Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Thoughts on the Election

Not this one, of course... I'm speaking of 1932/1936/1940/1944:

Bryan Caplan writes a review of V.O. Key's classic The Responsible Electorate (1966) which argues that "democracy works well because the electorate rewards success and punishes failure". This obviously doesn't sit well with Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter, and regular opiner that voters aren't that enlightened (which strangely enough never wins censure from his co-blogger, Arnold Kling, who regularly criticizes liberals for thinking the electorate is dumb even though, (1.) I'm not aware of any liberal save Bill Maher who has made such a claim, and (2.) Caplan makes the claim regularly). One thing that Caplan remarks on is the case of FDR. Caplan writes: "Key's passage [about Roosevelt] is bizarre on several levels. The most glaring: Roosevelt is the best U.S. counter-example to the thesis that voters reward politicians for delivering prosperity and peace. FDR's track record is bizarrely bleak: Nine years of uninterrupted depression, followed by four years of war that left half of Europe in the hands of Stalinist Russia - one of the two original aggressor nations. And the American voter loved him anyway!"

I did a double-take when I read this. The Depression was deep and it stayed deep, of course. But the economy grew through Roosevelt's entire first term! The recovery was far too slow, and we know more now why, but the only major blemish on the recovery and Roosevelt's record was 1937, and that happened after the 1936 election (so it makes sense it didn't do that much to his re-election prospects). How is Caplan missing this Roosevelt growth period? It wasn't an ideal economy, but it seems like American voters are better at thinking in terms of counter-factuals than we give them credit for (and better than a lot of economists today).

I'm also not sure why Caplan thinks the war is a mark against Roosevelt and not for him. George W. Bush waged war against a fascist too, but a relatively inert fascist (at least as far as world affairs are concerned - certainly not if you lived in Iraq). Roosevelt waged war against a fascist across the Atlantic that was taking over Western civilization and bombing the hell out of our ally Britain, and a fascist across the Pacific that had taken over China (mother-$%^&ing CHINA!) and was impinging on our ally Australia. Oh ya - and they bombed us too and destroyed a substantial portion of our fleet. What the hell is Caplan thinking? He really thinks this is something Roosevelt should be punished at the polls for?!?!? Why - because the enemy of my enemy is my friend and so we had Uncle Joe for a few years? I'm no war-monger and I think nationalism is a disease (although an improvement on feudal fiefdoms), but I don't think those views give me or anyone else license to turn a blind eye to what it was we accomplished in the second World War.

I know libertarians have an acute distaste for certain presidents. Lincoln was a protectionist and took liberties with the Constitution. Wilson was a racist and a progressive egghead. OK. I draw the line at Roosevelt, though. Come on! Dispute specific policies, fine - be my guest. But don't play dumb as to why the American people sent him to the White House twice as many times as any other president in our history and why he is the only president in the twentieth century that has really, substantially, unequivocally joined the pantheon of great American leaders that is usually reserved for the Founders.


  1. Fun Fact: Roosevelt repealed Prohibition. That's why he was so popular.

    Imagine Obama repealing the entire War on Drugs. Even an anarcho like me couldn't help but smile at him from time to time.

  2. Is that actually why he was popular, or is that why a Mises Daily article a couple weeks ago that provided no hard evidence whatsoever said he was popular?

    And how in God's name did it keep him coasting until 1945!

  3. Nobody now argues that Prohibition was a good idea. Everyone knows it lead to more crime and violence. If this was really a substantial factor, it would have had no trouble getting into the Roosevelt hagiography.

  4. WWII.

    Show trials, class warfare, using groups of people as vote banks, command over the new & emerging media,

  5. Tax, Tax, Tax; Spend, Spend, Spend; Elect, Elect, Elect.

  6. sandre and Richard -
    We find it hard to engage under-developed arguments like that here. Would it be too much for me to request complete sentences?

  7. Remember, Roosevelt was EXTREMELY charismatic. His fireside chats really resonated with people. Also, he went out of his way to make stuff happen. One can debate about the effectiveness of his policies, but he looked like he had things under control (or, at the very least, that he was attempting quite radically to get things under control).

    The economy may have improved slowly throughout the first part of his presidency, but I'm not sure it was enough for the common voter to get too excited about. I mean, unemployment was down to 16% in 1936, but goodness that's still 16%.

    I think in large part it may make more sense to attribute FDR's political success more to HIMSELF than to his specific policies. I think he would have probably gotten reelected in 1936 even if the economy had gotten worse.

  8. I know that kind of sounds like I'm parroting Caplan, but I think the difference is that I'm not saying voters aren't rational, just that personality can play a huge role in determining the fate of a leader. I'm not familiar enough with the opponents FDR faced to make this claim authoritatively, but it's quite possible that the alternatives were so bad that voters went with FDR almost by default (they liked him personally speaking and he sure as hell did stuff).

  9. Samuel - I think that's a good point. Certainly the man makes the candidate, and I wouldn't want to dispute that. I guess I was more challenging Caplan's point that Roosevelt won despite his record. His record was just fine - that's why he has such a solid place in our history. Charisma alone can't get you elected four times unless you do something, although it certainly helps.

    16% is still bad, but I think improvement is heartening for people. Imagine the difference in this country if we had just steadily moved from 10 to 7.5 in the last couple months. 7.5% is not a good unemployment rate, particularly if a lot of it is long-term unemployment. But the psychological impact of moving in that direction would be enormous - I think people would be considerably more upbeat than they are right now.

  10. Is that actually why he was popular, or is that why a Mises Daily article a couple weeks ago that provided no hard evidence whatsoever said he was popular?

    That's one good reason why he was popular. Of course there were more.

    I'm also just pulling your leg. :)

  11. I don't hate Roosevelt, but he was no liberal. I do hate when people describe him as America's favorite "liberal" president. The expansion of the federal government under his administration could be justified because of the scope of the depression, but a real liberal (whether a classical liberal or a modern liberal) would never try to change the composition of the Supreme Court to his advantage. That was an infringement on the liberal principle of the separation of powers.


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