Statist Policy and the Great Depression

September 18, 2014

A useful corrective to the liberal myth-making that surrounds the Great Depression

International Liberty

It’s difficult to promote good economic policy when some policy makers have a deeply flawed grasp of history.

This is why I’ve tried to educate people, for instance, that government intervention bears the blame for the 2008 financial crisis, not capitalism or deregulation.

Going back in time, I’ve also explained the truth about “sweatshops” and “robber barons.”

But one of the biggest challenges is correcting the mythology that capitalism caused the Great Depression and that government pulled the economy out of its tailspin.

To help correct the record, I’ve shared a superb video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that discusses the failed statist policies of both Hoover and Roosevelt.

Now, to augment that analysis, we have a video from Learn Liberty. Narrated by Professor Stephen Davies, it punctures several of the myths about government policy in the 1930s.

Professors Davies is right on the…

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Herbert Hoover’s Anti-Market Policies Helped Turn an Economic Downturn into a Great Depression

June 30, 2014

One of the things that opened my eyes to how badly History is taught in our schools was the realization that, far from being the laissez-faire conservative progressives made him out to be, Herbert Hoover was himself a statist whose policies helped turn a sharp recession into the Great Depression. Mitchell provides a good overview, including a must-see video from Prager University.

International Liberty

There have been many truly awful presidents elected in the United States, but if I had to pick my least favorite, I might choose Herbert Hoover.

I obviously have disdain for Hoover’s big-government policies, but I also am extremely irritated that – as Jonah Goldberg explained – he allowed the left to create an utterly bogus narrative that the Great Depression was caused by capitalism and free markets.

Indeed, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity produced a video demonstrating that the statist policies of both Hoover and Roosevelt helped trigger, deepen, and lengthen the economic slump.

Building on that theme, here’s a new video from Prager University that looks specifically at the misguided policies of Herbert Hoover.

Amen. Great job unmasking Hoover’s terrible record.

As I explained when correcting a glaring error by Andrew Sullivan, Hoover was a big-government interventionist. Heck, even FDR’s inner circle understood that the New Deal…

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Sunday Book Review: FDR’s Folly

September 25, 2011

Many years ago, when I was doing my undergraduate degree in History, I read “The Historian’s Craft,” by the great French historian Marc Bloch. One lesson he taught that’s stuck with me all these years is that “objective” history is a myth; the historian, by declaring what is significant through his choice of what facts to include in his work, inevitably suffuse the work with a subjective viewpoint — his opinion.

Careful historians take this inevitable bias into account and look for facts that contradict their thesis, evaluating them against those that support the historian’s point of view and thus reaching a reasoned synthesis. But, again almost inevitably, certain perspectives gain wide enough acceptance that they go from being opinion and argument to unquestioned “received wisdom.”

The history of the New Deal is an example of this. According to the standard telling, the era of vast government intervention in the economy under Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt saved the nation from economic collapse after the reckless laissez-faire economics of the 1920s and a series of “do nothing” Republican presidents. People found jobs, the hungry were fed, and labor gained their just rights. This was the orthodoxy pushed by liberal historians such as Arthur Schlesinger and Frank Friedel, whose works influence the teaching of history in high schools and colleges down to today.

In recent years, however, works by conservative and libertarian authors have challenged this orthodoxy to argue that the New Deal was not nearly as effective as proclaimed, perhaps even a total failure. Actually analyzing the application and results of New Deal policies, rather than just concentrating on the politics, a few years ago two UCLA economists published a study arguing that FDR’s policies lengthened the Depression by seven years. Journalist Amity Shlaes authored “The Forgotten Man,” an important revisionist history of the Great Depression that questions many of the standard assumptions.

Into this latter, revisionist literature in 2003 came Jim Powell’s “FDR’s Folly: how Roosevelt and his New Deal prolonged the Great Depression.” Powell is a scholar with the libertarian Cato Institute, and he approaches the New Deal with a very skeptical eye. His thesis is that the New Deal was a failure because its diagnosis of the problem, that the economic collapse was caused by prices (both of goods and labor) being too low and that the way to fix the problem was to regulate the economy to maintain prices at a higher-than-market value. He shows instead that this contributed to the problem by making labor too expensive, thus pricing less-skilled workers out of the market and thus keeping unemployment high. (By some estimates, unemployment never went below 13-15% during the Depression. If a program is to be judged by its results…)

Powell also criticizes the vast expansion of federal power under FDR, an expansion made necessary because of the administration’s belief that free markets had failed, that unrestrained competition had brought about the crisis, and that the only way out was to highly regulate all aspects of the economy. This had the effect, Powell argues (I think correctly), of severely weakening economic liberty, for example the freedom of two or more parties to agree to a contract, and the rights a property owner, such as  a factory owner, has over his own property. What had previously been the inherent rights of the individual guarded under the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments were gutted by a succession of Supreme Court rulings, particularly after FDR was able to appoint several sympathetic Justices, who argued that “economic rights” were less important than political rights, such as free speech.

