For 70 years there has been a holy creed--spread by academia until accepted by media and most Americans--that Franklin D. Roosevelt cured the Great Depression. That belief spurred the growth of modern liberalism; conservatives are still on the defensive where modern historians are concerned.
Not so anymore when the facts are considered. Now a scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute has demonstrated that (a) not only did Roosevelt not end the Depression, but (b) by incompetent measures, he prolonged it. But FDR's myth has sold. Roosevelt, the master of the fireside chat, was powerful. His style has been equaled but not excelled.
Throughout the New Deal period, median unemployment was 17.2 percent. Joblessness never dipped below 14 percent, writes Jim Powell in a preview of his soon-to-be-published (by Crown Forum) FDR's Folly: How Franklin Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression. Powell argues that the major cause of the Depression was not stock market abuses but the Federal Reserve, which contracted the money supply by a third between 1929 and 1933. Then, the New Deal made it more expensive to hire people, adding to unemployment by concocting the National Industrial Recovery Act, which created some 700 cartels with codes mandating above-market wages. It made things worse, ''by doubling taxes, making it more expensive for employers to hire people, making it harder for entrepreneurs to raise capital, demonizing employers, destroying food . . . breaking up the strongest banks, forcing up the cost of living, channeling welfare away from the poorest people and enacting labor laws that hit poor African Americans especially hard,'' Powell writes.
Taxes spiraled (as a percentage of gross national product), jumping from 3.5 percent in 1933 to 6.9 percent in 1940. An undistributed profits tax was introduced. Securities laws made it harder for employers to raise capital. In ''an unprecedented crusade against big employers,'' the Justice Department hired 300 lawyers, who filed 150 antitrust lawsuits. Winning few prosecutions, the antitrust crusade not only flopped, but wracked an already reeling economy. At the same time, a retail price maintenance act allowed manufacturers to jack up retail prices of branded merchandise, which blocked chain stores from discounting prices, hitting consumers.
Roosevelt's central banking ''reform'' broke up the strongest banks, those engaged in commercial investment banking, ''because New Dealers imagined that securities underwriting was a factor in all bank failures,'' but didn't touch the cause of 90 percent of the bank failures: state and federal unit banking laws. Canada, which allowed nationwide branch banking, had not a single bank failure during the Depression. The New Deal Fed hiked banks' reserve requirement by 50 percent in July 1936, then increased it another 33.3 percent. This ''triggered a contraction of the money supply, which was one of the most important factors bringing on the Depression of 1938--the third most severe since World War I. Real GNP declined 18 percent and industrial production was down 32 percent.''