The New Deal

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Why did the New Deal draw criticism from conservatives and liberals?

The New Deal drew criticism from conservatives because they believed that it involved the government doing too much. Liberals criticized it for the exact opposite reason, that the government wasn't doing enough.

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Although the New Deal attracted the support of most of the American people, there were nonetheless those who were highly critical of President Roosevelt's signature policy.

From the right came the criticism that the New Deal involved the government taking much too big a role in American life, especially in the running of the economy. Despite the onset of the Great Depression, conservatives still clung tenaciously to the belief that this was merely the latest downturn in the economic cycle, and that it would eventually be corrected if only the government stayed out of the way and let the free market right itself.

Conservatives also believed that the massive expansion of the federal government represented a serious threat to the liberty of the individual. Prior to the New Deal, most Americans adhered to a limited role for government in all walks of life, seeing limited government as one of the most precious bequests of the Founding Fathers.

Conservatives often drew upon the rhetoric of the Founding Fathers in opposing the New Deal, giving the impression that FDR's policy was somehow un-American, that it represented a radical departure from the traditions that had made America great.

At the same time, the New Deal also came under fire from liberals, who argued that though the policy was fine as far as it went, it wasn't sufficiently ambitious in scope or execution to deal with the pressing problems of the hour.

Liberal critics of the New Deal felt that it provided, at best, only the amelioration of existing economic conditions rather than dealing with the structural problems in the American economy that had given rise to such conditions in the first place.

For instance, many liberals argued that the government should create more jobs under the New Deal to counteract the many structural problems in the job market laid bare by the Great Depression. The free market, they maintained, could not be relied upon to create jobs by itself; a bigger role was therefore needed for government.

Liberal critics of the New Deal were, to a considerable extent, vindicated by the fact that it was only America's entry into World War II in 1941 that the scourge of mass unemployment was finally ended.

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Both conservatives and liberals criticized the New Deal. Conservatives believed the government was doing too much. Conservatives supported a laissez-faire government policy toward the economy. They viewed the New Deal programs as giving the government too much control. They felt the Securities Act and the Glass-Steagall Act gave the government too much control and regulation of the stock market and banking industry. They felt the government spent too much money on job creation programs. The Civilian Conservation Corps, Civil Works Administration, and the Public Works Administration were examples of programs that cost a lot of money. The conservatives didn’t like that the Wagner Act gave unions the right to exist. They also believed the National Industrial Recovery Act established too close of a relationship between workers, businesses, and the government. Conservatives were also concerned about the growing debt of our country.

Liberals felt President Roosevelt didn’t do enough. They wanted to see more programs to help the needy and to create jobs. This led to the passage of the Works Progress Administration. They believed there should be a pension for the elderly. This led to the development of the Social Security Program. They wanted workers’ rights to be protected. This, along with the National Industrial Recovery Act being declared unconstitutional, led to the passage of the Wagner Act. President Roosevelt was concerned he might lose support from the liberals in the election of 1936. This could have hurt his chances of getting reelected.

President Roosevelt was criticized by liberals for not doing enough and by conservatives for doing too much.

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It is interesting to examine certain programs started under the New Deal and realize that some of the feelings that the politicos of the time had about them have been realized.

One program about which conservatives were skeptical is the Social Security system which began in 1935 with the Economic Security Act of 1935. Taxes for this act were begun in 1937, and until 1983 it was a pay-as-you-go program.

The 2014 Social Security Trustees report showed a continuation of the current trend toward insolvency of both of its trust funds. As in the previous two years, the Trustees estimate that Social Security's combined retirement and disability trust funds will become exhausted in 2033, less than 20 years from now.

Another program that conservatives disapproved of was the Tennessee Valley Authority which they felt was socialistic in design. The TVA certainly has been a successful venture and has provided electrical power to many places that hitherto had had none. Moreover, it controls the Tennessee River flood waters and has improved navigation. So, in hindsight this was a program that produced jobs for many and has proved profitable. Still conservatives may have pointed to it as the beginning of government control over what should be left to private enterprise. 

Progressives were glad that FDR pledged to re-create the war social programs of the Wilson administration, a goal that was wildly popular at the time.

“I want to assure you,” Roosevelt's aide Harry Hopkins told an audience of New Deal activists in New York, “that we are not afraid of exploring anything within the law, and we have a lawyer who will declare anything you want to do legal.”

Some of them even called for FDR to become a benevolent "dictator," and do even more.


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Of course, liberals and conservatives had different reasons for criticizing the New Deal.

To conservatives, the New Deal was socialism.  It used taxpayer money to help people who were in need.  That is redistribution of income and it can be seen as a step towards socialism.  Conservatives saw it in this way.

To liberals, the New Deal did not do enough.   Many liberals wanted to see much more in the way of government spending.  For example, Dr. Francis Townsend wanted the government to give very generous pensions to all seniors on the condition that they spend all of their stipend every month, thus increasing demand in the economy.  Liberals, then, wanted more radical action than President Roosevelt was willing to take.

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