Was It Meant to Last Forever?

I recently read and heard a story on NPR: NPR : Krugman: Income Inequality Pricks ‘Conscience’. It was an interview with New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who has a new book out called The Conscience of a Liberal (I wonder where he got his idea for that title). The following quote got me thinking about FDR’s New Deal:

“‘Since the 1970s, the conservative movement that took over the Republican Party has systematically set out … to dismantle all of the institutions created by Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal to make this a more equal society,’ such as unions, progressive taxation and the minimum wage, Krugman says.” That’s the written summary of the story. In the audio part, Krugman includes Social Security on the list.

I’m not an expert on the 1930’s, but was the aim of FDR’s New Deal to make America a “more equal society”? I’ve always heard that FDR supported various freedoms, such as the “freedom from want,” but did he really stress out over the fact that some Americans were rich while others were middle class or poor? Was his aim to establish permanent socialism to ameliorate economic inequality?

My understanding of the New Deal is that it was a temporary measure for an economic emergency–the Great Depression. People were out of work, so FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps to give them government jobs planting trees. Agricultural prices were low, so FDR established the AAA to make farmers burn their crops. I don’t think that FDR intended for Americans to plant trees for the government forever, or for the State to permanently micromanage agriculture. Nor was the New Deal a measure to foster perpetual equality of wealth. Rather, the New Deal appears to have been a temporary Fascistic set-up for an economic crisis, as the private sector took time to get back on its feet. To make this understandable to liberals, the New Deal was somewhat like the liberal perception of Bush’s homeland security policies: a temporary dictatorship. Okay, bad example, since Bush wants to make the Patriot Act permanent. My point is that FDR didn’t necessarily aim to create a powerful welfare state that would forever affect American society. He was addressing a specific situation that he hoped would be short.

At the same time, Krugman is correct that certain elements of the New Deal were meant to be perpetual. FDR probably thought that unions, the minimum wage, and Social Security were good ideas. Add to that the Tennessee Valley Authority. But FDR’s aim may not have been to punish the rich but rather to insure that people had their minimum needs met (“freedom from want”). There were people in the 1930’s who actually wanted a complete redistribution of wealth. Huey Long was one of them, but he thought that FDR’s policies didn’t go far enough. Maybe he was right in his assessment of FDR, since greater income equality may not have been the President’s goal.

I’m not sure to what extent Krugman is accurate to argue that the Republicans want to dismantle unions, the minimum wage, and Social Security. He may have a point on the unions part, since globalization gives corporations less of an incentive to listen to their workers’ demands. At the same time, I was stunned when I watched the MSNBC Republican debate and heard most of the candidates testify that their parents were union members. So I’d hesitate to say that Republicans are heartless. As far as the minimum wage goes, Republicans currently support it, but most of them don’t want it as high as the Democrats propose, for a variety of sound reasons. For Social Security, that program doesn’t need the Republicans to dismantle it. It’s doing a good job dismantling itself. Republicans like Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole actually tried to save this sinking ship in the 1980’s. They gave it a longer lifespan, and yet it is still sinking. I’m not counting on seeing much Social Security when I get older. At least Bush’s plan would have given me a chance to see some of it, but his plan didn’t pass. So much for the Republicans’ “dismantling” Social Security.

I don’t know if I’d go as far as Reagan in his characterization of FDR, when Reagan acted as if FDR would be a Republican if he were alive in the 1980’s. But I do question liberal narratives that assume that FDR wanted to establish a permanent welfare state, the sort of society that Krugman advocates when he discusses a “new New Deal” with socialized medicine as its key provision.

Any thoughts? Do you have a different interpretation of the New Deal in the 1930’s?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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