As a couple of excellent books recently explained, FDR’s economic policies were in many significant ways merely an extension of Hoover’s and they almost certainly retarded the economy’s natural rebound and lengthened The Great Depression.
Making that case requires clearly a great deal of underbrush. Many of the homes on my small town paper route had *shrines* built to FDR, and of course President Reagan himself deeply admired FDR’s leadership – as we all should. He’s got to be in any Top 5 list of Presidents. However, we can admire his leadership and yet still get real about his economic policies. Writing at The Volokh Conspiracy Ilya Somnin has the following advice for President Bush.
Bush’s belated support for free markets follows in Hoover’s footsteps. After leaving office in 1933, Hoover wrote books and articles defending free markets and criticizing the Democrats’ New Deal. Some of his criticisms of FDR were well-taken. Many New Deal policies actually worsened and prolonged the Great Depression by organizing cartels and increasing unemployment. But by coming out as a free market advocate, the post-presidential Hoover actually bolstered the cause of interventionism because he helped cement the incorrect impression that he had pursued free market policies while in office, thereby causing the Depression. Bush’s post-presidential conversion creates a similar risk: it could solidify the already widespread impression that he, like the Hoover of myth, pursued laissez-faire policies which then caused an economic crisis.
What should Bush now do if he genuinely wants to help the free market cause? The best thing would be to take up economist David Henderson’s half-joking suggestion that he “express his regret at nationalizing airport safety, carrying out illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens, raiding medical marijuana clinics, bailing out General Motors, AIG and other companies, and socializing prescription drugs for the elderly [the biggest new government program from the 1960s until the present financial crisis].” Bush could also point out that he advocated an ideology of “compassionate conservatism” that included vastly expanded government, and an “ownership society” that (in his own words) involved “us[ing] the mighty muscle of the federal government” to incentivize dubious mortgages of the kind that helped cause the financial collapse of 2008. The greatest contribution Bush can now make to free market policies is to dispel the impression that he pursued them while in office.