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Commentary

How FDR Made the Depression Worse


Franklin Roosevelt “did bring us out of the Depression,” Newt Gingrich told a group of Republicans after the recent election, and that makes FDR “the greatest figure of the 20th century.” As political rhetoric, the statement is likely to come from someone who does not support a market economy. The New Deal, after all, was the largest peacetime expansion of federal government power in this century. Moreover, Gingrich’s view that FDR saved us from the Depression is indefensible; Roosevelt’s policies prolonged and deepened it.

There’s no doubt that Roosevelt changed the character of the American government—for the worse. Many of the reforms of the 1930s remain embedded in policy today: acreage allotments, price supports and marketing controls in agriculture, extensive regulation of private securities, federal intrusion into union-management relations, government lending and insurance activities, the minimum wage, national unemployment insurance, Social Security and welfare payments, production and sale of electrical power by the federal government, fiat money—the list goes on.

Roosevelt’s revolution began with his inaugural address, which left no doubt about his intentions to seize the moment and harness it to his purposes. Best remembered for its patently false line that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” it also called for extraordinary emergency governmental powers.

The day after FDR took the oath of office, he issued a proclamation calling Congress into a special session. Before it met, he proclaimed a national banking holiday—an action he had refused to endorse when Hoover suggested it three days earlier.

Invoking the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, Roosevelt declared that “all banking transactions shall be suspended.” Banks were permitted to reopen only after case-by-case inspection and approval by the government, a procedure that dragged on for months. This action heightened the public’s sense of crisis and allowed him to ignore traditional restraints on the power of the central government.

In their understanding of the Depression, Roosevelt and his economic advisors had cause and effect reversed. They did not recognize that prices had fallen because of the Depression. They believed that the Depression prevailed because prices had fallen. The obvious remedy, then, was to raise prices, which they decided to do by creating artificial shortages. Hence arose a collection of crackpot policies designed to cure the Depression by cutting back on production. The scheme was so patently self-defeating that it’s hard to believe anyone seriously believed it would work.

The goofiest application of the theory had to do with the price of gold. Starting with the bank holiday and proceeding through a massive gold-buying program, Roosevelt abandoned the gold standard, the bedrock restraint on inflation and government growth. He nationalized the monetary gold stock, forbade the private ownership of gold (except for jewelry, scientific or industrial uses, and foreign payments), and nullified all contractual promises—whether public or private, past or future—to pay in gold.

Besides being theft, gold confiscation didn’t work. The price of gold was increased from $20.67 to $35.00 per ounce, a 69 percent increase, but the domestic price level increased only seven percent between 1933 and 1934, and over the rest of the decade it hardly increased at all. FDR’s devaluation provoked retaliation by other countries, further strangling international trade and throwing the world’s economies further into depression.

Having hobbled the banking system and destroyed the gold standard, he turned next to agriculture. Working with the politically influential Farm Bureau and the Bernard Baruch gang, Roosevelt pushed through the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. It provided for acreage and production controls, restrictive marketing agreements, and regulatory licensing of processors and dealers “to eliminate unfair practices and charges.” It authorized new lending, taxed processors of agricultural commodities, and rewarded farmers who cut back production.

The objective was to raise farm commodity prices until they reached a much higher “parity” level. The millions who could hardly feed and clothe their families can be forgiven for questioning the nobility of a program designed to make food and fiber more expensive. Though this was called an “emergency” measure, no president since has seen fit to declare the emergency over.

Industry was virtually nationalized under Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. Like most New Deal legislation, this resulted from a compromise of special interests: businessmen seeking higher prices and barriers to competition, labor unionists seeking governmental sponsorship and protection, social workers wanting to control working conditions and forbid child labor, and the proponents of massive spending on public works.

The legislation allowed the President to license businesses or control imports to achieve the vaguely identified objectives of the act. Every industry had to have a code of fair competition. The codes contained provisions setting minimum wages, maximum hours, and “decent” working conditions. The policy rested on the dubious notion that what the country needed most was cartelized business, higher prices, less work, and steep labor costs.

To administer the act, Roosevelt established the National Recovery Administration and named General Hugh Johnson, a crony of Baruch’s and a former draft administrator, as head. Johnson adopted the famous Blue Eagle emblem and forced businesses to display it and abide by NRA codes. There were parades, billboards, posters, buttons, and radio ads, all designed to silence those who questioned the policy. Not since the First World War had there been anything like the outpouring of hoopla and coercion. Cutting prices became “chiseling” and the equivalent of treason. The policy was enforced by a vast system of agents and informers.

Eventually the NRA approved 557 basic and 189 supplementary codes, covering about 95 percent of all industrial employees. Big businessmen dominated the writing and implementing of the documents. They generally aimed to suppress competition. Figuring prominently in this effort were minimum prices, open price schedules, standardization of products and services, and advance notice of intent to change prices. Having gained the government’s commitment to stifling competition, the tycoons looked forward to profitable repose.

But the initial enthusiasm evaporated when the NRA did not deliver, and for obvious reasons. Even its corporate boosters began to object to the regimentation it required. By the time the Supreme Court invalidated the whole undertaking in early 1935, most of its former supporters had lost their taste for it.

Striking down the NRA, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes wrote that “extraordinary conditions do not create or enlarge constitutional power.” Congress “cannot delegate legislative power to the President to exercise an unfettered discretion to make whatever laws he thinks may be needed.”

Despite the decision, the NRA-approach did not disappear completely. Its economic logic reappeared in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, reinstating union privileges, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, stipulating regulations for wages and working hours. The Bituminous Coal Act of 1937 reinstated an NRA-type code for the coal industry, including price-fixing. The Works Progress Administration made the government the employer of last resort. Using the Connally Act of 1935, Roosevelt cartelized the oil industry. Eventually, of course, the Supreme Court came around to Roosevelt’s way of thinking.

Yet after all this, the grand promise of an end to the suffering was never fulfilled. As the state sector drained the private sector, controlling it in alarming detail, the economy continued to wallow in depression. The combined impact of Herbert Hoover’s and Roosevelt’s interventions meant that the market was never allowed to correct itself. Far from having gotten us out of the Depression, FDR prolonged and deepened it, and brought unnecessary suffering to millions.

Even more tragic is the lasting legacy of Roosevelt. The commitment of both masses and elites to individualism, free markets, and limited government suffered a blow in the 1930s from which it has yet to recover fully. The theory of the mixed economy is still the dominant ideology backing government policy. In place of old beliefs about liberty, we have greater toleration of, and even positive demand for, collectivist schemes that promise social security, protection from the rigors of market competition, and something for nothing.

“You can never study Franklin Delano Roosevelt too much,” Gingrich says. But if we study FDR with admiration, the lesson we take away is this: government is an immensely useful means for achieving one’s private aspirations, and resorting to this reservoir of potentially appropriable benefits is perfectly legitimate. One thing we have to fear is politicians who believe this.


Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

Full Biography and Recent Publications

Reprinted with permission from the March 1995 issue of The Free Market, published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. ? Copyright 1995, Ludwig von Mises Institute, 518 W. Magnolia Avenue, Auburn, AL 36832-4528.

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