The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 17, 2017

JOURNAL ARCHIVE
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Warren Harding and the Forgotten Depression of 1920
Thomas E. Woods, Jr. (from IR 44:2, Fall 2009) - 10/20/09

The U.S., by contrast, allowed its economy to readjust. “In 1920–21,” writes Anderson, “we took our losses, we readjusted our financial structure, we endured our depression, and in August 1921 we started up again. . . . The rally in business production and employment that started in August 1921 was soundly based on a drastic cleaning up of credit weakness, a drastic reduction in the costs of production, and on the free play of private enterprise. It was not based on governmental policy designed to make business good.” The federal government did not do what Keynesian economists ever since have urged it to do: run unbalanced budgets and prime the pump through increased expenditures. Rather, there prevailed the old-fashioned view that government should keep spending and taxation low and reduce the public debt.4

Those were the economic themes of Warren Harding’s presidency. Few presidents have been subjected to the degree of outright ridicule that Warren Harding endured during his lifetime and continues to receive long after his death. But the conventional wisdom about Harding is wrong to the point of absurdity: even the alleged “corruption” of his administration was laughably minor compared to the presidential transgressions we have since come to take for granted.

In his 1920 speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination, Harding declared:

We will attempt intelligent and courageous deflation, and strike at government borrowing which enlarges the evil, and we will attack high cost of government with every energy and facility which attend Republican capacity. We promise that relief which will attend the halting of waste and extravagance, and the renewal of the practice of public economy, not alone because it will relieve tax burdens but because it will be an example to stimulate thrift and economy in private life.
Let us call to all the people for thrift and economy, for denial and sacrifice if need be, for a nationwide drive against extravagance and luxury, to a recommittal to simplicity of living, to that prudent and normal plan of life which is the health of the republic. There hasn’t been a recovery from the waste and abnormalities of war since the story of mankind was first written, except through work and saving, through industry and denial, while needless spending and heedless extravagance have marked every decay in the history of nations.

It is hardly necessary to point out that Harding’s counsel—delivered in the context of a speech to a political convention, no less—is the opposite of what the alleged experts urge upon us today. Inflation, increased government spending, and assaults on private savings combined with calls for consumer profligacy: such is the program for “recovery” in the twenty-first century.

Not surprisingly, many modern economists who have studied the depression of 1920–21 have been unable to explain how the recovery could have been so swift and sweeping even though the federal government and the Federal Reserve refrained from employing any of the macroeconomic tools—public works spending, government deficits, inflationary monetary policy—that conventional wisdom now recommends as the solution to economic slowdowns. The Keynesian economist Robert A. Gordon admitted that “government policy to moderate the depression and speed recovery was minimal. The Federal Reserve authorities were largely passive. . . . Despite the absence of a stimulative government policy, however, recovery was not long delayed.”5 Another economic historian briskly conceded that “the economy rebounded quickly from the 1920–21 depression and entered a period of quite vigorous growth” but chose not to comment further on this development.6 “This was 1921,” writes the condescending Kenneth Weiher, “long before the concept of countercyclical policy was accepted or even understood.” 7 They may not have “understood” countercyclical policy, but recovery came anyway—and quickly.

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