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The New Deal's Looking Stale . . .

Michael Barone asks whether President Obama in saying things like, "The single most important jobs program we can put in place is a growing economy," is speaking out of the desperation born of having to come to grips with the possibility that the New Deal template that has dominated Democratic politics since the 30s is . . . uh, well . . . no good.  Barone does not suggest that there has been a "fundamental transformation" in the President's outlook on the world.  Rather, what he seems to suggest is that the operational usefulness of these policies has finally reached what may be an undeniable breaking point.  In other words, "The Obama Democrats' attempt to freeze their political benefactors in place is proving unsustainable."

This could be a useful for jumping off point for an important public conversation that reminds people about the differences between constitutionalism and progressivism.  Barone notes in passing that,

FDR, like his cousin Theodore, was an affluent heir who had contempt for men who built businesses and made money. They were "economic royalists" and "malefactors of great wealth" -- sentiments echoed by Barack Obama last week.

Do sentiments like this echo with the majority of Americans today?  Barone points to the amazing resonance of the Joe the Plumber incident to suggest that they do not.  Folks like TR, FDR and, even, Barack Obama are not representative of the average American experience that encompasses actual contact and familiarity with the character of America's small businessmen. These are not economic royalists.  They are just hard-working Joes trying to make a buck.  And what is wrong with that?  Americans do not need government intervention to protect us from hucksters . . . for all that ever does is put the hucksters in charge of the government! 

But when your foundational belief is the inherent creepiness of business and money making, then your every instinct is going to push you in the direction of quelling what you perceive to be the potential evils of this activity.  Your object will not be to free up and grow the economy; it will be to restrict and control it so as to set up artificial barriers that will, you believe, protect the innocent from the ill-effects of chance.  You will put your faith in the power of government (a.k.a., the wise) to manage growth in "healthy" ways.  And then, instead of encouraging the real growth that is necessary to maintain the governmental structure you've created, you end up working diligently to maintain the status quo

This earns you political cronies of a certain type;  the kind who don't like competition mainly because they can't or don't want to be bothered to compete.  So even as you begin your political life thinking that you're working to protect the little guy from the tentacles of "economic royalists," over time you will discover that the entrenched interests you've fought so diligently to protect become exactly the kind of octopus you thought you were fighting against.  You have created a monster and it is now about to eat you.

I thought that there was some delicious irony in the fact that Jerry Brown will now have to lie in the messy bed he and the California Democrats made.  Could it be that the Democrat Party, as a national proposition, is now on the verge of the same dilemma on this larger stage?  Is the New Deal finally up against itself and about to discover that there never was anything "new" in this stale, old form of elitist cronyism?   And will freedom--in all of its messy glory--finally reassert itself in the firm understanding that we cannot really protect ourselves from its potential downside if we mean to keep that freedom and, therefore, the possibility of better days ahead.
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Discussions - 4 Comments

The Roosevelt Administration followed some bad policies - most notably imposing an excessive minimum wage and promoting the erection of cartels and inflexible prices not only in agriculture (which has survived to this day in the form of USDA 'marketing orders') but across the whole commercial and industrial landscape. However, the most salient of these schemes (the National Industrial Recovery Act) was scuttled by the courts for incorporating an impermissible delegation of legislative power. However, it is too much to attribute to the 'New Deal' troublesome phenomena which were not enacted or implemented until a generation later.

1. Social Security and unemployment compensation are not particularly problematic programs and require only modest adjustments. The wretched gordian knots derive from public medical insurance, which was not enacted until 1965.

2. 'Business unionism' of the sort promoted by the AFL and the CIO is not ideal, but the regime in industrial relations prior to 1935 was a cruel regime and had its critics within the business community (e.g. Charles Dawes and Owen Young). The thing is, there has been a Darwinian winnowing of private sector unions since 1955. Your real problem is public sector unions, who are illegitimate and predatory. The advent of collective bargaining for public employees in New York (something Fiorello LaGuardia opposed) occurred in 1958. The advent for federal employees was in 1961.

