“We have never made good on our promises.”
– Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, May 1939
Right-leaning media outlets were sent a flutter last week when columnist Charles Krauthammer supposedly “SCHOOLED” (all caps!) comedian Jon Stewart about the virtues of contemporary conservatism. The headmaster’s lesson, however, disavowed his apparently antiquated ideological forebears who opposed FDR’s New Deal:
“The conservative idea is not that government has no role. You might have argued that in the thirties when conservatives opposed the New Deal. There’s no question of accepting the great achievements of liberalism — the achievements of the New Deal . . .”
So ingrained are the supposed mythological “achievements” of the New Deal that a bright fellow like Mr. Krauthammer forcefully endorses its premise, and critics are labeled “immoral.”
But the passage of time has allowed for a factual and critical reexamination of the period, and the results aren’t pretty. In truth the New Deal in many (many) instances failed those who needed it most and benefited the well-off. And its political, legal, and cultural legacy still negatively reverberates today.
The New Deal then
Although conventionally explained as government coming to the rescue of the “little guy,” in reality the New Deal often left him poorer and hungrier.
During the 1930s FDR introduced a multitude of laws designed to keep prices of consumer goods artificially high. The New Deal protected certain interest groups by plunging headlong into the business of price-fixing. And FDR’s “codes” cartelized some 500 industries. Those with political muscle wrote the regulations, raised prices, and banished unwanted competition.
In the early days, the government actually arrested and prosecuted business owners for selling goods below government-approved rates. Some of the laws strain credulity to the modern reader, for instance the Anti-Chain Store Act (1936) and the Retail Price Maintenance Act (1937).
Thus, at a time when millions were out of work and going hungry, the New Deal ensured poor families paid more for milk, bread, and meat. And FDR’s ‘war’ on the hungry didn’t end there. During the Depression, the government actually paid farmers to plow over 10 million acres of crops and destroy 6 million farm animals.