Rexford Tugwell and the New Deal

By Bernard Sternsher | Go to book overview

18. Tugwell as Whipping Boy: The Attack

I

Tugwell's connection with a food and drug bill, introduced in June, 1933, was the most significant single reason for his becoming a prime target for the opposition press. He had been interested in consumer economics at least since his graduate-student days. In his doctoral dissertation, he recalled, he found that in English common law the "salutary doctrine of public interest . . . had always been a protection for consumers. . . ." American judges, with their penchant for confusing business with society, had limited the expansion of this doctrine, misinterpreting it and transforming it into "a protective device for . . . businesses." A "common calling" had come to mean "one which was common to businesses, not to consumers."1 As a New Dealer, Tugwell continued to assert that the consumer was the key to prosperity and an expanding economy of abundance. Our problem, he stated in a speech in February, 1934, was to discover ways peacefully to "shift from a producer economy to a consumer economy, from habits and institutions which were appropriate to the vast stretches of human scarcity to new institutions and new habits which will be appropriate to the new possibility of plenty for everyone."2 Inside the administration, he promoted consumerism in more specific terms.

Tugwell had high hopes for the AAA Consumers' Counsel and the NRA Consumers' Advisory Board, but he was compelled to conclude by May, 1934, that they had made "very little progress of an uncertain and feeble sort."3 He later noted that in the "consequential bargaining going on among the vast powers of industry, it was a small but irritating matter to have a consumers' counsel speaking up against high prices, poor qualities, and insufficient services." Business interests launched vitriolic attacks on the Counsel and the Board, while labor treated the NRA group with contempt. "Both were considered nuisances by the administrators and were reduced to little more than window dressing."4Tugwell laid the failure of consumers to enjoy equal representation with producers in the AAA and the NRA to the same difficulty which had always plagued consumerism. Everyone was a consumer, but, before that, he was also something else: a farmer, a worker, an employer, and so forth. Consumers, as such, Tugwell pointed out in May, 1934, did not exert through strong organizations a pressure of interest "for which representation is only an outward manifestation."5 Thus, consumers, he remarked in August, 1934, were often "parties to the debate who are not present and would be unwelcome to many if they were. . . ."6

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