Would Pro-War 'Libertarians' Have Supported the New Deal?

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It
seems like a stupid question, doesn't it? Everyone I've ever met
who claims to be a libertarian believes the New Deal was the epitome
of U.S. socialism and a disaster in practice. Though many self-proclaimed
libertarians defend Franklin Roosevelt in his capacity as commander
in chief during World War II, they usually regard the New Deal as
American collectivism at its worst — despite the fact that the war
itself saw far more nationalization of industry and assaults on
the free market than what occurred during the New Deal.

For
pro-war "libertarians," the reasons for this are obvious.
National defense is a legitimate function of government; social
welfare is not. U.S. entry into World War II was defensive and resulted
in liberating millions; the New Deal was an abject failure modeled
after socialist countries in Europe. The Great War defended freedom;
the New Deal attacked it. During the New Deal FDR was a Pinko; World
War II transformed him into the Leader of the Free World.

Simple,
isn't it?

I've
often wondered how "libertarians" who cheer on Bush's
War on Terrorism would have reacted to the crisis of the Stock Market
Crash and Great Depression. It seems to me that if you're going
to trust the state to protect you from terrorists, why not trust
it to fix the economy?

I
know a few folks who were alive then and remember it. From what
they say, and what I've read in the history books, the Great Depression
was certainly a terrible time for many Americans.

Can
you imagine it? The economy going along, growing strong, quite robustly,
through the booming 1920s only to quickly and steadily decline,
taking with it the fortunes and dreams of millions of Americans.
On Black Tuesday alone, October 29, 1929, 16 million shares dropped.
That year the economy lost somewhere around $40 billion — and this
was back when a billion dollars was actually worth something! If
the more than ten million unemployed Americans, constituting 20%
of the population, had stood in a line they would have reached from
New York to Seattle to Los Angeles and back to New York, with more
than 250,000 people left over.

Americans
were starving. Businesses were closing. Herbert Hoover attempted
to fix the economy with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and
other big government programs. Then Franklin Roosevelt came in and
really got the ball of central planning rolling, closing down banks,
seizing gold, and establishing the Public Works Administration,
the Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Recovery Administration,
the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and the Federal Emergency Relief
Administration — and that was only the yield of his first 100 days.

The
New Deal was in many ways a war economy in peacetime, and in fact
was modeled in large part on Woodrow Wilson's policies during World
War I. When Franklin Roosevelt took power, he even said:

“I
shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet
the crisis — broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency,
as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact
invaded by a foreign foe.”

Would
pro-war "libertarians" have bought this analogy? Would
they have agreed that the crisis America faced was so severe as
to warrant the massive expansion of government to fix it? If they
were actually living at the time, faced with their fellow countrymen
going hungry, would have they made an exception to their anti-government
principles for the dire circumstances at hand, and stood by FDR's
"War on Depression"?

No
way, most of them would assure us. Even when faced with national
depression, principled libertarians would realize that the federal
government would be incapable of fixing the problem because of the
simple laws of political economy. They might also point out the
history of what had happened, arguing that government itself, specifically
the Federal Reserve, had caused the Stock Market crash through the
devaluing of the dollar that occurred in the late 1920s. The methods
of central planning that had caused the Great Depression, they would
surely say, would only worsen the problem if expanded in an attempt
to fix it.

History
has showed this to be the case. In a time when corporations were
seen as too big and monopolistic, Roosevelt's National Recovery
Administration forced them to merge. In a time when Americans were
going hungry, Roosevelt's Agricultural Adjustment Administration
spent hundreds of millions of dollars to encourage farmers to kill
livestock and destroy crops, and it paid a sugar corporation not
to produce sugar. His Civilian Conservation Corps paid good money
to youth to dig holes and fill them up when they could have actually
been producing something. The government jailed tailors who sold
suits for less than the legal price.

Needless
to say (among libertarians, anyway), government's attempts to fix
the economy dragged it down further. And in spite of conventional
wisdom, the standard of living in America didn't pick up because
of World War II, but only afterwards, when politicians stopped trying
to run everything.

During
the New Deal, the same type of false patriotism existed that we
see now. Those who didn't go along with the government's projects
were often criticized as un-American.

Would
"libertarians" have buckled under the pressure, and supported
the New Deal — even though it was the government that had caused
the problem in the first place, and even though the laws of economics
and human nature doomed any chances for government to fix it?

If
the answer on everyone's mind is still no, then how do we explain
the still all-too-common phenomenon of "libertarians"
who support the current War on Terrorism?

Just
as in the case of the Great Depression, it was government that precipitated
and allowed the terror of 9/11. U.S. foreign policy incited the
terrorists, who came from groups once associated with U.S. allies.
The United States backed Saddam Hussein in his emergence in the
Baath Party and later in the Iraqi government, and it funded and
supported him during his worst crimes against humanity during the
1980s.

Just
as in the case of the New Deal, the War on Terrorism has only made
matters worse. The U.S. bombs that have fallen on innocents in Afghanistan
and in Iraq have only served to garner more support for anti-U.S.
terrorist networks such as al Qaeda. The domestic security precautions
have made Americans feel like prisoners in airports, but have done
nothing to stop anyone who is willing to kill himself and take innocents
with him to make a violent statement of revenge. The situation in
Iraq resembles liberation as closely as burning crops resembles
feeding the hungry.

When
government aggression is at the root of a crisis, as was the case
with the Black Tuesdays of October 29, 1929 and September 11, 2001,
it requires a major suspension of reasoning to think that government
aggression can offer an authentic remedy. If government cannot fairly
redistribute wealth, it cannot reliably stop maniacs from hijacking
planes. If it can't do well in managing the economy in America,
it can't do any better in managing the economy of Iraq. If it can't
feed the hungry in the Dust Bowl and bring an end to economic depression,
it can't liberate the world and bring an end to international terrorism.

In
the year 1933 the best thing FDR could have done would have been
to dismantle the regulatory apparatus established by Hoover and
other presidential predecessors, and let the market bring prosperity
back as quickly as possible. In 2004 the best thing President Bush
can do is dismantle the American empire erected over the last few
decades and let America's people and businesses develop their own
security against terrorists and other criminals.

Genuine
libertarians realize the universal reality behind government failure.
The most libertarian Americans of the 1930s were appalled by the
New Deal, and later became appalled by Roosevelt's attempts to drag
America into another foreign war. These true patriotic dissidents
even opposed many of FDR's wartime policies, when the pressure to
be an uncritical nationalist was far greater than even today.

But
would today's pro-war "libertarians," who use the terrorist
crisis as an excuse to defy libertarian principles and support the
War on Terrorism, have similarly used the terrible crisis of the
Great Depression to defy libertarian principles and support the
New Deal?

As
our economy is dragged further into another depression by the lunatic
fiscal and monetary policies of Washington, D.C., we just might
find out.

April
26, 2004

Anthony
Gregory [send him mail]
is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He earned
his bachelor's degree in history at UC Berkeley, where he was president
of the Cal Libertarians. He is an intern at the Independent
Institute
and has written for Rational Review, Strike
the Root, the Libertarian Enterprise, and Antiwar.com. See
his webpage for more
articles and personal information.

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