Thursday, July 13, 2017


The Forgotten Man

The Forgotten Man has become a frequent phrase in election years. As usual, it has been appropriated by the most unlikely.
In a 1932 campaign speech, Roosevelt referred to “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” But the phrase had a very different origin. In the late 19th century, the philosopher William Graham Sumner had used it to describe the average citizen “coerced,” as Amy Shlaes writes in her book, “into funding dubious social projects.”
Shaes' book is The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. Her argument is a bit different and couched in cautious--almost fearful- -phrasing, as if anxious she would be misread--or maybe not let into the faculty lounge. She sees both Roosevelt and his Republican predecessor Herbert Hoover as inveterate economic tinkerers. Hoover, the engineer turned politician, never lost his instinct to fix things and, as a result, signed the disastrous Smoot-Hawley tariff bill. His biggest sin, and Roosevelt’s, was a “lack of faith in the marketplace,” Shlaes writes. “From 1929 to 1940, from Hoover to Roosevelt, government intervention helped to make the Depression Great.”

The length of the Depression is one of Shlaes’s two main criticisms of the New Deal. The victims of Roosevelt’s centralization campaign are the second: small business people; titans like Andrew Mellon, who were also hounded by prosecutors; shareholders; and corporate managers, including a utilities executive named Wendell Willkie. The book’s title is an ironic allusion to these victims. 

"It is true that, until this time, the proletariat, the mass of mankind, have rarely had the power and they have not made such a record as kings and nobles and priests have made of the abuses they would perpetrate against their fellow-men when they could and dared.  But what folly it is to think that vice and passion are limited by classes, that liberty consists only in taking power away from nobles and priests and giving it to artisans and peasants and that these latter will never abuse it!  They will abuse it just as all others have done unless they are put under checks and guarantees, and there can be no civil liberty anywhere unless rights are guaranteed against all abuses, as well from proletarians as from generals, aristocrats, and ecclesiastics."  William Graham Sumner wrote that, too.

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