The New Deal generally refers to a series of economic programs implemented in the United States between 1933 and 1936. They were signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt early in his first term after being passed by the U.S. Congress. Historians refer to the focus of the programs as "3 Rs": relief, recovery, and reform—all three in response to the economic effects of the Great Depression.
Roosevelt's election campaign
Under the Democratic platform of 1932, which Franklin D. Roosevelt endorsed, contained several subsidies and regulations, but it hardly embraced the enormous expansion in federal power that FDR would achieve. The very first plank called for "an immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus, and eliminating extravagance to accomplish a saving of not less than twenty-five per cent in the cost of the Federal Government." Subsequent planks demanded a balanced budget, a low tariff, the repeal of Prohibition, "a sound currency to be preserved at all hazards," "no interference in the internal affairs of other nations," and "the removal of government from all fields of private enterprise except where necessary to develop public works and natural resources in the common interest." The document concluded with a quote from Andrew Jackson: "equal rights to all; special privilege to none."
FDR's campaign reflected that platform. He accused Herbert Hoover of "reckless and extravagant spending," and he further denounced the Republican incumbent for believing "we ought to center control of everything in Washington as rapidly as possible." Even when he called for interventions in the economy, he generally couched his words in the old liberals' language of equal treatment rather than the new liberals' vision of enlightened central planning. In his famous Forgotten Man speech of April 1932 (see transcript), the Democratic candidate pointed to the wave of foreclosures sweeping the nation. Noting that Hoover had created a "two billion dollar fund...put at the disposal of the big banks, the railroads and the corporations of the Nation," FDR averred that the government should "provide at least as much assistance to the little fellow as it is now giving to the large banks and corporations." Once in office, the new administration did indeed repeal Prohibition, and it eventually lowered some trade barriers as well. By the time of FDR's death, the federal bureaucracy's power had grown so enormously that Hoover was widely remembered as the last apostle of laissez faire.
The New Deal
A principal feature of New Deal economic policy was government-sponsored industrial cartels (the National Recovery Act); agricultural cartels (the Agricultural Adjustment Act); and labor cartels (the Norris-LaGuardia and Wagner Acts). The purpose of any cartel is to restrict output and raise prices. Lower levels of production leads to higher unemployment, which is exactly what the NRA and AAA did.
The NRA was almost identical to the Italian corporatist system that existed at the time. In Italy each trade or industrial group was organized into a government-controlled "corporative" association that had the power to plan production and pricing. In the U.S. the NRA organized each industry into federally-supervised trade associations called "Code Authorities" which could also limit output and set prices. The antitrust laws were explicitly set aside.
Over 700 industrial codes were created and were rigorously enforced by thousands of government code enforcers who, "could enter a man's factory, send him out, line up his employees, subject them to minute interrogation, take over his books on the instant." A hapless New Jersey tailor named Jack Magid became nationally famous after he was arrested, convicted, and imprisoned by the code police for the "crime" of pressing a suit of clothes for 35 cents when the Tailors' Code fixed the price at 40 cents. The NRA was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court on May 27, 1935. A study of the Act noted that "the licensing provision, giving the president the power of life or death over business enterprises, is the ultimate weapon of enforcement and the capstone of the powers granted to the president ... the most extraordinary extension of presidential power in American history." The Supreme Court's decision has noted, that 'fair competition' is not defined in the law and could be a convenient designation for whatever set of laws that is proposed and the president may approve. It ruled that NIRA was "an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power."
But after Roosevelt's court-packing threat of 1937, the justices succumbed to whatever creative definition of fairness that Congress or federal agencies chose to proclaim. For instance, in 1942, Congress passed the Emergency Price Control Act, which created an Office of Price Administration. The OPA had sweeping power to set or strike down prices in any industry or activity that it considered to be "defense-related" — a vague term that could have encompassed practically the entire national economy. The act contained no substantive guidelines for the administrator's decisions but merely required prices that "in his judgment will be generally fair and equitable."
