Courtesy Reuters

A Raw Deal

In This Review

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression

By Amity Shlaes
HarperCollins, 2007
464 pp. $26.95
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William Graham Sumner, who at the turn of the twentieth century practically invented the field of political economy in the United States, was the first to coin the phrase "the forgotten man." It was his term to describe the citizen who loses out as a result of government interventions that favor special interests. The forgotten man, according to Sumner's definition, is someone looking for a chance to make it on his own -- and who the government can help most by protecting economic freedom, providing a stable currency, and limiting the burden of taxation.

Franklin Roosevelt's -- and, to a lesser extent, Herbert Hoover's -- forgotten man was based on a new idea, one largely antithetical to Sumner's. By 1933, the forgotten man had become someone who was unemployed and increasingly desperate, who was forgotten by the market and could be lifted up only by a beneficent government that took control of the economy, through such measures as the economic planning initiatives of the New Deal era: the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Works Progress Administration, and model agricultural communities.

After 1935, in the wake of continuing policy failures and Supreme Court rulings against his initiatives, Roosevelt used the phrase in his appeals to particular classes of people whose political support he sought, people who felt disenfranchised within larger society: the unemployed, the underprivileged, and the generally disaffected. But there were others who sought to reclaim the original meaning of "the forgotten man" as Sumner had formulated it, not least Wendell Willkie, who made the concept part of his platform when he ran against Roosevelt as the Republican candidate for president in 1940.

The title of Amity Shlaes' new history of the Great Depression refers to a concept whose changing meaning mirrored the shift in ideology about the role of government during the 1930s. "To justify giving to one forgotten man," writes Shlaes, "the administration found, it had to make a scapegoat of another. Businessmen and

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