FDR – PART II: What FDR Did

In FDR – PART I: Is FDR Still a Big Deal?  claimed that (1) leftist[i] believe that the success of what FDR did in the 1930s validates leftists’ modern policy prescriptions, and (2) that myths have been created about FDR and his deeds to gin up support for and allegiance to those policies.[ii] For the leftist story to be valid, what they believe FDR did needs to be true and those deeds need to have been successful.

To put FDR’s deeds in context let’s first sort out the leftists’ beliefs that they believe (or that they say they believe)[iii] FDR’s deeds validate. Those beliefs include: 1) If something is not good about society, government can and should ameliorate it, 2) Government spending is good, 3) Government deficits and debt are unimportant (except as a means of bashing (as hypocritical) supposedly fiscally conservative non-leftists who support spending on things leftists oppose)[iv], 4) The scope of government authority to do good, as they define “good,” should not be limited (e.g., by a constitution), 5) Citizens have a right to economic “security and independence,” an “adequate”[v] standard of living[vi] (which operationally is nearly the opposite of a “right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”), 6) achieving “social justice” for all citizens is both possible and a proper goal and role of government, [vii] and 7) another proper role of government is to take from the rich and give to the poor. [viii] An important aspect of the seventh belief is that if someone is poor, government should help that person regardless of her culpability in being poor or unwillingness to work to become less poor (as distinguished from “the deserving poor,” a concept leftists have all but banished in the U.S.).

It is illustrative to contrast those beliefs with the beliefs Ronald Reagan enunciated in his first inaugural address[ix] (e.g., “…government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” “We are a nation that has a government—not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the Earth,” and “For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children’s future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals.”)

FDR believed in most, but as we shall see in a future post, not all of those seven things. Things that today’s leftist believe that FDR opposed are typically left out of the leftist FDR mythologies.

The gist of the FDR myth is that Hoover fiddled while America was going up in smoke on account of the recession following the 1928 stock market crash that was caused by Harding’s, Coolidge’s and Hoover’s belief in laisse faire economics. The myth continues with a story that America was on the eve of destruction when FDR took office, and FDR saved America with his 1) command and control of the economy, 2) spending with abandon on welfare, infrastructure and jobs, and growth of government, 3) support of labor unions,[x] 4) indifference to debt,[xi] 5) quickly abandoning “austerity” when it did not “work,”[xii] and 6) advancement of a change of America’s culture from one that revered equality of opportunity for all to a culture that revered equality of outcomes.[xiii] In short, FDR began the Era of Big Government[xiv] (the thing Bill Clinton falsely claimed was over in his The 1996 State of Union address).

The following is a partial list of FDR’s mythologized deeds that are actually true:

  1. FDR’s administration exercised “Unprecedented Power” over the country’s business and economic affairs.” [xv]
  2. FDR spent more than any other president before or after. In the words of Henry Morgenthau, FDR’s Treasury Secretary, “We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before….”[xvi]
  3. “The tremendous gains labor unions experienced in the 1930s resulted, in part, from the pro-union stance of the Roosevelt administration and from legislation enacted by Congress during the early New Deal.”[xvii]
  4. “[Of all the presidents ever] President Roosevelt increased the debt the most percentage-wise.”[xviii]
  5. “In early 1937, Roosevelt still sought to submit a balanced budget (defined the old-fashioned way) for the next fiscal year. The objective seemed reachable without undue strain. After all, 1936 had been a good year, the best since 1929, and the momentum of recovery appeared solidly established. That upbeat mood was rudely punctured in August 1937, when the economy went into an unanticipated tailspin.”[xix] FDR then saw the “wisdom” of eschewing balanced budgets.
  6. FDR founded America’s welfare system. “By 1935, a national welfare system had been established for the first time in American history.[xx]
  7. The US became a superpower soon after FDR’s administration. “[T]he Roosevelt years had witnessed the most profound social revolution in the country since the Civil War – nothing less than the creation of modern America.”[xxi]

