Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Sunstein at The Volokh Conspiracy

Cass Sunstein, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, is guest-blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy. His maiden effort, "The Greatest Generation, is about the New Deal. It's not an auspicious start. Here's the text of my e-mail to Sunstein:

In your first post at The Volokh Conspiracy, you wrote about FDR's Second Bill of Rights: "The leader of the Greatest Generation had a distinctive project, running directly from the New Deal to the war on Fascism -- a project that he believed to be radically incomplete. We don't honor him, and we don't honor those who elected him, if we forget what that project was all about." I think that most readers of The Volokh Conspiracy know quite well what that project was all about. It was about turning Americans into wards of the welfare state -- not intentionally, but in effect. And there were plenty of contemporary critics who knew what it was all about and tried in vain to warn their countrymen.

I know as much as anyone my age (63) can know about the Depression and the fears that it spawned in Americans. My parents and their many siblings were young adults during the Depression, and all of them had to go to work at an early age (when they could find work) because their families were poor. Knowing the members of my parents' generation as I do, I reject the notion that "true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence." Economic security and independence are always relative matters. I had little economic security when I was 21, but I had plenty of freedom, as did my parents when they were 21. Freedom (in a society that has free political institutions) doesn't depend on economic security, it depends on inner security (self-reliance) -- a trait that many Americans of later generations lack because they have developed the habit of looking to government, instead of themselves, for the solutions to their problems. You are not free if you have sold your soul to the devil in exchange for a bit of gold.

It is fatuous to say that those who are hungry and jobless "are the stuff out of which dictatorships are made." The United States didn't become a dictatorship (despite what many Republicans said about FDR). Britain didn't become a dictatorship, and on, and on. The notable exceptions (Germany, Russia, Italy, and Japan) arose from other, pre-Depression causes. Nevertheless, FDR finally got his way -- posthumously -- as Truman, Johnson, and others completed most of the work of the New Deal.

The New Deal was born of fear. FDR succumbed to that fear. Ironically, FDR said it best: "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." It was fear that caused FDR to do exactly the wrong thing. Instead of letting the economy work its way out of the Depression, as it would have sooner than it did under FDR's "stewardship," he began the long descent into American socialism by turning the tinkerers loose on the economy. (Most of them were -- and still are -- lawyers and academics with no real idea about the business of business.) At the same time, he seduced most of the masses into dependence on government. The cycle of power and dependence begun by FDR has only gained strength over the years.

I have owned and managed businesses in the regulatory-welfare state of "economic freedom" that is FDR's legacy. I'm here to tell you that Americans are worse off than they would be if the New Deal had died at birth. That's FDR's legacy, and I most decidedly do not want to honor it.