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Time for the Old Deal March 20, 2007

Posted by federalist in Government.

Perhaps one shortcoming of our Constitution is that it has no circuit-breaker to allow for its temporary suspension during crisis.  In emergencies our government often stretches against its bounds and, since a constitution is not supposed to be elastic, things never really return to their original shape when the crisis is over.  We could take a page from the ancient Roman Republic and allow for government to assume dictatorial powers for limited periods during circumstances that threaten the nation.

During the Great Depression the United States were overwhelmed by temporary economic dislocations.  The desperate masses acquiesced to Roosevelt’s New Deal, which replaced “the revolutionary notion that the people grant government its rights, and not the other way around” (that’s Reagan’s description of the Constitution, in his final State of the Union).  John Marini has an excellent essay in this month’s Imprimis that illuminates the philosophical basis of Roosevelt’s New Deal — and Reagan’s attempt to roll that back.

Roosevelt had made it clear, even before he was elected president, that government had a new and different role to play in American life than that assigned to it by the Constitution. In an October 1932 radio address, he stated: “…I have…described the spirit of my program as a ‘new deal,’ which is plain English for a changed concept of the duty and responsibility of Government toward economic life.” In his view, selfish behavior on the part of individuals and corporations must give way to rational social action informed by a benevolent government and the organized intelligence of the bureaucracy. Consequently, the role of government was no longer the protection of the natural or political rights of individuals. The old constitutional distinction between government and society—or between the public and private spheres—as the ground of liberalism and a bulwark against political tyranny had created, in Roosevelt’s view, economic tyranny. To solve this, government itself would become a tool of benevolence working on behalf of the people.

The New Deal was essentially a fascist compact.  Its purpose was not to preserve individual liberty, but rather to preserve the moral ideals of a society: Everyone would be compelled to sacrifice so that nobody would suffer too much.  This may well have been the only way to weather the Great Depression.  But it is fundamentally at odds with the United States Constitution, as Reagan explained when he began trying to undo it a generation later:

“[T]he full power of centralized government” was the very thing the Founding Fathers sought to minimize. They knew that governments don’t control things. A government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. They also knew, those Founding Fathers, that outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy.  (1964, “A Time for Choosing“)



1. federalist - May 5, 2008

Charles Kesler in the March Imprimis elaborates the philosophical shift of the New Deal:

A new theory of the Constitution corresponded to this new theory of rights. FDR put it memorably in his 1932 Commonwealth Club Address: Government is a contract under which “rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights.” According to this view, we give the rulers power and the rulers give us rights. In other words, rights are no longer natural or God-given, but emerge from a bargain struck with the government. And it is up to liberal statesmen or leaders to keep the bargain current, redefining rights constantly—adding new rights and subtracting some of the old ones—in order to keep the living Constitution in tune with the times. Entitlement rights—rights created and funded by government—replace natural rights. Given this new relationship of people and government, we don’t need to keep a jealous eye on government anymore, because the more power we give it, the more rights and benefits it gives us back—Social Security, Medicare, prescription drug benefits, unemployment insurance, and on and on.

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