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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Which Strategy Really Ended the Great Depression?

“World War II got us out of the Great Depression.” Many people said that during the war, and some still do today. The quality of American life, however, was precarious during the war. Food was rationed, luxuries removed, taxes high, and work dangerous. A recovery that does not make—as Robert Higgs points out in Depression, War, and Cold War.

Franklin Roosevelt recognized that the war only provided a short-term fix for the economy—and a very costly one at that. What would happen after the war—when 12 million troops came home and the strong demand for guns, bullets, tanks, and ships ceased?

Roosevelt envisioned a New Deal revival. He had created the National Resources Planning Board (NRPB) in 1939 and urged it during the war to plan for peacetime. The NRPB leaders believed that government planning was necessary to promote economic development. They consciously (and sometimes unconsciously) followed ideas popularized in 1936 by John Maynard Keynes in his bestselling book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

Capitalism was inherently unstable, Keynes argued, and would rarely provide full employment. Therefore government intervention was needed, especially in recessions, to spend massive amounts of money on public works, which would create new jobs, expand demand, and rebuild consumer confidence. Yes, government would need to run large deficits, but economic stability was society’s reward. If government planners could manage aggregate demand through public works, the boom-bust business cycle could be flattened and economic development could be managed in the national interest. No more Great Depressions. Man could indeed be master of his economic future.

Before and during the war Keynes’s ideas swept through the United States and first transformed the universities, then the political culture of the day. With statistics in hand and a near reverence for government, the Keynesians were the new generation of planners. They wanted to remake society. Not entrepreneurs, but economists were needed to gather data, plan government programs, and regulate economic development. Paul Samuelson, for example, a 21-year-old economics student, was cautious at first, but then euphoric after Keynes’s book was published. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven,” Samuelson wrote. Other economists soon accepted Keynes, and by the 1940s his ideas dominated the economics profession. In 1948, Samuelson would defend Keynes by writing the best-selling economics textbook of all time.

Planning for Peace

Those on the NRPB were among the excited disciples of Keynes and economic planning. The war itself seemed to be evidence that government jobs had pulled the U.S. economy out of the Depression. Now the economists and planners needed to take the nation’s helm to plan for peace.

According to Charles Merriam, vice president of the NRPB, “[I]t should be the declared policy of the United States government, supplementing the work of private agencies as a final guarantor if all else failed, to underwrite full employment for employables. . . .” That idea launched what Merriam and the NRPB dubbed “A New Bill of Rights.” FDR would call it his Economic Bill of Rights. Included was a right to a job “with fair pay and working conditions,” “equal access to education for all, equal access to health and nutrition for all, and wholesome housing conditions for all.”

New Bill of Rights

FDR viewed this Economic Bill of Rights as his tool for guaranteeing employment for veterans (and others) after World War II. But it was more than a mere jobs ploy; it had the potential to transform American society. The first Bill of Rights, which became part of the Constitution, emphasized free speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion and assembly. They were freedoms from government interference. The right to speak freely imposes no obligation on anyone else to provide the means of communication. Moreover, others can listen or leave as they see fit.

But a right to a job, a house, or medical care imposes an obligation on others to pay for those things. The NRPB implied that the taxpayers as a group had a duty to provide the revenue to pay for the medical care, the houses, the education, and the jobs that millions of Americans would be demanding if the new bill of rights became law. In practical terms this meant that, say, a polio victim’s right to a wheelchair properly diminished all taxpayers’ rights to keep the income they had earned. In other words, the rights announced in the Economic Bill of Rights contradicted the property rights promised to Americans in their Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution.

FDR promoted his Economic Bill of Rights in his State of the Union message in 1944, but he died before the war ended. Shortly before his death, Senator James Murray (D-Mont.) introduced a full-employment bill into the Senate for discussion. The bill committed the government in a general way to provide jobs if unemployment became too high. Many leading Democrats and economists supported Murray’s bill. “In this session of Congress,” The New Republic reported, “one of the first bills to be introduced will no doubt be the full employment bill of 1945, designed to carry out item number one in the Economic Bill of Rights.” The Nation joined The New Republic in endorsing the full-employment bill. “Mr. Roosevelt’s program,” it concluded, “is squarely based on the best economic authority available. It is entirely consistent with the economic doctrines of the distinguished British economist Lord Keynes.”

On September 6, 1945, President Harry Truman gave a major speech in which he supported the Economic Bill of Rights, especially a full-employment bill. Most congressmen, however, rejected both. Rep. Harold Knutson (R-Minn.) said, “Nobody knows what the President’s full employment bill will cost American taxpayers, but the aggregate will be enormous.”

Instead, Knutson and many other congressmen favored cutting tax rates and slashing the size of government as the best measure to restore economic growth. Senator Albert Hawkes (R-N.J.) even argued that “the repeal of the excess-profits tax, in my opinion, may raise more revenue for the United States than would be raised if it were retained.” Hawkes proved to be prophetic. After vigorous debate Congress scrapped the Economic Bill of Rights and cut tax rates instead. American business then expanded, revenues to the Treasury increased to balance the federal budget, and unemployment was only 3.9 percent in 1946 and 1947. The Great Depression was over.

  • Burton Folsom, Jr. is a professor of history at Hillsdale College and author (with his wife, Anita) of FDR Goes to WarHe is a member of the FEE Faculty Network