Garet Garrett Revived

Garet Garrett is a man of special flavor on the Right. Here is how he introduced his enduring work, The People's Pottage:

A time came when the only people who had ever been free began to ask: What is freedom?

Who wrote its articles – the strong or the weak?

Was it an absolute good?

…Since it was clear to reason that freedom must be conditioned, as by self-discipline, individual responsibility and many necessary laws of restraint; and since there was never in the world an absolute good, why should people not be free to say they would have less freedom in order to have some other good?

What other good?


What else?


And beyond that?

Beyond that the sympathies of we, and all men as brothers, instead of the willful I, as if each man were a sovereign, self-regarding individual.

The People's Pottage, published in 1953, consisted of three essays – the first on the New Deal, the second on the Marshall Plan mentality and the third called "Rise of Empire." The first and the third are probably the most radical things Garrett ever wrote. But there are many other things from this Old Right libertarian that have been uncirculated for more than half a century.

I'm making up for that, at least a start, by offering Salvos Against the New Deal, the first new collection of Garrett's work in 49 years. It is available for $12.95 from Laissez Faire Books.

The book is subtitled, Selections from the Saturday Evening Post, 1933-1940. Garrett, who had been a financial journalist through the Panic of 1907, became the chief economics writer for the Post in 1922, when he denounced the financial bailout of Germany and the push by Britain and France to weasel out of their war debts. In the 1920s he wrote about international finance and about the push for a federal bailout of farmers; in the early 1930s, about bank failures and the international debt crisis of 1931. Beginning in 1933, he turned his rhetorical cannon on the New Deal.

In his day, Garrett was thought of as a conservative – a hard-core conservative. If we remember him now a libertarian, it is because, conservatives are not nearly so hard-core today. His argument for liberty was not from natural rights, and though his arguments were very often economic, his basic premises were not. He argued for liberty in at least three ways.

First, liberty was American. Liberty was what made us different from Europeans. It was not just capitalism. Lots of countries had that. Americans had a unique, freewheeling, exuberant subspecies of it: Capitalism with liberty. Such was was our identity. It was who we were.

Socialism, in his view, was bad not only because of its intrinsic qualities, but also because it was alien. It was European. It was not who we were.

The second reason Garrett was for liberty is that liberty made individual Americans strong. There is a scene in one of the chapters in Salvos Against the New Deal. Garrett is describing a crowd in a New York City park, most of them unemployed and on relief, listening to a government band. The crowd was warmly dressed and appeared well-fed. Garrett wrote:

"As I looked at this scene, I said to myself, u2018Here is civility of a very high order.' I had a warm feeling about it. In no other country in the world were the unemployed taken care of like this, and never in this one before. But then it occurred to me to project these people into their own future, into the future of the country – these who were saying, each one to himself, u2018No matter what happens, I shall be fed and clothed and housed. The Government will see to it.' And then, by way of contrast, to project in like manner another crowd of the same general character, with only the difference that each one is saying to himself, u2018This is very nice, but I ought to be thinking of tomorrow. I must be thinking of how to take care of it myself.' At the end of twenty years, how will the works of one crowd compare with the works of another?"

The third reason Garrett was for liberty is that it made the nation strong. One of the ways it did that was by providing elbow room for remarkable people to do remarkable things. To Garrett, this was personalized by Henry Ford. He believed that only under laissez-faire could the auto industry have arisen in the exuberant, anarchic way it had, or the steel industry could have been created the way it had, and it was because of laissez-faire that America led the world in both industries.

In organizing Salvos, I tried to have a mix of subjects spread over every year of the New Deal. Given the acreage of material, that was not difficult. Here are the chapter heads and a hint of what they cover:

  1. Premonitions (1932 & 1933) (Hints of the New Deal)
  2. Revolution (1933) (Roosevelt's 100 days, inflation and gold)
  3. We Are Building (1933) (From skyscrapers to post offices)
  4. The Blue Eagle (1933 & 1934) (The managed economy)
  5. The Kohler Strike (1934) (Unionism by majority vote)
  6. Taming the Machine (1933 & 1938) (The attack on productivity)
  7. A Particular Kind of Money (1935) (Gold and paper)
  8. That Old Straitjacket (1935) (The Constitution)
  9. A New Culture (1936) (The death of self-reliance)
  10. The Work of Agriculture (1936) (The real problem of farming)
  11. In the Name of Labor (1937) (Unionism goes political)
  12. The C.I.O. at Weirton Steel (1937) (A battle for control)
  13. Fear (1938) (Government and business)
  14. Fifth Anniversary (1938) (New Deal after five years)
  15. The Perfect Closed-Shop Town (1939) (Seattle and Dave Beck)
  16. Pharoahs (1939) (The Columbia River dams)
  17. A World That Was (1940) (Henry Ford and Laissez Faire)
  18. To Work (1940) (The New Deal meets World War II)

All these pieces are imbued with Garrett's political outlook: He was a journalist, but never impartial. The short pieces are the most explicitly libertarian. In "Fear," Garrett, who calls himself the Old Reporter, is recalling a dinner in 1938 in Washington, DC, in which a utility man, some lawyers and a PR man were complaining about government domination of business and its ignoring of the Constitution. Garrett agrees that a huge change has taken place in the character of government:

"Well," said the Old Reporter, "has the Constitution changed? Has the Bill of Rights been rewritten?"

"Only violated," said the lawyer.

"You to say that," answered the Old Reporter. "A man of the law. You should say reinterpreted. You are fooling yourselves who talk of defending the Constitution as if it were an immutable thing, like the Ark of the Covenant. This change we are looking at has taken place within the grammar of the Constitution. There is no power in phrases written on a piece of skin to stop government. Forget what is written in the document. Defend, instead, the spirit and philosophy that wrote it."

And that's what Garrett did.

A final note: The publisher of Salvos Against the New Deal is the Caxton Press, an old name that many libertarians assumed had gone out of business. In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, this Caldwell, Idaho, printer published Rand's Anthem, Spencer's Man Versus the State, Paterson's God of the Machine, the collected letters of Rose Wilder Lane, Albert Jay Nock and other books. Caxton is a family company, and it passed to a new generation that was more interested in Western Americana than in political ideas. But today's owner, Scott Gipson, wants to try his hand at political publishing. If Salvos Against the New Deal is successful, Caxton may be revived as a libertarian publisher.

March 26, 2002