While these factoids about FDR are true, they neither tell the whole story about whether FDR’s beliefs support modern day leftist’s policies nor mean that what FDR did caused more good than harm overall or vice versa. Nevertheless, because leftists believe FDR’s actions 1) improved America’s economy (e.g., those policies were what enabled America to become both more collectivist and a superpower),[xxii] 2) changed for the better the relationships between the people and their government, and 3) changed for the better the country’s societal norms and mores, they assume that FDR was a net force for good. Because of that, they believe FDR’s “success” validate doing more of what he did. On the strength of that belief, they find it useful to constantly repeat the positives and ignore or reject the negatives of what he did, and to glorify FDR as the great savior and leader all good people should follow. In other words, they mythologize FDR and his deeds so the credulous do not dig too deep into the story.

If only these myths and beliefs were on balance true….


[i] Of course there are leftists who do not subscribe to every belief I attribute to “leftists.” I am here identifying the salient beliefs of the group as opposed to every individual whose beliefs generally align with the group as a whole. That there are exceptions does not invalidate the generalization.

[ii] Research for this post lead me to an additional confirmation by Doris Kearns Goodwin of my earlier claim that FDR is still a big deal: “ECHOES OF FDR.” An excerpt: “Gone for half a century now, Franklin Roosevelt has yet to relinquish his hold on American politics. When Bill Clinton-who was born a year after Roosevelt died tries to enlist the support of a doubting public, he echoes FDR, calling for ‘bold, persistent experimentation.’”

[iii] Some extreme leftists and anarchists will mouth anything (including that they believe something they do not believe) that might accelerate the decimation or destruction of America and “The American Experiment.”

[iv] Some leftists surely have a conception of an amount of national debt that would be “too much,” but the sum of the costs of all the programs they advocate and the increases in spending on most of the current social programs reveal that debt is of little concern. On the other hand, high debt is seen by many leftists to be advantageous because it creates more pressure to increase taxes (only on the rich, of course). Raising taxes without a general fear that the debt is too high is harder to do than when there is such fear.

[v] A discussion of the absurd elasticity of this concept is explored in “’You will always have the poor among you. . . .’

[vi] See “Roosevelt’s argument was that the “political rights” guaranteed by the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights had “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” FDR called for a “Second Bill of Rights.” id.

[vii] Some aspects of the futility of this belief were discussed in “You will always have the poor among you. . . .

[viii] See FDR’s “Message to Congress on Tax Revision.” “Our revenue laws have operated in many ways to the unfair advantage of the few, and they have done little to prevent an unjust concentration of wealth and economic power…. The individual does not create the product of his industry with his own hands; he utilizes the many processes and forces of mass production to meet the demands of a national and international market…. Therefore, the duty rests upon the Government to restrict [vast personal] incomes by very high taxes.”

[ix] Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural Address

[x] See “Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945

[xi] See “[Of all the presidents ever] President Roosevelt increased the debt the most percentage-wise.”

[xii] See “Repeating Our Mistakes: The “Roosevelt Recession” and the Danger of Austerity

[xiii] See FDR’s “The Second Bill of Rights.”

[xiv] See “FDR’s Big Government Legacy.”

[xv] See “Unprecedented Power” and “FDR’s Big Government Legacy.”

[xvi]Guess Who?” BTW: Morgenthau went on to say, “…and it does not work. And I have just one interest, and if I am wrong . . . somebody else can have my job. I want to see this country prosperous. I want to see people get a job. I want to see people get enough to eat. We have never made good on our promises. . . . I say after eight years of this Administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started. . . . And an enormous debt to boot.”

[xvii] See “Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945

[xviii] See “U.S. Debt by President: By Dollar and Percent.”

[xix] See “FDR’s Big Government Legacy.”

[xx] See “How Welfare Began in the United States.”

[xxi] See “FDR: The President Who Made America Into a Superpower

[xxii] A recent example was discussed in “Non Sequiturs on Parade – PART VIII.

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