Invisible Hands: The Businessmen's Crusade against the New Deal

By Leff, Mark H. | The Historian, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Invisible Hands: The Businessmen's Crusade against the New Deal


Leff, Mark H., The Historian


Invisible Hands: The Businessmen's Crusade Against the New Deal. By Kim Phillips-Fein. (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2010. Pp. xii, 360. $16.95.)

Especially amidst today's academic fiscal crunch, the claim that history is written by the winners is a tough sell. But, after a political season in which words and worldviews formerly dismissed as vestigial or vulpine worked Tea Party political magic, this timely study is written about the winners: the business executives who waged a decades-long mobilization to undo the New Deal liberal order and its intellectual defenses, to discredit regulation and progressive taxes, to break union power and welfare-state expansion, and to celebrate free-market income inequalities. Ranging from the 1930s through the 1970s and beyond, prize-winning historian Kim Phillips-Fein crisply tracks the corporate think tank nexus that displaced a more government and labor friendly political culture and forged a new common sense that propelled the Age of Reagan.

Phillips-Fein asks a lot of the reader in grounding "the origin of modern conservative politics" in this small, reactionary corps of money men, a libertarian pantheon, distinguished by their "crystalline vision of the free market," including various du Ponts, Hayek, Mises, the Mont Pelerin Society, Jasper Crane, Pew, the Foundation for Economic Education, Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, Lemuel Boulware, General Electric spokesman Ronald Reagan, and the American Enterprise Association (xii, 27). Few would have predicted after Goldwater's drubbing in the 1964 election that the ideas promoted by this book's principals would rise from their crypt and transform American political life. But their ghostly work outside the electoral arena--thus the title's play on Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand"--left its mark, from right-to-work laws to a network underpinned by businessmen's donations to conservative think tanks, Christian leaders, radio stations, and such publications as National Review.

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