The Roosevelt administration also orchestrated various price-fixing schemes in labor markets, principally for the benefit of unions. Payroll taxes to finance Social Security and Unemployment Insurance programs increased employers' wage bills even further, which also reduced the level of employment. According to an econometric estimate, government-mandated payroll cost increases added nearly 1.2 million people to the unemployment rolls by 1938.
The unemployment rate during the 1933-1940 period averaged about 18% and was as high as 28.3% in March of 1933. By the end of 1938, on the eve of World War II, the U.S. unemployment rate still hovered at just over 18 percent and was higher than it was in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first year in office. This occurred despite (or rather, because of) six years of unprecedented levels of government intervention into the U.S. economy. The American recovery was slower than in most European nations; by 1937 Great Britain's unemployment rate had declined to 10.3 percent.
Herbert Hoover's Reconstruction Finance Corporation was greatly expanded by Roosevelt, but its effect was to make capital markets less efficient, thereby prolonging the Depression even further. As explained by RFC director Jesse Jones in his autobiography, Fifty Billion Dollars, "The law specified that we should lend only where the borrower could not get the money from others on reasonable terms." That is, only to uncreditworthy borrowers. Guided by this directive, Jones and the RFC redirected billions of dollars in valuable capital to politically-connected but economically-questionable businesses. "We even loaned money to [the owners of] a drove of reindeer in Alaska," Jones boasted. The RFC was abolished in the 1955 under a cloud of corruption and scandal.
Roosevelt's public works programs may have been an economic failure, but they were a resounding political success as they provided virtually unlimited opportunities for political patronage. In 1939 a special U.S. Senate Committee on Campaign Expenditures investigated the programs and found that in many states workers were required to sign a pledge to vote Democratic and, in some cases, to make campaign contributions, as a condition of employment. Businesses that sold supplies to the government were in some places required to make campaign contributions to the Democratic party in return for the contracts. The New Deal was largely a legalized shake-down operation.
Roosevelt's billions, adroitly used, had broken down every political machine in America. The patronage they once lived on and the local money they once had to disburse to help the poor was trivial compared to the vast floods of money Roosevelt controlled. And no political boss could compete with him in any county in America in the distribution of money and jobs.
As Henry Morgenthau, the secretary of the treasury and one of the most powerful men in America, said before the Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee in 1939:
"We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before 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!"
- The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal
- The Roosevelt Myth
- New Deal or Raw Deal? How FDR's Economic Legacy Has Damaged America
- America's Great Depression
- The New Deal in Old Rome
- National Recovery Administration
- John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters. "Democratic Party Platform of 1932", June 27, 1932, from The American Presidency Project [online]. Referenced 2010-06-20.
- Jesse Walker. "The New Franklin Roosevelts", April 10, 2008. Referenced 2010-06-20.
- Thomas J. DiLorenzo. "A New, New Deal", Mises Daily, October 1998, referenced 2010-06-20.
- James Bovard. "Cutthroat Competition and Dead Chickens", The Future of Freedom Foundation, April 1999. Referenced 2010-06-20.
- William L. Anderson. "The Curse of Good Government", Mises Daily, December 2009, refers to the spending of New Deal money. Referenced 2010-06-20.
- John T. Flynn. "The Roosevelt Myth" (pdf), p. 65; 1948. Referenced 2010-06-21.
- Burton Folsom Jr. "New Deal or Raw Deal?: How FDR's Economic Legacy Has Damaged America", an excerpt from the book. Referenced 2010-06-21.
- "Know the New Deal Cold" by Thomas E. Woods, Jr., June 2010
- The New Deal Debunked by Thomas J. DiLorenzo, November 2004
- New Deal or Raw Deal? How FDR's Economic Legacy Has Damaged America by David Gordon, April 2008
- The Sources of New Deal Regime Uncertainty by Robert Higgs, May 2011, about the phenomenon of regime uncertainty
- Out, Out Damn Depression: FDR in 1938 by John T. Flynn, August 2011
- The New Deal and Prohibition by Albert Jay Nock, March 1936
- The New Deal in One Lesson by Christopher Westley, May 2005