George Will

In the process, says Shlaes, Roosevelt refined his definition of the "forgotten man." This man had been thought of as a general personality, compatible with the assumption that Americans were all in it together. "Now, by defining his forgotten man as the specific groups he would help, the president was in effect forgetting the rest -- creating a new forgotten man. The country was splitting into those who were Roosevelt's favorites and everyone else."

Acting with what Shlaes calls "the restlessness of the invalid," Roosevelt implemented the theory that (in her words) "spending promoted growth, if government was big enough to spend enough." In only 12 months, just one Roosevelt improvisation, the National Recovery Administration, "generated more paper than the entire legislative output of the federal government since 1789."

Before Roosevelt, the federal government was unimpressive relative to the private sector. Under Calvin Coolidge, the last pre-Depression president, its revenues averaged 4 percent of GDP, compared to 18.6 percent today. In 1910, Congress legislated height limits for Washington buildings, limits that prevented skyscrapers, symbols of mighty business, from overshadowing the Capitol, the symbol of government.

In 1936, for the first time in peacetime history, federal spending exceeded that of the states and localities combined. Roosevelt said modern "civilization" has tended "to make life insecure." Hence Social Security, which had the added purpose of encouraging workers to retire, thereby opening jobs to younger people. Notice the assumptions of permanent scarcity, and that the government has a duty to distribute scarce things, such as work.

In 1938, when the New Deal's failure to spark recovery made Roosevelt increasingly frantic, he attempted to enlarge the Supreme Court so he could pack it with compliant justices. He said Americans had the right to "insist that every agency of popular government" respond to "their will." He included the court among "popular," meaning political and representative, institutions.

Roosevelt's overreaching called forth an opponent whom Shlaes rescues from obscurity. Wendell Willkie, who would be Roosevelt's opponent in a 1940 election overshadowed by war, called upon Roosevelt to "give up this vested interest you have in depression" as the justification for a "philosophy of distributed scarcity."

War, as has been said -- and as George W. Bush's assertion of vast presidential powers attests -- is the health of the state. But as Roosevelt demonstrated and Shlaes reminds us, compassion, understood as making the "insecure" securely dependent, also makes the state flourish.


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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