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FDR: A Fitting Memorial?

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With a new memorial about to be dedicated to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, perhaps no one wants to step back and take an objective look at the man. But when even President Clinton declares the era of big government over, maybe the time is right.

All children hear the words “FDR got us out of the Depression,” just as they are taught that he led the war against tyranny. FDR was the champion of the common man, or so we are told.

As W. S. Gilbert wrote, things are seldom what they seem.

Roosevelt didn’t get us out of the Depression. Six years after he was elected president, unemployment was about as high as it had been under Herbert Hoover. Even World War II didn’t end the Depression. A depression is a big drop in production and people’s standard of living. By that measure, as economic historian Robert Higgs has written, the Depression did not end until after the war and FDR’s death. People might have had jobs in munitions factories and the military, but those jobs did not improve their material well being. Consumer goods were rationed, and some things were unavailable altogether.

Nevertheless, in his futile effort to end the Depression FDR did bad things and left a terrible legacy of government control. He collectivized agriculture–a farmer could not grow more than his quota of wheat even for his own family’s or livestock’s use! (Many farm programs are still with us.) FDR tried to make a cartel out of every industry through the National Recovery Act. Fortunately the Supreme Court stopped him. (When the Court stopped him too many times, he tried to pack it with sympathizers.) He introduced federal welfare that has fostered dependency ever since, creating multigenerational “families” of people on the dole.

FDR saddled America with that infamous Ponzi scheme known as Social Security. The economic and demographic defects of that phony “pay as you go” insurance system are now well known. What gets too little attention is the offensiveness of a pension program that forces workers and retirees to be dependent on government all their lives. Is there a more un-American idea? Social Security is a fitting symbol of FDR. Since more young people believe in UFOs than in the integrity of Social Security, maybe the monument should be a flying saucer circling a rotting Social Security card.

The Roosevelt defenders will respond that at least he restored confidence in America after the Depression hit. More accurately, he sang them a siren song of meddling government. He took advantage of their depressed state to persuade them that government could make the important decisions in their lives. It can’t and we see that more clearly than ever before. The original American ethic abhorred government power. When the stock market crashed, Roosevelt told them it was caused by unbridled businessmen. It wasn’t. Only one thing can explain an economy-wide crash: government meddling. During the 1920s the Federal Reserve created a boom with cheap money. The boom had to end sometime. When it did, Roosevelt (and Hoover before him) blamed the private sector and grabbed for power. His successors have given up very little of it.

In foreign affairs, things were similar. FDR lied to the American people while striving to enter the European and Pacific wars. His defenders don’t deny this any longer; they say it was necessary because the people didn’t know what was good for them. His target may have been Nazi tyranny, but he left communist tyranny in control of half of Europe for 45 years. His government accumulated massive power to spy on and otherwise control the American people. Maybe a fitting monument would be a buried Constitution.

Finally, we should note that under FDR the income tax became, for the first time, a tax on the masses. Before the war, few people paid or even filed. But the power accumulated by Roosevelt required big bucks that only a broad income tax could produce. The man of the masses thus became the taxman of the masses. We’ve suffered under the IRS ever since. Perhaps the most fitting monument of all would be a 1040 tax form ringed by thorns.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.