Flamboyant, controversial, and extremely popular, Louisiana politician Huey P. Long died 77 years ago this week. Many of his proposals, however, are alive and well today in both major parties.
The seventh of nine children in a deeply religious home, Long was born in 1893 in the rural piney woods of north-central Louisiana. After working as a salesman and then attending law school, he was elected to the Louisiana Public Service Commission. A Democrat, Long served as governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and as one of Louisiana’s U.S. senators from 1932 until his assassination in 1935 at the Louisiana state capitol.
He is remembered for his fiery populist rhetoric; his overseeing of massive public-works projects in Louisiana, including not just roads and bridges, but a new governor’s mansion and state capitol; his great expansion of Louisiana State University (LSU); and his seemingly iron grip on the state of Louisiana.
It is said that at the time, Long was the nation’s third-most photographed man (after President Franklin Roosevelt and aviator Charles Lindberg). He founded a national newspaper, the American Progress, spoke to crowds of thousands, and appeared on the cover of Time magazine for April 1, 1935.
After initially supporting Roosevelt in the 1932 election, Long soon became a left-wing critic of Roosevelt’s New Deal for not going far enough toward the goal of massive wealth redistribution to alleviate income inequality.
Writing in The Progressive on April 1, 1933, Long presented his “Long Plan for Recovery”:
With the one law which I propose to submit, I think most of our difficulties will be brought to an almost immediate end. To carry out President Roosevelt’s plan as announced in his inaugural address for redistribution and to prevent unjust accumulation of wealth, I am now drawing a law, but without consort with the president, for the following:
A capital levy tax, principally on fortunes above $10 million graduated so that when a fortune of $100 million is reached, the capital tax levy will take all the balance above that sum. This will not prevent aggregated capital, that is, several persons combining their wealth in one big enterprise, but will prevent only one man owning from $10 million to $100 million without paying the government a substantial part and will further prevent any man from owning anything at all above the value of $100 million. An inheritance tax, heavier in the higher brackets than at present, graduated so that no one person can inherit more than $5 million, the balance to go to the government.
An income tax about the same as now exists except that it shall be heavier in the higher brackets and finally providing that no one will be permitted to keep more than $1 million from earnings of one year.
By destroying the “big fortunes so that they cannot be so powerful to crush out the little men and little businesses,” Long believed his proposed legislation would “mean the solution of the problem of financing all such things as the guaranteeing of bank deposits and the public construction works, including roads, navigation, flood control, reforestation, unemployment, farm relief, canals, irrigation, etc.” Such things could be “amply financed by the government without any burden on the common citizen at all and in a manner that accomplishes the still better object of the decentralization of wealth.” Long believed his plan would also create jobs and stimulate the economy: “Such public works of the government will provide employment for everyone in the country not otherwise gainfully employed, and it will so stimulate all private endeavors and business that little additional legislation will be necessary.” “Decentralize wealth, is the command of the Lord,” said Long, as he referred to the Biblical book of Leviticus. I guess he thought the command “Thou shalt not steal” from the book of Exodus didn’t apply to government.
The bills Long introduced in the Senate to bring about his proposals failed to pass. In fact, none of the bills and resolutions he proposed was passed during his three years in Congress.
In a national radio address on February 23, 1934, Long revealed his “Share Our Wealth” plan to redistribute the nation’s wealth to provide every American with a decent standard of living. He maintained that “in order to cure all of our woes it is necessary to scale down the big fortunes, that we may scatter the wealth to be shared by all of the people.” Long proposed, not an equal division of wealth, but a limit on the poverty “that we will allow to be inflicted upon any man’s family.”
The motto of Long’s society was “Every Man a King.” By limiting “the wealth of big men in the country,” there would “be no such thing as a man or woman who did not have the necessities of life.”
The proposals in the “Share Our Wealth” plan included:
- A limit on personal fortunes of $50 million (later reduced to $5‑$8 million).
- A limit on annual income of $1 million.
- A limit on inheritances to $5 million.
- A guaranteed annual income of $2,000 (or one-third the national average).
- Free college education and vocational training.
- A pension for all Americans over 60.
- Veterans’ benefits and health care.
- A 30-hour workweek.
- A four-week vacation for every worker.
- Greater regulation of commodity production to stabilize prices.
At the time of Long’s death in September 1935, there were more than 27,000 Share Our Wealth clubs with a membership of more than 7.5 million Americans.
The causes Long championed as governor of Louisiana, the proposals he made as a U.S. senator, and his general political philosophy are all alive and well today. They can be seen in the following federal legislation that is fully embraced today by both major political parties:
- Social Security.
- Earned Income Credit.
- Veterans’ benefits.
- College financial aid.
- Bank-deposit insurance.
- Public-works projects.
- Economic-stimulus programs.
- Minimum-wage laws.
- Overtime-pay standards.
- Family and Medical Leave Act.
- Farm subsidies.
- Progressive income tax.
- Estate tax.
- High corporate-income tax.
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps).
- Housing programs (FHA, HUD, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac).
- Housing-assistance payments.
The Democrat and Republican parties are both firmly committed to income redistribution and the welfare state. They may argue about the nature and extent of the government’s intervention into the economy and society, they may argue about how much or how little to increase the budget from year to year, they may argue about how progressive the tax rates should be, they may argue about the amount of funding welfare programs should receive, they may argue about the best way to save Social Security, they may argue about which party is really cutting Medicare, and they may argue about the most efficient way to “share our wealth”; but in the end, there is not a dime’s worth of difference between the two major parties.
It is a shame that both parties did not adopt the one policy of Long that would have saved billions of American dollars and thousands of American lives — opposition to war. Long opposed both major wars of his time: the Spanish-American War and the First World War.