George Will

WASHINGTON -- Some mornings during the autumn of 1933, when the unemployment rate was 22 percent, the president, before getting into his wheelchair, sat in bed, surrounded by economic advisers, setting the price of gold. One morning he said he might raise it 21 cents: "It's a lucky number because it's three times seven." His treasury secretary wrote that if anybody knew how gold was priced "they would be frightened."

The Depression's persistence, partly a result of such policy flippancy, was frightening. In 1937, during the depression within the Depression, there occurred the steepest drop in industrial production ever recorded. By January 1938 the unemployment rate was back up to 17.4 percent. The war, not the New Deal, defeated the Depression. Franklin Roosevelt's success was in altering the practice of American politics.

This transformation was actually assisted by the misguided policies -- including government-created uncertainties that paralyzed investors -- that prolonged the Depression. This seemed to validate the notion that the crisis was permanent, so government must be forever hyperactive.

In his second inaugural address Roosevelt sought "unimagined power" to enforce the "proper subordination" of private power to public power. He got it, and the fact that the federal government he created now seems utterly unexceptional suggests a need for what Amity Shlaes does in a new book. She takes thorough exception to the government he created.

Republicans had long practiced limited interest-group politics on behalf of business with tariffs, gifts of land to railroads and other corporate welfare. Roosevelt, however, made interest-group politics systematic and routine. New Deal policies were calculated to create many constituencies -- labor, retirees, farmers, union members -- to be dependent on government.

Before the 1930s, the adjective "liberal" denoted policies of individualism and individual rights; since Roosevelt it has primarily pertained to the politics of group interests. So writes Shlaes, a columnist for Bloomberg News, in "The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression." She says Roosevelt's wager was that, by furiously using legislation and regulations to multiply federally favored groups, and by rhetorically pitting those favored by government against the unfavored, he could create a permanent majority coalition.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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