New Deal Rebels: An Anthology of Critics of the New Deal
Edited by Amity Shlaes.
American Institute for Economic Research, 2023.
Paperback, 376 pages, $18.

Reviewed by Chuck Chalberg.

From the vantage point of roughly seven decades of depression-less prosperity, Amity Shlaes is prepared to declare the Great Depression to have been an American “anomaly.” In truth, it is an anomaly in more ways than one. No previous economic downturn—or collapse—or “panic” (to borrow the 19th century term that President Hoover jettisoned for the less frightening alternative of “depression”) had lasted nearly as long. More than that, Shlaes is also prepared to declare the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt to have been at once a public policy failure and a great, if undeserved, political success.

In her introductory essay, editor Shlaes, biographer of Calvin Coolidge and historian of both the Great Depression and the New Deal, refuses to pull any punches. Yes, the New Deal “failed,” but then “so did its critics.” 

Those critics, of course, are her “New Deal rebels.” Her roster of “rebels”-as-critics is lengthy, if necessarily incomplete. The list might have been unnecessarily incomplete as well—at least in this way: Almost every one of her chosen few, save for the Louisiana “Kingfish” Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin, criticizes the New Deal from the right. But the Roosevelt administration did have other critics on the left. The difference, of course, is that most of these critics were not rebels. Instead, they were, as the euphemism had it, “liberals in a hurry.” Still, the inclusion of a few such types might have both added to the heft of the arguments of the “rebels” and helped explain the anomaly that was the political success of Franklin Roosevelt.

This quibble aside, there is great variety among her fifty-three entries. Among them are speeches, cartoons, diary entries, letters, laws, constitutional amendments, Supreme Court decisions, poems (Ogden Nash), essays, book excerpts, and editorials. There is also significant diversity, especially the only sort of diversity that should matter: intellectual diversity. If even New Deal authorities can have difficulty defining just what the New Deal was, New Deal rebels could be all over the map as well.

And yet clear threads and themes emerge as the evidence and the documents unfold. The overriding themes, of course, are the state versus the individual and the federal government versus the individual states. A related theme is a repeated defense of free markets and the pricing system, culminating with a 1941 Friedrich Hayek essay that anticipated his 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom, by attacking both the necessity of and the possibility for anything approaching an effectively run state-planned economy.

Two Important sub-themes can also be connected to one another. The first is the ineffectiveness of the New Deal reforms that ventured in the direction of state-planned or state-driven economies, as well as the resulting “depression within the depression” that dominated Roosevelt’s second term. Far from unrelated to this non-rebound (of the economy) was the increasing harshness—and effectiveness—of the administration’s efforts to hold and consolidate political power, culminating in Roosevelt’s election to third and fourth terms and the court-packing scheme of 1937.

To be sure, a world war in Europe and the Pacific played a major role in keeping Franklin Roosevelt in the White House. But the focus of this volume is on the New Deal at home. More than that, it must also be noted that not all of Roosevelt’s political scheming succeeded. Court packing tops the list. But his willingness to use government and governmental employees for political purposes did not fail and did not end, even as it triggered the passage of the Hatch Act, which is included among the fifty-three documents. Further evidence of politicization is an informative Saturday Evening Post essay by Garet Garrett on the extensive reach and overarching political purposes of the Federal Theater Project.

The politics of the midterm elections of 1938 offers additional evidence of the direction of the Roosevelt administration. Defeating conservative Democrats was deemed to be more important than abandoning failed policies. Perhaps those targeted by the administration would not have qualified as full-fledged New Deal rebels, but a speech or two might have been excerpted for this collection.

In any case, by 1938 it was quite evident that five plus years of the New Deal had failed to lift the country out of its economic doldrums, thus leading one to speculate on what might have happened had New Dealers not panicked as nineteenth century presidents had refused to panic in response to the “panics” they faced.

Perhaps “panic” isn’t really the accurate verb here. Perhaps the Brain Trusters of the 1930s were simply premature Rahm Emanuels who sought to take advantage of a crisis for their own purposes. Nonetheless, the point remains, even as it remains unresolvable. Still, it’s fair to wonder what the story might have been had Calvin Coolidge run and won in 1928 and had a Coolidge-clone succeeded him. In any case, better a brief panic than a seemingly interminable depression.

Speaking of Coolidge, his Philadelphia speech on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence follows closely on the heels of William Graham Sumner’s “forgotten man” lecture, which kicks off this collection. Both are worth the price of admission. Or better yet, each alone is well worth one’s money and time.

Sumner had barely coined his “forgotten man” when he wondered if his “appellation” was “strictly correct.” Quickly correcting himself, Sumner thought that his man should be more accurately characterized as the “man who is never thought of. He is the victim of the reformer.”

Coolidge wanted to make sure that his listeners would not forget that Jefferson’s words had been written with future generations of Americans in mind. Nor did he want them to forget the importance of “things of the spirit.” Yes, Coolidge once said that the “business of America is business,” but never had he believed that business was the only business of Americans.

