Mises Daily Articles

Home | Mises Library | Fear Itself: FDR's Inaugural Address

Fear Itself: FDR's Inaugural Address

Tags Big GovernmentU.S. HistoryInterventionismPolitical Theory

01/18/2001James Ostrowski

"The only thing we have to fear is...fear itself."  These famous words caught my ear on Sunday thanks to Brian Lamb.  While flipping channels searching for the football game, I paused on C-SPAN where Brian had cranked up FDR’s first, and, unfortunately, not last inaugural address.   

This is everybody’s favorite President?  I haven’t heard such overblown, overstuffed, cliched, incoherent, floatingly abstract socialist nonsense since Bill Clinton’s first inaugural.  FDR appeared to be under the delusion that he was the leader of the American nation and not just the head of the second of three branches of a circumscribed federal government:

"I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our nation impels."  

Then comes the big line, endlessly quoted, rarely analyzed, never criticized: "So first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear. . .is fear itself. . . nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."   

It’s best not to think too much about this passage because you will get a headache.  It’s gibberish.  Try this on: the only thing we have to fear is people who say we should fear people who say that fear is our only fear.  

Cleansed of its unreasoning fear, the country was ready to hear FDR’s explanation for the country’s problems.  Naturally, he blamed capitalism:

 "the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence. . . . They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers.  They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish."  

FDR had "vision."  He needed it to see how high government spending would rise under his reign and to see how far American troops would be dispersed around the globe to fight the world war he maneuvered us into.  In politics, "vision" is a euphemism for a politician’s willingness to use state power to force people to do things they don’t want to do.  Any blind politicians around?

FDR went on to expatiate on his embarrassingly Bolshevik philosophy: 

"The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.  Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money, it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.  The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits."

These are words that Marx, Lenin or Stalin could have spoken.  He dissents from that crew, however, when he refers to "recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success."  The Big Red Three were crass materialists.  But relax.  FDR didn’t really mean it.  He lectured the public on the "falsity of material wealth" merely to soften them up for the massive confiscation of their wealth he had up his sleeve.  

The solution to the nation’s problems, according to FDR, was "action, and action now."  We must "put people to work."  By which he meant government make-work "jobs."  He would treat this "task as we would treat the emergency of a war."  Later, when his Keynsian policies had long since failed, FDR would conspire to drag the country into a real war which would create at least the appearance of prosperity.

FDR’s next brilliant idea was that there was an "over-balance of population in our industrial centers."  That’s right.  Too many people living in the cities.  Pol Pot would later reach the same conclusion.  Surely, however, FDR did not have mass expulsion of people in mind.  Don’t be so sure.  He proposed a "redistribution" of people "on a national scale" to provide for a "better use of the land."  

I take it this bizarre scheme came to pass with the enactment of the Civilian Conservation Corps.  The hallmark of every dictatorship is the mass movement of people.  With the CCC, FDR was able to move three million men from the cities to the countryside to dig ditches and write bad poetry.  When that failed, he would send millions of men thousands of miles away to dig foxholes, write letters to their mothers, kill and be killed.

FDR promised "efforts to raise the values of agricultural products and with this the power to purchase the output of our cities."  To FDR, Say’s Law meant "What I says is the law."  But what he says is not necessarily the truth.  He promised to insist that "Federal, State, and local governments act forthwith on the demand that their cost be drastically reduced."  How?  He would unify "relief activities which today are often scattered, uneconomical and unequal."  

We all know how the federalization of welfare turned out.  FDR would also cut government costs by "national planning for and supervision of all forms of transportation and of communications and other utilities which have a definitely public character."  

FDR goes on to propose two "safeguards" against a return to the "evils of the old order."  First, there must be "strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments" and "there must be an end to speculation with other people's money" and "there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency."  Actually, that’s three "safeguards."  FDR couldn’t count or be counted on.  

As for a sound currency, FDR took us off the gold standard and instituted an era of Keynsian inflationary policies which silently and continuously reduce the value of our money.  Notice FDR’s dislike of "speculation", a sentiment he shared with his Bolshevik friends.  

But don’t think FDR lacked sympathy for that other branch of socialism (national).  Read these lines and ask yourself what other world leaders in the 1930’s could have said as much and whether they could have said it any better:

"If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife."

FDR, however, keeps us guessing at his true ideological predilections when he spoke of assuming "unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people, dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems."  That line could have been uttered by Stalin or Hitler with equal comfort.

Alas, FDR is stuck with the shell of the old republic and he pays his obeisance: "Action in this image [charismatic leader ruling the people as if they were soldiers in an army] is feasible under the form of government which we have inherited from our ancestors."  Is he talking about his Dutch ancestors?  "Our Constitution is so simple and practical that it is possible always to meet extraordinary needs by changes in emphasis and arrangement without loss of essential form."  Keep the old forms, change the substance, con the people.  But if dictatorship be needed, the constitution be damned: 

"It is to be hoped that the normal balance of executive and legislative authority may be wholly adequate to meet the unprecedented task before us.  But it may be that an unprecedented demand and need for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure.  I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require.  But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these 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."

FDR sums up: the people "have asked for discipline and direction under leadership.  They have made me the present instrument of their wishes.  In the spirit of the gift I will take it."  

Take that crown, Caesar!  "In this dedication of a nation we humbly ask the blessing of God.  May He protect each and every one of us!  May He guide me in the days to come!"  In the days which came, FDR would receive more guidance from Stalin than from God.  On March 4, 1933, the only thing we had to fear was—FDR himself.



Contact James Ostrowski

James Ostrowski practices law in Buffalo, New York.

Image source:
Shield icon library