FDR A Practical Magician

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Most of the Roosevelt Revolution, properly viewed, was conservative. It was intended to preserve the social tranquillity and sense of belonging without which capitalism could not have survived—and still will not survive. It protected values and institutions that were at risk. But the softening of the edges of capitalism and the transition to the welfare state were accomplished far more harmoniously in the other industrial lands than in the United States. They might, perhaps, have come more peacefully here too, with less enduring strain on the political fabric, but for the Roosevelt delight in his enemies—his commitment to the ancient Pulitzer injunction that one should not only comfort the afflicted but afflict the comfortable. Certainly this attitude added to the joy of all of us who were there. With what pleasure we made the President’s enemies our own. How deeply we scorned those among us who were thought to have an instinct to appease. How unpleasant, on occasion, we must have been as people with whom to do business.

THERE IS A MYTH , cultivated by Walter Lippmann among others, that Roosevelt was a man of words and not thought. That it was his practice to air ideas liberally, to test them on audiences casual and otherwise, is certainly true. Many, in consequence, came away in deep alarm as to the direction in which the President’s mind seemed to be running. But the Roosevelt performance was distinctly different; there, ideas were linked to intensely practical, powerfully relevant action. The farm crisis in 1933 was thought to have many causes; his solution was to provide the farmers with cheap loans and organize them to produce less for higher prices. Whatever the reasons for unemployment, the obvious answer was for the government to provide jobs through the Public and Civil Works Administrations. The National Recovery Act (NRA), much belabored by economists then and since, recognized a basic characteristic of modern capitalism: wages and prices interact in the modern economy; prices can shove down wages, and lower wages and reduced purchasing power can allow and force further price reductions—deflation. The opposing dynamic—wages pressing up prices, prices pulling up wages—is a cause of inflation, as we know today—or should know. Then as now there was a strong practical case for direct intervention to arrest this malign process; there was a strong practical case for the NRA.

Unemployment compensation, old-age pensions, and public housing were eminently relevant to the problems they addressed. The mobilization of the American economy in World War II was the most successful exercise in economic management of modern times—a huge increase in production, no net reduction in aggregate civilian consumption, and all with no appreciable inflation. On none of these matters did the President fail to get alternative proposals—elaborate designs that substituted pretense and rhetoric for real solutions.

I do not suggest that FDR’s ability to link ideas to effective action and to link initiative to desired result was infallible. In 1933, like our recent Presidents, he was briefly attracted to the magic of the monetarists—to the notion that the economy could be regulated in all its complexity by monetary witchcraft. But here, in brilliant contrast to his successors, he quickly repented. Roosevelt was, indeed, a man of many ideas, but it was his genius to select those that were most relevant to a firm and useful result.

Those who agree, at least in part, on the effectiveness of individual Roosevelt measures have another criticism of the President. They concede that these measures, or some of them, were a necessary response to diverse needs; they insist, however, that FDR was incapable of envisaging and embracing a comprehensive and internally consistent design. He had no all-inclusive theory of the state, the economy, and the social order. This is true; and it is something, I suggest, that no one can regret. Those scholars and politicians who have an overall plan are almost always more impressive in oratory than in action, and they can be callous as they pursue their plan relentlessly or await its effects. Coolidge and Hoover had such a design—and left the economy in all its complexity to the ultimately benign operation of laissez-faire. Those who suffered in the interim were the natural cost of the larger benefit. There is a similar plan in the minds of those who now speak so confidently of the “miracle of the market,” of the pervasive wickedness of public regulation and the generally inimical character of the modern welfare state. The twentieth century has no more powerful lesson than the suffering that can be imposed by those, on both the right and the left, who are captured by a comprehensive design for social and economic policy. We remember and celebrate Roosevelt because, mercifully, he was exempt from cruel and confining theory. He moved from the needed result to the relevant action precisely because he was unencumbered by ideological constraint. That, no doubt, is another way of saying that Franklin D. Roosevelt was a superbly practical man.