The Roosevelt Experiment

"The Roosevelt experiment, in a word, is a systematic effort to put capitalism into leading strings of principle. It is to be the servant, and not the master, of the American people."
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I.

Russia apart, no modern state has undertaken an experiment which even approaches in magnitude or significance the adventure upon which President Roosevelt has embarked. There have been attempts to regulate the hours and wages of particular persons in particular industries. There have been important schemes of social legislation, like the British system of unemployment insurance. War-time necessity has induced the limitation of profit for a special period, and certain vital industries have sometimes, either permanently or for a period, come under the direct ownership and control of a public authority. There has even, as in the Germany of the post-war epoch, been a partnership, though indirect, between industry and the state.

But President Roosevelt is the first statesman in a great capitalist society who has sought deliberately and systematically to use the power of the state to subordinate the primary assumptions of that society to certain vital social purposes. He is the first statesman deliberately to experiment on a wholesale scale with the limitation of the profit-making motive. He is the first statesman, again in a wholesale way, to attack not the secondary but the primary manifestations of the doctrine of laissez faire. He is the first statesman who, of his own volition, and without coercion, either direct or indirect, has placed in the hands of organized labor a weapon which, if it be used successfully, is bound to result in a vital readjustment of the relative bargaining power of Capital and Labor. He is also the first statesman who, the taxing power apart, has sought to use the political authority of the state to compel, over the whole area of economic effort, a significant readjustment of the national income.

No unbiased spectator of the adventure involved can withhold his admiration for the courage such an effort has implied. Success or failure, it bears upon its face the hallmarks of great leadership. Improvised in haste, devised under the grim pressure of crisis, imposed, as no doubt it has been imposed, in an atmosphere of panic and bewilderment, it stands out in remarkable, even significant, contrast to the economic policy of any other capitalist government in the world. Compared, for example, with the unimaginative activity of the British Government, -which rode to power on a wave of kindred enthusiasm,—it is an exhilarating spectacle. Great Britain has simply sought to lend the aid of government to the ancient technique of capitalist enterprise; it has had no sense that what is in question is the very foundations of that system. President Roosevelt has, in effect, challenged American capitalism to cooperate with him in transforming itself into a social experiment. And in doing so he has displayed, granted the conditions he confronts, a creative audacity, a sense of psychological essentials, an eye for the pivotal matters involved, which deserve well of the commonwealth he seeks to serve. Russia again apart, there has been no adventure of comparable range or intensity in modern times.

II.

But it is one thing to plan boldly; it is another, and a very different thing, to plan successfully. Before we can judge the effort upon which Mr. Roosevelt is engaged, it is necessary to know what the implications of his adventure actually are, and the relation of these to the total social situation in which he finds himself involved. For it is dangerous to experiment with the foundations of a society unless the experiment be built upon doctrinal assumptions the conclusions of which follow with irresistible logic from the premises it is legitimate to use.

Mr. Roosevelt is not, as it were, merely in the position of an engineer who is erecting bulwarks against a temporary and unexpected flood. His experiment, no doubt, happens to coincide with the onset of economic disaster; but he is driven, by its profundity, not only to dissipate its effects, but also to lay the foundations of a new social order from which, so far as human prescience can avail, such disasters have been banished. What, therefore, is important in the estimate of his effort is not merely the objectives he has set before himself, but the spirit and temper of the setting those objectives encounter. He is attempting a revolution by consent; and it is the latter term in his equation that is fundamental to the formation of a judgment.

For the actual objectives themselves are not matters a reasonable observer can seriously dispute. The America he took over in March of 1933 was in a highly dangerous condition. It was not merely that there were some fourteen millions of unemployed, largely dependent upon a casual charity which was breaking down. It was not merely that, among the employed themselves, short time was dangerously widespread. It was not merely, either, that wages had been reduced during the depression in a fashion rivaled only by the desperate experiments of Dr. Bruening in Germany. It was not merely, again, that the whole banking structure of the United States was cracking and that, with the largest gold reserve in the history of the world, the foundations of her currency system were completely insecure. Even more urgent were two other facts.

The American people, dazed by the width and intensity of the crisis, had lost confidence in the bona fides of the system under which they lived. Its principles seemed to them dubious, and they were prepared for a challenge to its values. The remedies, moreover, which the President had to apply needed application in an era of profound technological revolution, on the one hand, and insane economic nationalism on the other. At a time, that is, when the popular test of Mr. Roosevelt’s policies would necessarily be his success in absorbing the unemployed into work, scientific discovery and organization had made possible increasing production with an ever decreasing working force, while each nation-state, confronted as it was with kindred problems of its own, was seeking by tariffs and quotas, embargoes and currency restrictions, to impede the recovery of international trade.

He was, moreover, at work in an epoch of grave political crisis. The failure of disarmament, the menace of Japanese imperialism, the arrival of Herr Hitler in power, continuous disturbance in South America, and a Southeastern Europe given over to bitter repression-all these made for an insecurity which endangered the psychological conditions of economic advance. He had to fight for the growth of American markets abroad in an atmosphere unfavorable to the very notion of commerce. He was battling for the confidence which precedes revival when the League of Nations was being struck blow after blow, and the prospect of Europe seemed more akin to that of the years immediately preceding the war than at any time since the Armistice of 1918. In Europe and the Far East, in fact, force and unreason dominated the minds of men. Traditional values were in the melting pot; and, as in all epochs where basic changes are under discussion, panic and doubt and even persecution prevented any calm estimation of the effort Mr. Roosevelt had undertaken.

III.

Men have spoken easily of his radicalism. Yet, so far as his politics have revealed themselves, what will strike the observer is less their radicalism, currency apart, than the sober conservatism upon which they have been built.

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