“A political war,” said Raymond Moley, “is one in which everyone shoots from the lip.”1 He knew what he was talking about. Moley was the organizer and unofficial leader of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust,” the coterie of close advisers and speechwriters who helped FDR win the election of 1932 and assisted in formulating many New Deal policies. (The term “brains trust,” coined by journalist James Kieran, caught on immediately, but the plural “brains” soon became the singular “brain,”2 and the expression evolved into a generic term for a politician’s expert advisers.)
As John T. Flynn remarked, the words “brain trust” “had in them the clear implication that the group was made up of beings possessing Big Brains. There was in it the suggestion of ponderous cerebral horsepower. Here was a thinking machine into which Roosevelt could throw any problem and watch it pass mercilessly through the cognitative gears to emerge beautifully broken down into all its ultimate components. Here was the Great Brain itself surrounded by all these bulging foreheads handling easily the toughest problems that had baffled the feeble intellects of bankers, magnates, and politicos.”3
Sure enough, Roosevelt, guided by his Brain Trust and aided by radio broadcasts of his reassuring Fireside Chats into millions of living rooms, won the political war of words. Yet the New Dealers lost the economic war of deeds. Despite an unprecedented six-year campaign of legislatively authorized interventions, the economy still had not recovered fully from the depression when the New Deal ran out of steam in the late 1930s.4 In short, Roosevelt’s advisers had failed to provide him with an understanding of how to restore prosperity. So much for their alleged braininess.
They did have impressive credentials. Moley himself had received a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1918, and later he had taught political science and public law there. Although his expertise lay in criminal justice, he plunged into advising FDR on various economic-policy issues about which he had at best an amateur’s understanding. Like the other leading members of the Brain Trust, he opposed laissez faire and favored business-government cooperation–the sort of official collusion that had blossomed during World War I.
Columbia economics professor Rexford Guy Tugwell, another leading member of the Brain Trust, was a dreamier man, though he possessed a worldly hunger for power. He held a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Like Moley, he admired the economic planning the War Industries Board had practiced in 1918, and he yearned to reinstitute such centralized economic management, including government control of all land. “We have depended too long on the hope that private ownership and control would operate somehow for the benefit of society as a whole,”5 he declared in 1934–scarcely an odd idea for one who had visited the Soviet Union in the 1920s and had written admiringly of the communist experiment there. In 1933 this collectivist participated in the drafting of the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act. Appointed to high offices in the Department of Agriculture, he contributed a steady stream of bad ideas to the New Deal.
A third member of the Brain Trust, Columbia law professor Adolf A. Berle Jr., had acquired early notoriety by co-authoring with Gardiner C. Means The Modern Corporation and Private Property (1932), a book whose thesis was that large business corporations no longer served the public interest and therefore the government ought to control them. In memoranda to Roosevelt in 1932, Berle “stressed that nineteenth-century competition and individualism were anachronistic.”6 Although he occupied no full-time position in the Roosevelt administration until he became assistant secretary of state in 1938, he influenced New Deal policies for banking, securities, railroads, and many other matters. He exemplified, as the title of Jordan Schwarz’s biography indicates, the quintessential “liberal” in the modern, leftish, bleeding-heart sense. His politics, as described by the left-liberal historian William E. Leuchtenburg, “reflected the hope of the Social Gospel of creating a Kingdom of God on earth.”7 Heaven help us!
A Different Era
How different the situation had been 40 years earlier, when a severe economic depression coincided with Grover Cleveland’s second term as president. Then, too, many people had called on the national government to intervene in the economy to aid the distressed and to restructure major economic institutions. Cleveland’s brain trust, however, had consisted not of collectivistic Ph.D. holders and law professors too clever by half, but of men devoted to classical liberalism.
Therefore, when the Russian minister at Washington proposed in 1896 that the major wheat-exporting nations form an international cartel, Agriculture Secretary J. Sterling Morton responded: “In my judgment, it is not the business of government to attempt, by statutes or international agreements, to override the fixed laws of economics, nor can government repeal, amend, or mitigate the operation of those laws.”8 Treasury Secretary John G. Carlisle and Cleveland himself worked tirelessly and at great political cost to save the gold standard, which was under attack by speculators, and ultimately they succeeded. Attorney General Richard Olney hastened to quell the hoodlums who were destroying property and blocking interstate commerce in the great railroad strikes of 1894.9
How much better the country would have been served had FDR been advised by men such as Morton, Carlisle, and Olney instead of by Moley, Tugwell, and Berle. Sad to say, Americans have been paying the price for the latter group’s intellectual arrogance and rank ineptitude for the past 70 years.
- Moley quotation from www.discover.net/~dansyr/quotes5.html.
- William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940 (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1963), p. 32.
- John T. Flynn, The Roosevelt Myth (Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Books, 1949), p. 34.
- Robert Higgs, “Regime Uncertainty: Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed after the War,” The Independent Review, Spring 1997, pp. 561-90.
- “Tugwell Predicts New Regulations for Land With Federal Control,” Phillip County News (Malta, Mont.), January 4, 1934.
- Jordan A. Schwarz, Liberal: Adolf A. Berle and the Vision of an American Era (New York: Free Press, 1987), p. 77.
- Leuchtenburg, p. 33.
- Morton to Attorney General Richard Olney, as quoted in J. D. Whelpley, “An International Wheat Corner,” McClure’s Magazine, August 1900, p. 364.
- On the 1890s events, see Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 84-97.