Leonhardt and other liberal economic writers have been flailing away at Amity Shlaes’s history of the Great Depression, The Forgotten Man, for stating what historians have understood for decades: that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal didn’t work. But now that Barack Obama has decided to try and spend his way out of our current economic difficulties, FDR’s policies must be exhumed and defended. Indeed, according to Leonhardt and others, Roosevelt’s main flaw was that he didn’t spend enough. I’ll leave the dissecting of these bad arguments to Shlaes, but I found it fascinating that in the course of Leonhardt’s latest piece on this issue, he saw it fit to prove the genius of stimulus spending by pointing to the example of the Third Reich.
That’s right. Leonhardt believes that Adolf Hitler’s building of the autobahn, facilities for the 1936 Olympics, and other public works projects such as monuments to the Nazi Party “helped Germany escape the Great Depression faster than other countries.” Unmentioned by Leonhardt was Hitler’s vast expansion of the German military (long before the United States expanded its own armed forces) as well as the wealth that accumulated to various official arms of the state from the theft of Jewish properties. Later in the same piece, Leonhardt also lauds America’s World War II mobilization as showing the genius of a stimulus, though he fails to mention that along with all the tanks, planes, and ships that were built, nearly 15 million Americans were also under arms during the war. That helped lower unemployment too.
This doesn’t mean that Barack Obama is a card-carrying socialist or that he is plotting a rerun of Nazi Germany. What it does mean is that there is a slippery slope in arguments that assume statist economies and systems are a good thing. There is a price to be paid for putting so much power in the hands of government. Americans rightly tried to steer away from the excesses of the New Deal (such as the National Recovery Administration which arrogated to itself the right to decide virtually everything about the American economy). We repeat those mistakes or go further only at the peril of our prosperity and our liberties.