For seventy-plus years, the case of Franklin Delano
Roosevelt has vexed people of a libertarian bent. His policies, extending war
socialism based on Mussolini’s economic structure, expanded the
American State to an unthinkable extent, and prolonged the Great Depression
through the horrific World War II.
Normalcy did not return until after his wartime
controls were repealed and the budget was cut. Lasting economic recovery
began in 1948.
And the guy that made all that happen is a hero? His
picture is on the (depreciated) dime.
Libraries of books have appeared about his
presidency, most celebrating his cockamamie schemes, and this is the example
that has inspired the whole of American political culture. Everyone tries to
be like him, and the way they try to be like him is by ramming through even
more cockamamie schemes using high-blown rhetoric. Bust the budget and be
"great": this is the lesson of FDR.
George W. Bush was a case in point. After 9-11, he did
the best impersonation he could, but in the end he was completely
discredited. Clinton tried something similar with his goofy health-care plan,
but he failed. Obama took some steps in this direction, but they never
amounted to much.
The problem here is the example of FDR and the
lessons that the American political class has learned from it. The
big-government left loves the example, and urges everyone to go thou and do
likewise. The neoconservatives have taken the approach that we should just
stop fighting about FDR and learn to love the New Deal. Newt Gingrich and his
friends have pushed the most implausible thing of all: heralding the
greatness of the New Deal while also proclaiming their opposition to big
In the end, it turns out that everyone has learned
the wrong lesson, and not only stemming from the mistaken view that the New
Deal somehow got us out of the economic Depression. The main wrong lesson
here might be political.
As Mark Thornton has shown, the big legislative change that FDR made at the
start of his presidency, the decision that affected every single American
citizen from one coast to the other, was the repeal of the thirteen-year Hell
of Prohibition. He campaigned to repeal Prohibition (which Hoover supported)
and cut government (which Hoover expanded). He kept his main promise merely
two weeks after the inauguration. Later that year, he basked in the glory of
an amendment to the Constitution that repealed the Prohibition amendment of
These actions had an immediate effect that
dramatically changed life for everyone, drinkers and nondrinkers alike. The
speakeasies and their corruptions came to an end. The cops cleaned up their
act as bribes and payoffs were no longer the main part of the daily grind.
Local government budgets were suddenly flush with revenue. There were new
markets for grains. There were meeting places for people. The young were no
longer lured into the drunken underworld with its forbidden-fruit attractiveness.
For heavens sake, people could have a glass of wine with dinner!
If you think that this is no big deal, consider the
absolute despotism of the 18th Amendment that FDR killed:
Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this
article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors
within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the
United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for
beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.
Section 2. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent
power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Yeah, sure, this is the land of the free! FDR's
response was the 21st Amendment:
Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the
Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
Here is drama. Here is greatness. Here is what it
means to set people free. By comparison, everything else that FDR did –
nefarious and awful – paled by comparison, at least from the point of view
of the average person. Having taken credit for repealing Prohibition, FDR had
tremendous legislative leeway, which he used to the maximum extent for one,
two, three, four terms in office. This is what big actions on behalf of human
liberty can bring.
Since then, we've had a long string of politicians
who tried to emulate FDR's horrible programs without having done anything
positive for the cause of liberty. It doesn't work. They keep going down in
flames. And why is this? Because, for the most part, the main impulse of
American politics was always and still is essentially libertarian.
The songs we sing, the pledges we make, the stories
of our founding, all have liberty as the main theme. Despite all the horrors
of the presidencies and the vast expansion of government power, liberty
remains the overriding impulse of American political culture. The welfare and
warfare states are out of control, and yet, it remains true that the most
politically effective themes in American life revolve around liberty. Liberty
is what unites us. Liberty is what we want.
FDR understood this. This is why he changed his
position from dry to wet to get the nomination. This is why he made the
repeal of Prohibition a priority.
So why haven't we seen this before? We tend to
separate economic and social policy and forget the way they play off each
other. Good economists have condemned the New Deal, but they might forget how
the repeal of Prohibition had a huge economic aspect. The other thing is that
the historians are liars. They want us to believe that FDR was loved for all
the horrible things that he did. This is why they keep pounding into our
brains the glories of the New Deal.
The results of this misconstruing of history have
been disastrous for human liberty. Now with a new understanding of why so
many people loved him, we have a better example of political success. The
next president, from whatever party, should learn. Bring the troops home. Cut
taxes. Legalize marijuana. Eliminate restrictions on any and every industry.
Reagan understood this, which is why he immediately
cut taxes and broke the power of a government union – and this is also
why his catastrophic deficits, later tax increases, and government expansions
were not regarded as the betrayals they were.
Freedom is the theme. The president who pushes it
succeeds. The cautionary aspect of this story is that not even the president
should be trusted. FDR used his great action as an excuse to get away with
many evil actions. The first lesson for politicians is to push freedom first.
The lesson for the rest of us is never put your trust in a president, even
one that has done something good.
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. is founder and president
of the Ludwig
von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, editor of LewRockwell.com, and author of Speaking of Liberty.
Copyright © 2010 by LewRockwell.com. By authorization from Lew