The Great Depression and the New Deal

By Robert F. Himmelberg | Go to book overview
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Antitrust laws: The Sherman Act of 1890 is the fundamental antitrust law. It prohibited “every restraint of trade.” Under the Supreme Court’s decisions, this meant that businessmen were prohibited from collusive behavior regarding prices or how much to produce, and that firms could not use unfair means to attain great size. The Federal Trade Commission Act and Clayton Act, both Democratic measures enacted under Woodrow Wilson, strengthened these prohibitions somewhat, as well as the government’s means for enforcing them. The New Dealers, acting on the theory that too much competition had made the depression worse by lowering prices and wages, in 1933 exempted the industry codes drawn up under the aegis of the NRA from the reach of the antitrust laws, thus in effect legalizing anticompetitive agreements. After the Supreme Court nullified the NRA, the administration did little to revivify the traditional policy. In 1938, however, FDR, seeking a new policy to deal with the downturn in the economy that year, was persuaded to renew deficit spending and to blame the recession on the prevalence of monopolistic behavior in the economy. Thurman Arnold, appointed an assistant attorney general, is credited with modernizing antitrust enforcement by creating an efficient Antitrust Division within the Department of Justice and initiating hundreds of suits over the next few years. At the same time, at Roosevelt’s request Congress set up the Temporary National Economic Committee (TNEC) to make a study, ably conducted and exceptionally useful when completed in 1940, into the extent of monopoly power in the economy. Between them, Arnold and the TNEC laid the basis for an active and effective renewal of antitrust enforcement after World War II.

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