Powell organizes his book in a series of questions, which are then explored to attack one aspect or another of the New Deal orthodoxy. Here are some samples:

  • “What did FDR borrow from Hoover?” (1)
  • “Why did FDR triple taxes during the Great Depression?”
  • “Why did the New Dealers destroy all that food when people were hungry?”
  • “How did New Deal labor laws throw people out of work?”
  • “How did FDR’s Supreme Court subvert individual liberty?”
  • “How did New Deal policies cause the Depression of 1938?”

It’s become a cliché to describe a book as “eye-opening,” but that’s the effect Powell’s book had for me, clearing the scales of liberal orthodoxy away from my eyes by stepping outside the accepted history and daring to ask questions and hold the New Dealers accountable for the results of their policies. And, with the full-throated resurgence of statism under Obama and the progressives, this eight-year old book has a new relevance. Believe me, just change a few of the names and dates, and you’d swear Jim Powell was writing about Barack Obama.

Maybe Time was right to say Obama is the new FDR.

Summary: FDR’s Folly (2003, Three Rivers Press) — recommended.

(1) Yes, the orthodox view of a laissez-faire Hoover is all wrong.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)

Advice for President Obama: be Warren Harding, not Franklin Roosevelt

July 12, 2011

Never did I think I’d favorably mention President Harding twice in a blog, but here you go. The first was a quote from Harding, while what follows is a quote about Harding:

I know, the thought Obama could be half the president Harding was is too much to ask.

Considering Harding is one of the most reviled 20th-century presidents (among those who even remember him), that statement could be easily taken as an insult to Obama by ironic comparison to (another) president who was truly awful.

Far from it. Historian Steven Hayward looks at the misperceptions regarding Harding that have become commonplace thanks to liberal academia and argues that our 29th president is someone Obama should seek to emulate, at least in economic policy. Faced with a genuine economic depression, runaway inflation, and a huge government debt after World War One, Harding did things that would give statists nightmares:

So what did Harding do?  A “stimulus”?  A jobs program?  “Targeted” tax cuts?  Government bailouts for ailing companies?  Nope—he cut government spending sharply and rapidly (by almost 50 percent), began cutting tax rates across the board, and allowed asset values and wages to adjust freely as fast as possible.  Harding’s administration, Paul Johnson observed, “was the last time a major industrial power treated a recession by classic laissez-faire methods, allowing wages to fall to their natural level . . .  By July 1921 it was all over and the economy was booming again.”  The Cato Institute’s Jim Powell offers a more complete summary of Harding’s soundness on economic policy, but suffice it to say that Harding’s traditional approach prevented the depression of 1920-21 from becoming a Great Depression, and in fact set he stage for the roaring twenties.

Of course, what would give Keynesians and other statists those nightmares is that —The Horror!!— it worked, while the interventionist, centrally directed policies of Hoover and FDR (1) failed miserably.

So, come on Mr. President, I dare you: Be like Warren.

Just don’t let Michelle catch you in the closet.

(1) Yes, Hoover has been unfairly slagged by FDR hagiographers who needed a whipping boy to make their guy look good. The fact is, Hoover was a bad president in the early years of the Great Depression, but not for being the anti-FDR. Check out Hayward’s post for a revealing quote from Rex Tugwell, one of FDR key early aides, about how the New Deal was an amplification of Hoover’s policies.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)

If this is a recovery, where are the jobs??

October 31, 2010

President Obama (and especially his fawning sycophants in the media) likes to compare himself to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who lead the nation during the Great Depression. In this brief video essay from Reason.TV, Ted Balaker looks at the current jobless recovery and see other similarities to FDR that Obama might not enjoy:

Balaker and Professor Ohanian blame the uncertainty caused by the raft of new regulations and laws coming from Washington, as well as uncertainty about the effects the progressives’ spend-and-borrow binge may have. Businesses hate uncertainty, because it leaves them with no way to forecast what conditions will be like, hence making them less willing to risk capital on new employees. It is, in fact, a rational response, something FDR never quite got: he wanted to tax retained earnings, solely to punish businesses that wouldn’t spend. The Obama administration has broached a similar idea.

While I agree about the uncertainty created by government intervention in the market, I’d add another factor: policies that are just plain bad, because they make the economic situation worse. In the video, we see one good example: the CEO of Nationwide Support Services wait anxiously to hear the details of a new FTC regulation; depending on how it goes, she may not be able to hire the new people she’d like to hire – or she may have to go out of business altogether.

Really, is this any way to run an economy?

