Book Review: The Forgotten Man, by Amity Shlaes

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Book Review: The Forgotten Man, by Amity Shlaes

Former White House Chief of Staff and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel once told the Wall Street Journal “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that [is] it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

Rahm Emanuel’s sentiment perfectly expresses the opportunist crusading Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Progressive administration engaged in on the pretext of combating the Great Depression. And that is the subject of the Amity Shlaes book, The Forgotten Man.

“The forgotten man” became a kind of shorthand during FDR’s election campaign and subsequent presidency. In Roosevelt’s rhetoric, the phrase stood for Americans who had not reaped enough economic benefits relative to the capitalists and captains of industry and therefore were the most vulnerable during the economic downturn.

But the Great Depression did not have to be so great and terrible. At exactly the time when greater investment from the private sector – in economic growth and job creation – would have helped America turn the corner and correct the recession on its own, Hoover and Roosevelt could not help themselves. They felt compelled to intervene. So intervene they did.

Government Intervention

For Hoover, the intervention stemmed largely from having been a successful, globe-trotting engineer in the private sector.

Though a Republican, Hoover had a bias for action. Where he had been successful in turning around enterprises as a technical expert before entering the White House, Hoover carried on as before once in office. He just had to try his hand at tweaking and adjusting the national economy also. Put simply, Hoover believed he knew better than a nation of businessmen, tradesmen, and common folk the cure for what ailed America. Hubris.

Roosevelt, on the other hand, seems to have had an ax to grind. And did he perceive in the Depression an opportunity to settle scores with, or win the ultimate game of one-upmanship against America’s upper class by ruining those he told the public possessed excessive wealth and power?

FDR certainly played on the fact that many Americans were too afraid of what might happen without government intervention. So, too, he amplified the voices of bitterness, envy, and resentment in the ranks of have-nots.

Those who were seen as having defrauded, taken advantage, and cheated their way to the top had a reckoning coming. The game was rigged. That was why the nation was suffering. But FDR was going to fix things.

And in the midst of chaos, Roosevelt capitalized, waging lawfare on capitalism and the private sector unlike anything seen before in American history.

The Business of America

I might mistake FDR for an idealist had he been consistent in his stated economic theories or political principles. However, the fact of Roosevelt’s fickleness, double-mindedness, reversals, and seemingly random occasions of executive whimsy strongly suggest he was an opportunist. And the Great Depression provided a golden opportunity.

“Silent Cal” Calvin Coolidge certainly offered a contrast. President Coolidge stated famously that “The business of America is business,” and expressed an opposite mentality to Roosevelt’s. This he did in both word and deed.

Moreover, the fact that a nickname like “Silent Cal” fit so well contrasted sharply with Roosevelt’s penchant for “fireside chats.”

And the old quote attributed to Mark Twain – “Never miss an opportunity to shut up” – seems to have been Coolidge’s approach to governing as well. So also Henry David Thoreau’s motto, “That government is best which governs least.”

Had Coolidge been president instead of Hoover or Roosevelt during the naturally occurring downturn in the economy, the result for America would have likely been a mild, short-lived recession. Unfortunately for America, the nation had self-impressed tinkerers who seem to have found the American tradition of limited government and maximized individual liberty antiquated and outdated.

Yet it was President Coolidge’s hands-off, minimal approach that was derided as irresponsible. And the confidence that Americans knew what they were doing was by turns spun as malicious and naive.

The Forgotten Man

Roosevelt’s fireside chats represented another opportunistic move. FDR took to radio addresses of the nation to make up for in emotional appeals what his plans lacked in cohesion. Fear plus distraction with the radio as a shiny new object kept enough Americans from noticing the inadequacy and heterodoxy of what Roosevelt was proposing.

But President Roosevelt had the right of it to an extent. There was a “forgotten man” in American politics. Only he had that man’s identity and character wrong.

The forgotten man wasn’t the one who had been left behind by America’s capitalistic free-enterprise economic and political model. As it turned out, the forgotten man was the one who did not especially want the government to save him. Rather, he believed he could make it on his own better. All he needed was a little personal effort and ingenuity. And all he wanted was the government to stay out of his way as much as possible.

You might even sum up the real forgotten man of FDR’s New Deal with a quote from American author John Steinbeck.

“Socialism never took root in America because the poor there see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

It would seem Silent Cal had the right of it.

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Christian, husband to a darling wife, and father to seven children - I enjoy pipe-smoking, playing strategy games on my computer, listening to audio books, and writing. When I'm not asking you questions out loud, I'm endlessly asking myself silent questions in my head. I believe in God's grace, hard work, love, patience, contemplation, and courage.