The New Deal and Its Legacy: Critique and Reappraisal

By Robert Eden | Go to book overview

3
The World of Interventionism, 1880-1940

Peter J. Coleman

The most fundamental characteristic of the New Deal was the massive federal intervention in so many aspects of American economic and social life. The depth and breadth of involvement was absolutely staggering. The government deprived Americans of their cherished right to hold gold, declared a bank holiday, reorganized the banking system, insured bank deposits, and regulated the securities industry. Manufacturers had to conform to codes of good behavior, farmers had to restrict output. Broadcasters were licensed; airlines could operate only along routes allocated by a federal agency. The government also embarked on a massive regional plan in the Tennessee Valley, put young men to work on conservation projects, created jobs by spending millions on public works, and even found ways to employ writers and artists. These and a host of other federal activities seemed to set off the New Deal as a major turning point in American history. Here, apparently, was a revolution as profound in its impact as independence itself.

Plausible though these assessments may seem, the truth is very different. The New Deal is better seen not as a beginning but as a culmination, as an American version of a worldwide phenomenon. The modern interventionist state had been evolving in the Old World no less than in the New since at least the 1880s. At the height of the Industrial-Capitalist Age, all countries in the West--Great Britain, Germany, Argentina, Canada, and New Zealand, as well as France, Denmark, and the United States--began using the power of the state to achieve broadly similar goals. Because each country had distinct cultural, institutional, and political traditions, along with distinct histories and perceptions of its own problems and needs, the thrust of interventionism was nowhere the same either in timing, technique, or content. What made the New Deal seem to be a revolutionary turning point was the pace and comprehensiveness of change and the

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