FDR’s Patronage and Court Packing

Burton Folsom’s review of FDR’s systems of “patronage” — federally supporting favored candidates with tax-funded programs — and his scheme to pack the Supreme Court are breathtaking. Blagojevich looks tame by comparison. Here are just a couple examples:

When two officials with the RFC [Reconstruction Finance Corporation] and National Emergency Council (NEC) openly supported [Walter] George for Senate [against Roosevelt’s pick] they were fired and replaced with men loyal to the president. (page 203)

The Philadelphia Inquirer observed, “The Administrations attempt to dictate the selection of popular representatives, even to the extent of using PWA [Public Works Administration] grants as lures, looks to be a monumental political blunder.” (page 204)

As the second quote suggests, FDR overreached on the campaign trail, and his “tampering with the other two branches of government triggered a large opposition” (page 211).

Meanwhile, Folsom notes, FDR sat on an attempt to crack down on lynchings. On this point, however, Folsom makes an odd remark about liberalism:

Black Americans implored Congress to make lynching a federal crime, and thereby create the federal machinery to enforce justice in areas that refused to punish lynch mobs. That would expand government which appealed to liberals, and would improve civil liberties for a persecuted American minority, which also appealed to liberals.

Folsom thinks it odd that FDR failed to support the law against lynching despite its liberal appeal. And it is tragic that FDR failed to use his political capital on such a worthy cause.

However, this idea that “liberals” want to “expand government,” presumably meaning that conservatives want to restrict it, puts the debate on false grounds. Beyond the problem with defining liberalism — I consider myself a liberal in the true sense — this focus on the mere size of government is misplaced. I do want limited government — a government limited to protecting individual rights. But that says nothing about the size of government needed to accomplish that goal. If a nation faces a powerful aggressor, the nation’s government will have to become quite large to successfully face the threat. Similarly, when large criminal mobs go around murdering people, the government may have to take large-scale actions. The essential is the goal of government. The resources and extent of activity necessary to attain that goal are a different matter.