Thomas Sowell

With both Barack Obama's supporters and the media looking forward to the new administration's policies being similar to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's policies during the 1930s depression, it may be useful to look at just what those policies were and-- more important-- what their consequences were.

The prevailing view in many quarters is that the stock market crash of 1929 was a failure of the free market that led to massive unemployment in the 1930s-- and that it was intervention of Roosevelt's New Deal policies that rescued the economy.

It is such a good story that it seems a pity to spoil it with facts. Yet there is something to be said for not repeating the catastrophes of the past.

Let's start at square one, with the stock market crash in October 1929. Was this what led to massive unemployment?

Official government statistics suggest otherwise. So do new statistics on unemployment by two current scholars, Richard Vedder and Lowell Gallaway, in their book "Out of Work."

The Vedder and Gallaway statistics allow us to follow unemployment month by month. They put the unemployment rate at 5 percent in November 1929, a month after the stock market crash. It hit 9 percent in December-- but then began a generally downward trend, subsiding to 6.3 percent in June 1930.

That was when the Smoot-Hawley tariffs were passed, against the advice of economists across the country, who warned of dire consequences.

Five months after the Smoot-Hawley tariffs, the unemployment rate hit double digits for the first time in the 1930s.

This was more than a year after the stock market crash. Moreover, the unemployment rate rose to even higher levels under both Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, both of whom intervened in the economy on an unprecedented scale.

Before the Great Depression, it was not considered to be the business of the federal government to try to get the economy out of a depression. But the Smoot-Hawley tariff-- designed to save American jobs by restricting imports-- was one of Hoover's interventions, followed by even bigger interventions by FDR.

The rise in unemployment after the stock market crash of 1929 was a blip on the screen compared to the soaring unemployment rates reached later, after a series of government interventions.

For nearly three consecutive years, beginning in February 1932, the unemployment rate never fell below 20 percent for any month before January 1935, when it fell to 19.3 percent, according to the Vedder and Gallaway statistics.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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