[First published in Inquiry, November 12, 1979.]
A half-century ago, America — and then the world — was rocked by a mighty stock-market crash that soon turned into the steepest and longest-lasting depression of all time.
It was not only the sharpness and depth of the depression that stunned the world and changed the face of modern history: it was the length, the chronic economic morass persisting throughout the 1930s, that caused intellectuals and the general public to despair of the market economy and the capitalist system.
Previous depressions, no matter how sharp, generally lasted no more than a year or two. But now, for over a decade, poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness led millions to seek some new economic system that would cure the depression and avoid a repetition of it.
Political solutions and panaceas differed. For some it was Marxian socialism — for others, one or another form of fascism. In the United States the accepted solution was a Keynesian mixed-economy or welfare-warfare state. Harvard was the focus of Keynesian economics in the United States, and Seymour Harris, a prominent Keynesian teaching there, titled one of his many books Saving American Capitalism. That title encapsulated the spirit of the New Deal reformers of the ’30s and ’40s. By the massive use of state power and government spending, capitalism was going to be saved from the challenges of communism and fascism.
One common guiding assumption characterized the Keynesians, socialists, and fascists of the 1930s: that laissez-faire, free-market capitalism had been the touchstone of the US economy during the 1920s, and that this old-fashioned form of capitalism had manifestly failed us by generating, or at least allowing, the most catastrophic depression in history to strike at the United States and the entire Western world.
Well, weren’t the 1920s, with their burgeoning optimism, their speculation, their enshrinement of big business in politics, their Republican dominance, their individualism, their hedonistic cultural decadence, weren’t these years indeed the heyday of laissez-faire? Certainly the decade looked that way to most observers, and hence it was natural that the free market should take the blame for the consequences of unbridled capitalism in 1929 and after.
Unfortunately for the course of history, the common interpretation was dead wrong: there was very little laissez-faire capitalism in the 1920s. Indeed the opposite was true: significant parts of the economy were infused with proto–New Deal statism, a statism that plunged us into the Great Depression and prolonged this miasma for more than a decade.
In the first place, everyone forgot that the Republicans had never been the laissez-faire party. On the contrary, it was the Democrats who had always championed free markets and minimal government, while the Republicans had crusaded for a protective tariff that would shield domestic industry from efficient competition, for huge land grants and other subsidies to railroads, and for inflation and cheap credit to stimulate purchasing power and apparent prosperity.
It was the Republicans who championed paternalistic big government and the partnership of business and government while the Democrats sought free trade and free competition, denounced the tariff as the “mother of trusts,” and argued for the gold standard and the separation of government and banking as the only way to guard against inflation and the destruction of people’s savings. At least that was the policy of the Democrats before Bryan and Wilson at the start of the 20th century, when the party shifted to a position not very far from its ancient Republican rivals.
The Republicans never shifted, and their reign in the 1920s brought the federal government to its greatest intensity of peacetime spending and hiked the tariff to new, stratospheric levels. A minority of old-fashioned “Cleveland” Democrats continued to hammer away at Republican extravagance and big government during the Coolidge and Hoover eras. Those included Governor Albert Ritchie of Maryland, Senator James Reed of Missouri, and former Solicitor General James M. Beck, who wrote two characteristic books in this era: The Vanishing Rights of the States and Our Wonderland of Bureaucracy.
But most important in terms of the depression was the new statism that the Republicans, following on the Wilson administration, brought to the vital but arcane field of money and banking. How many Americans know or care anything about banking? Yet it was in this neglected but crucial area that the seeds of 1929 were sown and cultivated by the American government.
The United States was the last major country to enjoy, or be saddled with, a central bank. All the major European countries had adopted central banks during the 18th and 19th centuries, which enabled governments to control and dominate commercial banks, to bail out banking firms whenever they got into trouble, and to inflate money and credit in ways controlled and regulated by the government. Only the United States, as a result of Democratic agitation during the Jacksonian era, had had the courage to extend the doctrine of classical liberalism to the banking system, thereby separating government from money and banking.
Having deposed the central bank in the 1830s, the United States enjoyed a freely competitive banking system — and hence a relatively “hard” and noninflated money — until the Civil War. During that catastrophe, the Republicans used their one-party dominance to push through their interventionist economic program. It included a protective tariff and land grants to railroads, as well as inflationary paper money and a “national banking system” that in effect crippled state-chartered banks and paved the way for the later central bank.
The United States adopted its central bank, the Federal Reserve System, in 1913, backed by a consensus of Democrats and Republicans. This virtual nationalization of the banking system was unopposed by the big banks; in fact, Wall Street and the other large banks had actively sought such a central system for many years. The result was the cartelization of banking under federal control, with the government standing ready to bail out banks in trouble, and also ready to inflate money and credit to whatever extent the banks felt was necessary.
Without a functioning Federal Reserve System available to inflate the money supply, the United States could not have financed its participation in World War I: that war was fueled by heavy government deficits and by the creation of new money to pay for swollen federal expenditures.
One point is undisputed: the autocratic ruler of the Federal Reserve System, from its inception in 1914 to his death in 1928, was Benjamin Strong, a New York banker who had been named governor of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Strong consistently and repeatedly used his power to force an inflationary increase of money and bank credit in the American economy, thereby driving prices higher than they would have been and stimulating disastrous booms in the stock and real-estate markets. In 1927, Strong gaily told a French central banker that he was going to give “a little coup de whiskey to the stock market.” What was the point? Why did Strong pursue a policy that now can seem only heedless, dangerous, and recklessly extravagant?
Once the government has assumed absolute control of the money-creating machinery in society, it benefits —