A Tale of Two Brain Trusts

By Higgs, Robert | Ideas on Liberty, October 2002 | Go to article overview
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A Tale of Two Brain Trusts

Higgs, Robert, Ideas on Liberty

Our Economic Past

"A political war," said Raymond Moley, "is one in which everyone shoots from the lip."1 He knew what he was talking about. Moley was the organizer and unofficial leader of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Brain Trust," the coterie of close advisers and speechwriters who helped FDR win the election of 1932 and assisted in formulating many New Deal policies. (The term "brains trust," coined by journalist James Kieran, caught on immediately, but the plural "brains" soon became the singular "brain,"2 and the expression evolved into a generic term for a politician's expert advisers.)

As John T. Flynn remarked, the words "brain trust" "had in them the clear implication that the group was made up of beings possessing Big Brains. There was in it the suggestion of ponderous cerebral horsepower. Here was a thinking machine into which Roosevelt could throw any problem and watch it pass mercilessly through the cognitative gears to emerge beautifully broken down into all its ultimate components. Here was the Great Brain itself surrounded by all these bulging foreheads handling easily the toughest problems that had baffled the feeble intellects of bankers, magnates, and politicos."3

Sure enough, Roosevelt, guided by his Brain Trust and aided by radio broadcasts of his reassuring Fireside Chats into millions of living rooms, won the political war of words. Yet the New Dealers lost the economic war of deeds. Despite an unprecedented six-year campaign of legislatively authorized interventions, the economy still had not recovered fully from the depression when the New Deal ran out of steam in the late 1930s.(4) In short, Roosevelt's advisers had failed to provide him with an understanding of how to restore prosperity. So much for their alleged braininess.

They did have impressive credentials. Moley himself had received a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1918, and later he had taught political science and public law there. Although his expertise lay in criminal justice, he plunged into advising FDR on various economic-policy issues about which he had at best an amateur's understanding. Like the other leading members of the Brain Trust, he opposed laissez faire and favored business-government cooperation-the sort of official collusion that had blossomed during World War I.

Columbia economics professor Rexford Guy Tugwell, another leading member of the Brain Trust, was a dreamier man, though he possessed a worldly hunger for power. He held a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Like Moley, he admired the economic planning the War Industries Board had practiced in 1918, and he yearned to reinstitute such centralized economic management, including government control of all land. "We have depended too long on the hope that private ownership and control would operate somehow for the benefit of society as a whole,"5 he declared in 1934 -scarcely an odd idea for one who had visited the Soviet Union in the 1920s and had written admiringly of the communist experiment there. In 1933 this collectivist participated in the drafting of the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act. Appointed to high offices in the Department of Agriculture, he contributed a steady stream of bad ideas to the New Deal.

A third member of the Brain Trust, Columbia law professor Adolf A. Berle Jr., had acquired early notoriety by co-authoring with Gardiner C. Means The Modern Corporation and Private Property (1932), a book whose thesis was that large business corporations no longer served the public interest and therefore the government ought to control them. In memoranda to Roosevelt in 1932, Berle "stressed that nineteenth-- century competition and individualism were anachronistic.

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