Remembering the ‘New Deal’ Accurately

The ‘New Deal’ is something we all learn about in school but, like so many things we Americans learn in school, they don’t teach it very well. The story we get told in our history classes is oversimplified and only half-true—the stock market crashed in 1929 and the country spiraled into an economic depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) was elected to the Presidency in 1932, he then created broad new government programs labeled the ‘New Deal’ and single-handedly saved America just in time for World War II.

Of course there is a whole other side to this story. Many conservatives at the far right of the political spectrum paint FDR as a socialist boogeyman who undermined the American economy, prolonged the depression, set dangerous precedents of government interventionism and expansionism, and spent all his time trying to destroy America. As is so often the case, reality lies somewhere in-between.

FDR was well-intentioned. He was not out to destroy America. I believe that FDR truly believed that his polices were best for the country but, despite what your middle school history teachers told you, he was wrong. Well-intentioned or not, FDR’s efforts to end the Great Depression prolonged it. His policies did set many dangerous precedents and made toilet paper of the Constitutional limits on government.

This is important to bear in mind today as we face our own little recession (which is bad, but not nearly so bad as the hyperventilating media would have us believe). It is especially important to remember on the eve of the inauguration of a new president who promises a new wave of ‘New Deal’-like programs to try and ‘fix’ the economy.

President George W. Bush’s (R) ill-advised socialist bailouts have hurt more than they have helped so far, and the absolute worst thing that President-elect Barack Obama (D) can do after assuming the Presidency tomorrow at noon would be to embark upon a repeat of FDR’s similarly interventionist policies. Growing government spending, massive work programs, and so on might have some positive benefits but ultimately will hurt businesses, increase unemployment rates, and prolong the recession. In other words, it’s a bad idea.

Our economic policy over the next four years cannot be based on the middle school half-truth version of the ‘New Deal’. We have to bear in mind the full reality: good intentions don’t fix the economy; a rational, business-friendly, low-tax, balanced-budget policy will. We haven’t had it under President Bush over the last year. I’m not expecting it under Obama in the next four either.

I hope I’m wrong, because if I’m right this recession may well become a new decade-long depression. Educated students of the Great Depression blame FDR for deepening and prolonging what might have been a relatively small downturn, and it is my honest hope than in the next century educated students won’t have to blame Obama for the same.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.