There must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing...There must be a strict supervision of all banking and credit and investments; there must be an end to speculation with other people's money.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933
This quotation from President Roosevelt's 1933 Inaugural Address seems very familiar to us almost 80 years later. But it is not just in anti-banking rhetoric that our two periods have a great deal in common. Many of the more serious political reactions to the great recession of the Thirties find their counterparts in the present day, too. And perhaps there are lessons for us to learn from some of the mistakes of that earlier generation. Foremost among these is the lesson of the danger to democracy created by knee-jerk reactions to the crisis.
It has often been pointed out that the economic crisis of the Thirties was one of the causes of the rise of authoritarian movements and regimes in that period; but the sense that democracy was inadequate in face of such an unprecedented situation ran far deeper than this, even among democracy's most fervent proponents. One has only to look at the number of book titles, in the early Thirties, which dealt with the problem, to see how central it was: for example, After Democracy (1932) by H.G. Wells, Democracy in Crisis (1933) by H.J. Laski, Is Democracy a Failure? (1934) by J. R. B. Muir. And one country at least seemed to many, at the time, to have proved that authoritarian rule could produce results. The German "economic miracle" created by the Nazis was quoted, by many in the democratic West, as an example to be followed (though, of course, if the war had not intervened that "miracle" would soon have been seen to be merely a temporary one). The temptation towards authoritarianism was experienced even in the United States, seen by many as the epitome of democracy. As Roosevelt put it, in his 1933 Inaugural Address:
I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures, or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom, I shall seek, within my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption. But in the event that Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis — broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency.
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