All Commentary
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal

“He who wants to improve conditions must propagate a new mentality, not merely a new institution.” –Ludwig von Mises, New York Times, January 1942

Invisible Hands by Kim Phillips-Fein, professor of American history at New York University’s Gallatin School, is a well-researched and thorough account of resistance to government economic domination. It’s also a veritable Who’s Who of twentieth-century “conservatives” who have been trying, ever since FDR’s New Deal, to “propagate a new mentality.” Phillips-Fein provides an evenhanded investigation of the counterreaction, launched mainly by people in the business world, to the authoritarianism of the New Deal. While she deftly illuminates that part of the “conservative” movement, Phillips-Fein fails to note that the “conservatives” consisted not only of free-market stalwarts like Mises but also many corporate-state advocates who just thought the New Deal went too far.

Franklin D. Roosevelt took office after criticizing his predecessor for expanding government and increasing public spending. Yet once in office FDR embarked on new programs that increased spending, centralized power, and imposed many regulations and taxes. Roosevelt won over public opinion, but many Americans were alarmed by his programs and philosophy.

The book describes the founding of the American Liberty League by a group of businessmen who wanted to preserve “private enterprise” (but were no fans of laissez faire). The National Association of Manufacturers joined in the struggle and even claimed by 1940 that it was winning the battle against the New Deal. Then came World War II, and it became “unpatriotic” to criticize federal controls and regulations. Only at war’s end were the varied “conservatives” able to resume the struggle to limit government power.

Phillips-Fein maintains that the decline of the “liberal” New Deal regime “lay not only in its inner tensions . . . but also in the slow preparation of an alternative agenda by its business opponents.” She acknowledges the crucial role of economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek in guiding that agenda. Also influential were the ideas of Leonard E. Read, founder of FEE, and the international Mont Pelerin Society of free-market advocates.

Invisible Hands also covers religious groups that were formed to promote the freedom philosophy and oppose communism.

Some of the success of these groups came through the publishing of books and magazines to promote the free market and attack socialism. Chambers of commerce supported entrepreneurship and argued against interventionist government. Business groups introduced free-market materials in the schools and a few universities created courses in entrepreneurship.

Collective bargaining, as required by the National Labor Relations Act, led to conflict and strikes. Companies often gave way to union demands, but some fought back, and the book details the personalities and events. The Kohler Company withstood a long strike in 1954, operating with non-union workers. General Electric’s Lemuel Boulware stood up to the unions, publicizing GE’s best offer and saying, “Take it or leave it.” Unfortunately, the courts declared his approach illegal.

The genial, articulate former movie actor Ronald Reagan proved an effective spokesman for GE and free enterprise. He had the common touch and spoke of providing jobs instead of encouraging capital formation. His attitude toward business? He was, the author writes, “the candidate of the entrepreneur, the farmer, the small businessman, the independent.”

Phillips-Fein looks on Reagan’s capture of the presidency in 1980 as a victory for “conservativism” and the anti-New Dealers she describes. “A great transformation of American politics began during the years that Ronald Reagan was in the White House,” she writes. Reagan fired and replaced 11,000 air traffic controllers after their illegal strike in 1981. Strikes and union membership declined. The labor movement dwindled, and the left’s statist agenda was held in check.

The author recognizes that Reagan failed to eliminate the welfare state or to shrink government bureaucracies. Still, she says, “the political cause for which they [market enthusiasts and business conservatives] labored has in large part been triumphant: the New Deal has been turned back.”

But that conclusion is unwarranted. The New Deal mentality is still alive and well. The government is growing rapidly in scope and power. Advocates of limited government and free enterprise now face a new and perhaps even more daunting challenge in Barack Obama’s “new New Deal.”

Invisible Hands is a carefully researched history of the struggle to “propagate a new mentality” to replace statist thinking. The history is sound even if the writer’s conclusions aren’t always solid.

  • Contributing editor Bettina Bien Greaves was a longtime FEE staff member, resident scholar, and trustee. She attended Ludwig von Mises’s New York University seminar for many years and is a translator, editor, and bibliographer of his works.