So far as I can tell from parsing this solipsistic flapdoodle, John Updike thinks the New Deal should be judged a great success because FDR was politically skillful enough to persuade Updike’s Dad to become a Democrat. ~Ross Douthat
Ross has this right. In response to Shlaes’ revisionism (in which she basically argues something rather obvious that I learned from the time I was old enough to understand English–namely that FDR made the Depression longer and worse than it had to be through his New Deal policies), Updike tells a story about the human costs of the Depression, which would be all the more compelling for the “governmment-as-human transaction” model Updike is pushing if Hoover had not also helped to deepen and worsen the Depression through his own economic interventionist policies. Updike’s story is an interesting portrait of how government-exacerbated crises can work, perversely enough, to instill even greater support for the government: the Depression was so miserable that people became grateful for whatever assistance they could get, even though the very programs they were using were working, on a macro level, to perpetuate their misery. The popular response to national security crises is much the same: rationally, the public should despise the government that allows major terrorist attacks to succeed on native soil, but every time the public rallies around the very government that dramatically failed them out of a mixture of loyalty, patriotism, fear, dependency and, bizarrely, gratitude.
Shlaes’ counterargument would be, surely, that the very government intervention that Updike’s father found so appealing on a personal level was part of a raft of destructive policies that stifled any chance at economic recovery prior to the both inflationary and expansive pressures of wartime spending. Whatever else might be said about the flaws of corporations and the real dangers of concentrated economic power, the solution to economic stagnation is not actually to demonise the “malefactors of great wealth” and tax them at exorbitant rates. The solution to economic weakness is not actually to tighten the money supply by using the Fed as a blunt instrument to batter and crush what recovery had started coming into 1937. Updike’s argument is, in miniature, everything that is wrong with old-style left-wing economic thinking: it doesn’t matter whether the policy actually works to alleviate poverty or spur economic activity, provided that the government is supposedly trying to do the “right thing” because government is “ultimately a human transaction.” (As if commercial exchange is any less a “human” transaction than the coercive extraction and redistribution of resources by the state! Theft is a human transaction, too.)
It would be interesting if sentimental invocations of family history and changed political preferences could trump all other arguments. If that were the case, I could discredit interventionist foreign policy just by recounting the political conversion of my ancestors from conservative New Jersey Democrats to dedicated Republicans after WWI. My dad’s family rejected the Democratic Party because of Wilsonian foreign policy, and they deepened in their hostility to the Democracy during the New Deal years. They despised FDR, their descendants despised FDR and I grew up despising FDR. So, I come by my opposition to foreign wars and the welfare state honestly. My great-great grandfather’s brother even wrote a short pamphlet denouncing the New Deal as unconstitutional (which it was). I think my ancestors were right to reject these things, because I think they were all very bad for the country, but I also think that there are rational arguments to be made against them that go beyond, “My great-grandmother really disliked Roosevelt.” Of course, those of us who have to fight against conventional historical interpretation of the last century and the established institutions created by now-mythologised Presidents are compelled to make rational arguments, while their defenders can continue to wax poetic about Ol’ Pappy and the soup kitchen.