It is the regrettable curse of great men to be wrongly remembered both by their allies and enemies. This has long been the case with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. To many on the right, he is the man responsible for the near-total destruction of local democracy. For many on the left, he is a great champion of utopian progressivism who offered a still incomplete vision of a socially democratic America. The truth, as is often the case, lies somewhere in between.
Roosevelt was a complex man: optimistic but pragmatic, liberal but cautious, a patrician who formed common cause with the working masses. Through all of this, at the heart of Roosevelt’s politics remained a deep appreciation for the ideals of the American founding in a sense that is almost Burkean. He wished to update the American understanding of economics and government to better protect these principles in a new age. American conservatives need to cut their frequent historic (and historically groundless) cries of socialism and understand that the New Deal was intended as a conserving rather revolutionary project. Even more importantly, conservatives need to abandon their reactionary tendencies against any ounce of government intervention in the economy and see that, if properly preserved, the New Deal represents the third great constitutional development in the history of our nation.
The New Deal is typically associated almost exclusively with the Great Depression—the country was suffering severe economic hardship and the Roosevelt administration’s policies were meant to end that suffering. However, this was not the primary goal of the New Deal in the eyes of its chief architect. Roosevelt saw the Great Depression as part of a larger problem that originated not in the Wall Street crash but in the Industrial Revolution. Roosevelt made this clear in a series of speeches delivered throughout his time in office; these articulate a robust understanding of the principles that underlie the American political tradition and what it takes to conserve them.
The first major speech in which Roosevelt discussed the underlying ideas of the New Deal at any length was an address to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco delivered in the midst of his first campaign for the presidency. Roosevelt argued that the greatest political question has always been “whether individual men and women will have to serve some system of government or economics, or whether a system of government and economics exists to serve individual men and women.”
In short, are humans meant to be free or continuously subject to some greater power? It was this exact question that the American Revolution attempted to settle. Roosevelt argues that Thomas Jefferson and many of his fellow founders hoped to create a world where “each man is free to live according to his own lights.” This required that no one person, group, or entity have the power to tyrannize over the individual. As Roosevelt made clear later in his career: “That very word freedom, in itself and of necessity, suggests freedom from some restraining power.”
Roosevelt argued that such an endeavor proved easy enough when the country’s Western portion was a great untamed wilderness. Anyone being oppressed by a private individual could simply grab a wagon and strike on their own. But by the time Roosevelt was speaking in the 1930s, things had changed—the West had been won, and the Industrial Revolution had given rise to an entirely new form of individual: the economic royalist. He put the problem in stark terms at the 1936 Democratic National Convention: “For out of this modern civilization [the industrial revolution] economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon the concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital—all undreamed of by the fathers—the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service… For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.”
In short, Roosevelt argued that the concentration of economic influence in the hands of the few eroded the basic liberty that formed the heart of the American regime. To be free from government tyranny is essentially meaningless in the face of private companies that can dominate the lives of all those citizens inevitably drawn into their orbit. The Great Depression merely threw this problem into stark relief and made apparent the need for rethinking the nature of American politics.
The New Deal was designed to resolve the crisis by balancing the influence of government and private industry. This would create space for individual freedom to flourish. In practice, this meant that the government must come to understand the important role of guaranteeing “equal opportunity in the polling place” and the “marketplace.” The New Deal sought to bring into being a government capable of addressing the peculiar problems of the Industrial Age, while still maintaining the American commitment to natural rights.
Just a cursory overview of Roosevelt’s political philosophy makes evident that there is nothing terribly communist or revolutionary about the New Deal. One could reasonably disagree that the government needs to evolve in order to continue defending its own principles, but this argument takes on not just progressives but conservatives like Edmund Burke. After all, it was Burke who famously argued the evolutionary nature of the British Constitution and declared to the world, “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”
In addition, the New Deal provides the solution to a very real and important problem: private tyranny. This is a problem those on the political right too often ignore, but Roosevelt was right in saying that equality of opportunity can be destroyed by more than government overreach; greedy corporations both historically and today pose just as serious a threat to human liberty. Though many conservatives disagree with this simple fact—instead arguing that the only problem with America’s free market is that it is not free enough—they should be reminded that Roosevelt is not taking an exclusively left wing stance here: Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill, two conservative giants, largely agreed with the sorts of policies deployed by the New Deal.
For all its virtues, American conservatives are right to identify serious problems in the New Deal. The political scientists Marc Landy and Sidney Milkis have perhaps summarized it best: “Roosevelt persuaded the American people to accept the same centralized, bureaucratic power that they had long been taught to shun and fear. In so doing, he led citizens in the United States to accept new national responsibilities—to face up to the challenges of terrifying economic insecurity at home and brutal despotisms abroad. At the same time, he made possible the emergence of a more centralized and bureaucratic form of democracy that corroded political institutions and practices that nurtured an active and competent citizenry.” Roosevelt’s New Deal did much to make the American Regime workable in the twenty-first century, it also partially withered the rooted institutions that serve as the foundation of a functioning society.
This gives us some idea of how conservatives should relate to the New Deal. They must understand that it represents an important step in America’s constitutional development. The New Deal provides for the maintenance of natural rights in a way that purely eighteenth-century institutions never can again. Yet this does not mean the New Deal should be regarded as perfect in every respect. A healthy friendship relies on a mutual awareness of one another’s failings, and a desire to make the other person better. So it should be with the New Deal. Instead of incessantly criticizing the ideas of Franklin Roosevelt, we should work diligently to localize the institutions and concepts introduced by his administration.
In practice, this means reforging important aspects of what one might call the two New Deals. The regulatory state created by the New Deal needs to be pared back so that local institutions have room to grow. This must be done delicately, making sure enough regulations remain to protect local institutions from the dangerous encroachment of private business. On the other hand, ameliorative welfare programs of the New Deal must be left largely intact. Large government funding for the poor can do a great deal to help alleviate the economic suffering that makes participating in rooted communities genuinely difficult.
Nevertheless, it is not enough to simply maintain the second New Deal. It must be bolstered. Since the Great Society, we have slowly drifted away from jobs programs and cash handouts to instead sending an army of bureaucrats forth to try and “reform” the American poor. This meddlesome method of providing welfare is about as helpful as using tweezers to do a sledgehammer’s job.
This is the political path chartered by Eisenhower, Stevens, and Viereck, but it is also the path conservatives have quite tragically left behind. The time has come for the right to discover the greatness of the New Deal and to improve it. Rather than ceaselessly caterwauling about Roosevelt’s imagined despotism, perhaps they should familiarize themselves with his true mission. They may just learn something.
This article is part of the “American System” series edited by David A. Cowan and supported by the Common Good Economics Grant Program. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.
Originally found on American Conservative. Read More