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Arthurdale as a Board Game for FDR's Players

  • Back to the Land by C. J. Maloney

Tags Free MarketsU.S. HistoryInterventionismOther Schools of Thought

05/11/2011Joseph Calandro Jr.

[Back to the Land: Arthurdale, FDR's New Deal, and the Costs of Economic Planning • By C.J Maloney • John Wiley and Sons, 2011 • 312 pages]

Several months ago, I was talking to a distinguished economist, and he observed that, "It takes an economist to write good history. For example, who would you rather read: Doris Kearns Godwin or Tom DiLorenzo?"1 Fortunately, it is Professor DiLorenzo's example that C.J. Maloney has chosen to follow with his enlightening, well-written, and very timely book, Back to the Land: Arthurdale, FDR's New Deal, and the Costs of Economic Planning.

By way of background, Wikipedia tells us that

Arthurdale was the first of many New Deal planned communities established under Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration. It was intended to take impoverished laborers, farmers, and coal miners and move them to a modern rural community that would allow them to become economically self-sufficient.2


Because Arthurdale was "the first of many," it serves as the cornerstone of our modern world, explains Maloney:

Our world is the one erected by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, and the dramatic rise of federal power into everyday life was given its purest expression in the resettlement colonies of his subsistence homestead programs.3

Behind "the dramatic rise of federal power into everyday life" is a legion of mainstream economists who extol the virtues of economic planning. These economists more generally consider themselves Keynesian rather than socialist; but whatever the name, the school of thought they practice arrogantly holds that intellectuals have both the right and the necessary knowledge to tell someone else how to live their life, including how to spend money that they earn. For example, Keynes's award-winning biographer observed that Keynes believed people

had a right to good government, not to self-government. He looked to an "educated bourgeoisie" to set political standards for the community, just as he looked to groups like Bloomsbury to set aesthetic standards.4

One claimed strength of mainstream economics is that it is quantitative, and thus scientific. No one who has been in business for any length of time believes this, but that is not important here. What is important is that

For all their supposed love of book learning, the people involved [with Arthurdale] were willfully blind to the litany of failures all past efforts had produced (even those they had personally been involved with), instead blindly doing the exact same thing over and over while expecting a different result.5

Obviously, there is nothing scientific about ignoring information contained in past failures.

The standard argument against hard analysis — quantitative as well as qualitative — is that current circumstances are somehow different, and thus the government must "do something."6 And yet, the fact pattern preceding governmental intervention is remarkably similar over time. Arthurdale is a classic example of this, in that the town's troubles were precipitated by many well-known causes: war, an economic boom and bust caused by easy credit, union mismanagement, and people suffering the consequences. Government then seemingly rode to the rescue by spending untold amounts of taxpayer money on initiatives that resulted in failure, as was the case with Arthurdale:

Rather than a vastly improved human being striding forth, all the experiment of the back-to-the-landers had delivered were jealous cliques, passive dependency, and a broken-down school bus.7

Well, not exactly all: this foray in economic planning also resulted in an FSA-estimated loss of 87 percent of the money poured into the Arthurdale program.8

According to Maloney,

The oft-told story of the colossal waste that resulted from Arthurdale's building is a necessary part of the tale; to not talk about it because those who commanded the town to be built had "good intentions" ignores the fact that, with very few exceptions, people always have good intentions. It is results that matter.9

However, "good intentions" do not really apply to Arthurdale when you peel back the layers of the onion. Indeed, alleviating the suffering of people through the construction of the town was simply a means to an end, not an end in itself — for Arthurdale was, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, a "human experiment station."10 As Maloney observed,


It takes an outsized ego to look upon your fellow citizens and play with them as if they were lab rats. Arthurdale represented a completely new view of the purpose of government in America. No longer would the political elite merely protect the sanctity of liberty by upholding the rule of law; a new purpose had arisen — to improve their fellow citizens.11

Earlier, I indicated that this book was timely, which may seem an odd comment when dealing with a case of economic history that is 60-plus years old. However, in the year 2006, the mayor of the town of Tal Afar, Iraq, chastised the government that invaded his country — the government of FDR's heirs — by stating, "What you are doing is an experiment, and it isn't right to experiment on people."12

No it is not, which makes books like this one so important. Those who do not know and understand history are condemned to repeat it; and we have all been condemned since the "New Deal." Books like Maloney's that are factually accurate, economically consistent, and engagingly written can help to reverse this disturbing trend.

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