Of course it isn’t. As is becoming increasingly clear as new research is done into the New Deal, the statist, interventionist policies of the Roosevelt administration (and Hoover’s) did not help. Indeed, they prevented a job-creating recovery.

The best thing the government could do would be to quit intervening in the marketplace and stop trying to engineer it. It’s simply much too complex to be controlled by a relatively small number of policy-makers. With minimal intervention and a lightened burden of spending, taxation, and regulation, the market economy will heal itself and create jobs.

Sadly, that’s a wise course we can’t expect from the current crowd, so this Tuesday we take step one in a two-step process of firing and replacing them with people who get it.

Step two comes in 2012.

PS: Yeah, I’ve been tapping Reason.TV a lot today, but, what can I say? They do good stuff. 

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)

He wants to be the next FDR…

September 1, 2009

…But maybe President Obama is instead the next Herbert Hoover? Studying the policies pursued by the Hoover Administration in the wake of the 1929 crash, UCLA economist Lee Ohanian found that a strong recession became the Great Depression because of Hoover’s pro-labor, statist interventions:

Pro-labor policies pushed by President Herbert Hoover after the stock market crash of 1929 accounted for close to two-thirds of the drop in the nation’s gross domestic product over the two years that followed, causing what might otherwise have been a bad recession to slip into the Great Depression, a UCLA economist concludes in a new study.

“These findings suggest that the recession was three times worse — at a minimum — than it would otherwise have been, because of Hoover,” said Lee E. Ohanian, a UCLA professor of economics.

The policies, which included both propping up wages and encouraging job-sharing, also accounted for more than two-thirds of the precipitous decline in hours worked in the manufacturing sector, which was much harder hit initially than the agricultural sector, according to Ohanian.

“By keeping industrial wages too high, Hoover sharply depressed employment beyond where it otherwise would have been, and that act drove down the overall gross national product,” Ohanian said. “His policy was the single most important event in precipitating the Great Depression.”

The findings are slated to appear in the December issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Economic Theory and were posted today on the website of the National Bureau of Economic Research ( as a working paper.

The article goes on to point out that Hoover’s exact solutions are not likely to be followed by President Obama. However, Ohanian argues, the disastrous results of Hoover’s interventions illustrate what can happen when government pursues hasty, ill-advised policies. Everything Hoover tried only made things worse.

And while Obama may not follow Hoover’s exact policies, we are seeing the same hasty, ill-considered rush to “do something:” the trillion-dollar pork fiesta stimulus bill; the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade “greenhouse gas” bill; and now the health-care bill aimed at nationalizing 1/6th of the US economy. Anyone of these is bad enough; in combination, the effects on the US economy would almost certainly be horrific.
I’d go a little farther than Ohanian in his article and argue that these kind of large-scale statist interventions, whether in terms of wage control and job-sharing like Hoover or massive Keynesian deficit spending like Obama, are doomed to fail because a free market economy is too complex and has too many factors to successfully control, manage, or direct. In fact, if one looks at Hoover’s predecessors, Presidents Harding and Coolidge, one sees the right way to handle a sharp recession. Treasury Secretary Mellon advised cutting government spending and lowering taxes to free up capital in order to stimulate business, and then let the natural forces of the market economy heal itself. Which it did, bringing the US out of the sharp recession of 1919-1920 and laying the groundwork for a decade of prosperity. (And which was repeated with greater success by Ronald Reagan in the early 80s.)
Articles like this one and Ohanian’s earlier research showing that FDR’s corporatism lengthened the Depression by seven years, as well as longer works of history such as Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man, are important revisionist works for two reasons. First, they dispel forever the notion implanted in popular consciousness by liberal historians and economists, that Hoover was a laissez-faire president with a do-nothing attitude toward the economy, a view used to justify the interventionist approach. Far from it, in fact: Hoover was very much an interventionist, and FDR continued and expanded several of his policies.
The second reason is that these researches present convincing evidence that the received wisdom about the Great Depression, that FDR’s policies pulled us out of it and that government intervention can fix an economy in crisis, is just plain wrong. Indeed, by 1939 the New Deal was clearly a failure and Treasury Secertary Morgenthau said (quoted in an article by Mark Levey):
By 1939 Roosevelt’s own Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, had realized that the New Deal economic policies had failed. “We have tried spending money,” Morgenthau wrote in his diary. “We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. . . . After eight years of this Administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started. . . . And an enormous debt to boot!”
In fact, only the military draft in the face of World War II broke the back of unemployment in the US, by pulling five million men off the streets.
Obama’s an educated man: maybe he should look more closely at his predecessors’ experiences before following further in their footsteps.
(via Jonah Goldberg)
LINKS: More at Hot Air.
PS. Sorry for the bad formatting, but something in this post is killing the spaces between paragraphs. Angry