For President Coolidge, the Declaration of Independence was a “great spiritual document,” and one that was rooted in “religious convictions.” And if those convictions did not endure? What then? “The principles of our Declaration will perish.”

Far from finished, Coolidge was barely warming up: “About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful.” Restful? Coolidge explained: “If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final.” In other words, “restful” proved to have been precisely the right adjective, since “no progress can be made beyond these propositions.”

Lest the reader think it’s time to settle in for an ongoing slog/series of pithy snippets selected from Shlaes’s selections—or that it’s simply time to set this piece aside—let’s zero in on just a few more documents in order to make two important points.

FDR, of course, had his own understanding of the “forgotten man.” In fact, he deployed that very term, but with a very different sort of individual in mind, namely the unemployed and/or the downtrodden, or in other words, victims of the free market system. But Shlaes wisely chose to include a different sort of victim, specifically, a victim of a New Deal-imposed “market” that was something much less than a free market.

Carl Pharis, owner and hands-on operator of the Pharis Tire and Rubber Company of Newark, Ohio, did not want to be a victim and certainly did not revel in being one. He simply wanted to sell good tires at a fair price. But the codes established by the ground rules of the National Recovery Administration did not permit him to do that. (Perhaps this is what accounts for the deep red, rather than blue, eagle on the cover of the book.)

In a letter to Idaho Senator William Borah, dated September 12, 1934, Pharis detailed his plight. NRA codes had made it impossible for him to do what he had faithfully done, namely make the “best possible rubber tire and sell it at the lowest price consistent with a modest but safe profit.” Why? The codes had been largely drafted by the major tire companies for the benefit of the major tire companies.

Pharis did not want to “attack” the big boys of his industry, much less to destroy them. He simply wanted to compete with them. But selling his tires at prices established by the big boys had made it impossible for him to compete, thereby “surely” setting his company “on our way to ruin.”

Prior to the arrival of the NRA, smaller tire companies had learned that there was a place for them in the tire business, so long as “quality (could) be raised and prices lowered.” But no more.

For that matter, the party of Jefferson was also no more. The bigger the government the more likely that the bigger businesses would be among the beneficiaries. The same was true of agriculture under the edicts of the Agricultural Adjustment Act. This was especially the case in the south where black and white sharecroppers and tenant farmers were driven off the land once it was taken out of production in the name of driving up prices. Here Sumner’s “victims of the reformer” were both real and immediate.

The death of the party of Jefferson was especially troubling to elder statesmen of the Democratic party. In truth, the harshest criticisms of the New Deal in this volume are levied by the two pre-FDR Democratic presidential candidates, John W. Davis (1924) and Al Smith (1928). In fact, their anti-New Dealism is much harsher than that of a Republican president (Hoover), as well as would-be Republican presidents Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie, and Robert Taft, each of whom is accorded a slot in this volume.

In an opening salvo in January of election year 1936, Al Smith laid out the “dangers” posed by the New Deal in a Washington, DC, speech. The first such danger was the “arraignment of class against class.” As far as he was concerned, there could be “no permanent recovery (based) upon any government theory of soak the rich or soak the poor.”

Following closely on its heels was the danger to “our national liberty” posed by “government by bureaucracy instead of . . . government by law.” Well before anyone had contemplated coining anything approaching either the “swamp” or the “administrative state,” Smith stated the problem.

Not that FDR’s rival for the 1932 Democratic party nomination was beyond coining his own terms. The NRA was a “vast octopus set up by government that wound its arms around all the business of the country . . . and choked little business to death.”

What had happened? Instead of balancing the budget as its party platform had promised, the “young Brain Trusters caught the socialists in swimming and . . . ran away with their clothes.” If they wanted to disguise themselves as Marx or Lenin or the “rest of that bunch,” so be it, but “I won’t stand for . . . allowing them to march under the banner of Jackson or Cleveland.”

On the eve of the November, 1936, presidential election John W. Davis took to the radio to endorse Alf Landon and attack his own party: “We can have a democratic form of government in this country devoted to the preservation of the essential rights of free men, or we can have an autocratic government, rewarding its submissive followers out of a governmental grab-bag. But is as certain as the judgments of God that we cannot have both.” 

Here we are in the election year 2024. Where are the Democratic elder statesmen who are willing to criticize, perhaps even rebel against, the leftward lurch of their own party? A possible candidate might have been a certain long term senator from the state of Delaware. Surely, he’s seen it all, assuming he could remember it all. If so, he certainly could be the Al Smith or the John W. Davis of 2024. But wait a minute, isn’t he now the same fellow who fancies himself to be the Franklin Roosevelt of 2024? When the time comes, maybe he isn’t exactly well-positioned to serve as a leading “rebel” in any accounting of his party in the early decades of the twenty-first century after all. For that matter, here’s a forewarning for any potential Amity Shlaes among us: No senior Democrat seems interested in playing the part of either Smith or Davis as this election year unfolds. 

John C. “Chuck” Chalberg writes from Minnesota.

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