3. Aid to Families with Dependent Children was a wretched mistake enacted in 1935. The thing is, the program remained small and circumscribed up until about 1958. It wasn't Roosevelt or LaGuardia who presided over a tripling of the welfare rolls in New York CIty over the period running from 1965 to 1975, it was John Lindsay.

4. 'Co-operative federalism' was another wretched idea. However, the ruin of the autonomy and accountability of local governments occurred after 1955, and owed much to our officious judiciary and federal initiatives after that date.

5. The elimination of competitive examinations for federal civil service positions (and elsewhere in a more fragmentary way) was not a Roosevelt Administration initiative either. Competitive examinations stand in the way of using the public sector for systematized political patronage for blacks. That sort of thing in any form does not predate 1966, was not enforced on private companies until 1971, and was not incorporated into federal civil service law until about 1978.

6. The hideous breakdown of order in inner city neighborhoods cannot be laid at the door of Roosevelt either. The period from 1930 to 1950 saw an enhancement of public order. Blame Jerome Cavanaugh, et al, not Roosevelt.

7. Re the degradation of primary and secondary schooling: ditto.


Your problem is not 'progressivism' but the continuous promotion of rent seeking, of socialization of costs, and patron-client relationships brokered by elected officials. Another problem is unreal conceptions of human behavior and human motivation which promote manipulative 'therepeutic' approaches to social problems rather than clear articulation and enforcement of norms. Deal with the problems.

Old Albert Beveridge said this in a pamphlet on the Progressive/Republican merger of 1913, "The result is that the two old parties think the states should handle every problem, no matter how national in character, that the Constitution does not expressly command the nation to handle; whereas we Progressives believe that the nation should handle all national questions that the Constitution does not expressly forbid the nation to handle." That was on the topic of the Progressive/Republican merger, mind, and he had, earlier in the pamphlet said that the federal government should be allowed to do anything the nation needed to "promote the general welfare," saying "we Progressives read our fundamental law by the light of those master words."

"Progressivism" as a principle of governing leads to "socialization of costs, and patron-client relationships brokered by elected officials [and bureaucratic ones?]. Another problem is unreal conceptions of human behavior and human motivation which promote manipulative 'therepeutic' approaches to social problems rather than clear articulation and enforcement of norms." "Promotion of rent seeking" we have had as a problem since before the Revolution.

A.D., all of those things you complain of above walked in through the door opened by the New Deal. Once Roosevelt had tamed the Supreme Court, the Constitution could be bent, although with the best of intentions, for promoting what some people saw as the "general welfare" and it was all Progress.

A.D., all of those things you complain of above walked in through the door opened by the New Deal.

It is interesting how people can have systematic and durable affinities for ideas even though one idea does not logically entail the other. The Democratic Party has made a cargo cult out of Roosevelt, et al. It is rather de trop, however, to hold parties active in political life in 1933 responsible for the follies of people in 1967.

I cannot see how income transfer programs or a federal regime regulating collective bargaining, however advisable or inadvisable these may be, 'opens the door' to wrapping the Detroit Police Department in red tape, replacing imprisonment with the ministrations of probation officers, or social promotions in school systems. You need to be able to differentiate between causal relationships and those that are merely temporally sequential.

Oh, heck! Call it a political trend, then. One idea leads to another and if the federal government becomes responsible for all of the general welfare of the US, then every petty thing comes under its purview and things once left to the locals must be centrally managed or at least regulated for the good.

I am not saying this is any way a good thing. To me, increasing federal intervention is inimical to general welfare. I doubt even Beveridge would have approved of where the trend has taken us. He also quotes Lincoln most approvingly with this: “The nation should control what concerns it; a state or any minor political community should control what exclusively concerns it; an individual should control exclusively what concerns him.” How the nation comes to think every darn thing concerns it may owe to mass communication as much as to Progressive thinking.

I've wondered if our national penchant for travel and residential transience doesn't play a role, too. We have come to like homogenization, which leads to the popularity of MacDonald's and Walmart, et al; we always know what we will find there as a kind of consistency and comfort. Federal fiat makes for the same thing with the additional benefit of keeping everything "fair" whether that makes sense or not in the locale.

I'll grant you a broader causation for our current state of government, but cannot see how political history plays no role. I am putting that badly, but need a nap badly. Sorry.

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