Remembering The Forgotten Man

Having entered the interesting period of life known as “semi-retirement”, I finally am finding time to catch up on some of the unread books on the shelf. This time it was The Forgotten Man, A New History of The Great Depression, by Amity Shlaes, published in 2007. It is a substantial work at 396 pages with many more pages devoted to a “Cast of Characters”, Timeline, Bibliographic Notes, and more. For those of us who are fascinated by the events that shaped our parents’ lives and created the modern world, The Forgotten Man is indispensable. For those who accept the “standard history” of that time period, it may be disturbing: as always in dealing with human affairs, there is more to the story than at first meets the eye.

The Forgotten Man

Perhaps the best summary of the book is hinted at in the title. Every student of the period is familiar with FDR’s “Forgotten Man” speech and with the recurrent use of the term to refer to the poor and unemployed, cast as victims of capitalism and big business, victims who need to be rescued by big government.

These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power . . . that put their faith once more in the Forgotten Man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

–Gov. Franklin Roosevelt of New York, radio address in Albany, April 7, 1932

The irony is that the phrase originally had a quite different meaning in the work of a Yale professor named William Graham Sumner in 1883:

As soon as A observes something which seems to him to be wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine what C shall do for X, or in the better case, what A, B, and C shall do for X. . . . What I want to do is to look up C. I want to show you what manner of man he is. I call him the Forgotten Man. Perhaps the appellation is not strictly correct. He is the man who never is thought of. . . .

┬áHe works, he votes, generally he prays–but he always pays. . . .

That really is the crux of the matter, the changed identification of the Forgotten Man that became an excuse for dramatic expansion of the federal government and greatly increased meddling and experimentation with what had been a mostly free market, with A and B rushing to help X, ignoring C, and becoming even more rich and powerful in the process. And the help for X? The government apologists are fond of saying, “it did create jobs”, right? Well, as the author points out, “what really stands out when you step back from the 1930s picture is not how much the New Deal public works achieved. It is how little. Notwithstanding the largest peacetime appropriation in the history of the world, the New Deal recovery remained incomplete right through the 1930s.”

This very interesting book follows the lives of key individuals in America from the late twenties to the eve of World War II, with a Coda to tell what happened later to the main characters. There is also an Afterword in the paperback edition which weighs the pluses and minuses of the New Dealers’ programs, pointing out that the merits of jobs created and projects completed need to be “weighed against damage that comes when officials create projects and jobs for political reasons. . . . In fact, infrastructure spending is often just a nicer name for what we used to call pork. Given the depth of modern capital markets, the New Deal’s old argument that ‘only the government can afford this’ looks particularly weak.”

Shlaes’ book is especially pertinent to us now as we deal once again with the perennial problem of the proper role and size of government. The Forgotten Man is a well written, free-flowing delight to read which can make a significant contribution to solving that problem.