cum-economist John Updike recently wrote, defending FDR from Shlaes' critique. "Business, of which Shlaes is so solicitous, is basically merciless, geared to maximize profit. Government is ultimately a human transaction, and Roosevelt put a cheerful, defiant, caring face on government at a time when faith in democracy was ebbing throughout the Western world. For this inspirational feat he is the twentieth century's greatest President, to rank with Lincoln and Washington as symbolic figures for a nation to live by."
For Updike and his allies, image trumps reality. The supposed harshness of the business world matters more for Updike than the fact that profit incentives promote economic growth, efficiency and creativity. The "caring face" of government is more important for Updike than creating a framework that produces jobs and affordable commodities. Updike's sporadically employed father liked FDR because FDR made him feel "less alone." No doubt Updike's father would have felt less alone if he had been steadily employed by a private enterprise -- the kind of enterprise stifled by Roosevelt.
"We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal," FDR announced in 1937, as unemployment stood at 15 percent, "and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world." Today's Democrats continue to embrace the vision, even at the cost of a prosperous reality.